Foster's Toughness Emboldened Teammates to Become Stars
Jeff Foster was in college when he realized the type of player he needed to become to make it at the next level.
As a freshman at the little-known Southwest Texas State University (now named Texas State University), Foster was blown away by the ferocity that his teammate Elijah Hobley played with. Hobley had served in the military and was in his mid-20s at the time.
With a grown-man frame, Hobley played so relentlessly in practice that no one on the team — especially players still in their teenage years — could match him.
"He literally just beat the crap out of everybody on the team," explained Foster. "And I think I realized freshman year that if I didn't fight back, then I wasn't going to be able to play, and it really just kind of left a lasting impression on me that you just gotta go out there and fight."
Hobley finished his college career with averages of 6.2 points and 6.9 rebounds at Texas State, not unlike Foster's numbers in the pros, where he finished his 13-year Pacers career averaging 4.9 points and 6.9 rebounds.
The way Foster felt about playing against Hobley is the same way many NBA players now recount playing against Foster — a compliment to Foster's intensity. The statistical categories in which Foster is prominent on the franchise leaderboard are not typically the ones that send players to All-Star Games, but they are not without value. He ranks third in offensive rebounds (2,101), eighth in defensive rebounds (3,147), 10th in steals (507), and fourth in personal fouls (1,921). Foster never averaged double-digits in points or rebounds, yet still managed to stick around with one team for his entire 13-year NBA career, something just 26 other players have done in league history.
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So how did Foster — playing at a small school in Texas — end up on the radar of the Pacers, who had just suffered a heartbreaking loss to the Knicks in the 1999 Eastern Conference Finals? It all started when the team president at the time, Donnie Walsh, took a trip to a college basketball tournament in Portsmouth, Virginia to scout prospects. The Portsmouth Invitational Tournament at the time was typically a way for second-round prospects to impress scouts and move up into the first round, which is exactly what Foster did when he hit his defender with a jaw-dropping move to the basket.
"I remember sitting close to the court and he was out there playing outside, he made a move where it was so quick for a 6-10 guy, faking and going in and dunking on somebody, and I said 'Whoa,'" Walsh recounted. "So then I started watching him, I really loved his motor, his aggression, he ran the floor, a great athlete. And I thought he was tough."
When it was time to host pre-draft workouts, Foster's name was high on the list of players that Walsh wanted to get in. Larry Bird, who was the head coach at the time, watched alongside Walsh at the workout as they both ended up surprised to see that not only was Foster the dirty-work type of player they had scouted, but could also shoot the ball with accuracy, something Walsh hadn't seen him do before.
"He was immediately a guy that you knew you wanted on your team because he was a good teammate," recounted Walsh. "There were things he could do that we really needed. He was good defensively, and he ran the floor."
When draft day came, the Pacers selected high-flying Jonathan Bender straight out of high school with the fifth overall pick in the draft. Then Indiana executed a draft-day trade, swapping the rights for Vonteego Cummings and a future first-round pick for the rights to Foster — who had been selected 21st overall after a four-year collegiate career.
Despite being more mature than most NBA rookies, Foster couldn't help but be wide-eyed when walking into a locker room that had a singular focus of breaking through the Eastern Conference and taking the franchise to its first NBA Finals. Predictably, Foster didn't play much in his rookie season, appearing in just 19 games as the Pacers followed through on their goal of making the NBA Finals, where they fell in six games to Kobe Bryant and the Lakers.
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"I thought that was just sort of the first of many trips to come," Foster said. "And evidently it was not. But I realized that the way for me to get on the floor the quickest was just to kind of do all the things that everyone else didn't want to do."
As the 2000s Finals team changed in the years that followed, Foster saw his minutes ramp up with his comfort level in the NBA growing. In his third season, he played in every game and averaged 5.7 points and 6.8 rebounds per game.
"He kind of makes the difference between a good team and an All-Star team," Walsh said. "I don't believe that you can go out and get All-Stars and you're going to be good, because somebody has got to do all the little things that make you a complete team. He is the ultimate glue guy both on and off the court."
By his fifth season, Foster was already 27 years old — a veteran by NBA standards, especially since the league was still getting 18-year-olds straight out of the high school gym.
As a vet, Foster had a reputation for not just offering advice to his teammates, but sometimes his opponents as well (if he liked their game, that is).
"We always had mad respect for one another, and he was always just giving great advice to young guys to help 'em get through the process," explained Al Jefferson, who was a rookie on the Celtics when him and Foster first crossed paths. "Just teaching points, learning them veteran tricks. The tricks that only the veteran guys could get away with. Little things like that."
Foster's Pacers were matched up in the first round with Jefferson's Celtics during Big Al's rookie NBA season in 2005, and Indiana got the best of Boston, winning in seven games.
"He was one of the guys that went for my ball fake," laughed Jefferson. "And he told me one game, 'I'm not going for your ball fake ever again in life' and he didn't."
Jefferson though, was one of the lucky ones. There are a trail of opponents who might not have quite as fond memories of doing battle in the paint with Foster, whose long limbs would ricochet around in search of rebounds, often meeting players' faces in the process.
"He played a very physical game in a legal way," said Walsh of Foster's playing style. "He wasn't going around hitting people. Because he wasn't trying to go over the rules, he wasn't trying to hit anybody, or elbow people anybody, he just played physically so you felt him when you were playing against him. And that can wear guys down and it picks up the motor of the rest of the players."
Foster is in agreement that he never did anything to intentionally hurt an opposing player, but his willingness to get the most out of his allotted six fouls is one of the things that made his teammates breathe a sigh of relief that he was on their team, and not the other way around.
"If you're my teammate I'll do anything for you, I'll run through a wall for you," Foster said. "If you're on the other team, hey, sports are unlike anything else, there is a winner and loser."
One teammate who fondly recalls Foster's impact is the Pacers' franchise star, Paul George. Foster's final two seasons in the NBA were George's first two, and George credits Foster with building his confidence as a rookie.
"Jeff was probably one of my favorite teammates of all time, especially for myself being a rookie, it was like a perfect relationship between me and him," said George. "He would tell me about stuff off the court, how to be a man, how to be mature how to handle pressure. And when I started getting minutes, he was the guy that was setting screens. I just remember every time he rebounded, he was looking for me, 'Rook where you at, where you at? Here rook,' then he'd come set the screen for me. So allowing me to play early on, he was the one really encouraging me to be special."
Like many parts of the franchise history, even in 2017, there is a direct line to Reggie Miller. When Foster was a rookie, Miller did similar things for Foster, getting him involved and active, even with a veteran team. Foster took Miller's obsessive work habits and routines, and helped passed them on, first to Danny Granger, then to Paul George, who now takes strides to make sure his younger players feel involved on the team as well.
"He would do his workouts everyday, even on off days he would come in, just because he needed to be prepared," George said. "Again, that's the professionalism side, that's when I was able to see it from that point of view. And he was just great in the locker room, talking with guys, with keeping a positive locker room, keeping the culture great. A lot of guys played into that, but Jeff was definitely a poster for it."
Foster's famed workout routine wasn't just to improve his on-court performance. Much of it, it turned out, was to get him on the court at all. He credits the Pacers training staff with giving him a regimen of workouts and treatments that helped alleviate back pain, but with his berserker style of play, Foster's back troubles began to severely hinder his ability to lace up.
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It was a catch 22 — had he not dove for every loose ball, gotten involved in every tangle, crashed the paint for every offensive rebound, his back might have given him a few more years to chase a title. Yet, had he not done those things, he wouldn't have had a 13-year NBA career to begin with, and certainly wouldn't be remembered as the type of teammate that inspired others to work harder at their craft every day.
By the time the 2011-12 season rolled around, Foster was 35 years old and played in just 11 games, with his back sending a painfully clear signal that his time in the league was finished.
"When I couldn't feel anything below my knees, it was just cut and dried, I'm done. I can't play," Foster said. "If I keep playing, I'm going to be in a wheelchair."
Armed with a business degree from his time in college, Foster moved back to his home state of Texas and has become an entrepreneur, currently focusing on a cryotherapy company: Restore Cryotherapy.
It's a bit ironic, considering cryotherapy treatment might have helped during his time with the Pacers. Foster even joked about trying to sell a cryotherapy machine to Carl Eaton, the Pacers Associate Head Athletic Trainer/Physical Therapist, while he's in town for the Pacers 2000s "Decade Game" on Sunday.
But despite the lingering back pain, Foster speaks like someone who would run through the same brick walls for his teammates all over again. Someone who got a chance to live out his basketball dream and now gets a chance to live out his dream in the business world, which he's been passionate about since he sold baseball cards and mowed lawns in high school.
"I don't have any regrets," He said. "That's the deal, you know? I've got injuries that people don't deal with until their 60s or 70s; I literally just got back from L.A. seeing my doctor. I mean, whatever hand you're dealt you play it and I'm playing it. I deal with it, I get therapy, I stretch, I keep my core strong. Hey, life is what you make of it, you're either happy or you're sad, and I'm pretty content with how things worked out."