"Villain" Foster Having Big Impact On Series

By Conrad Brunner

Rarely has a player averaging 4.3 points and 4.3 rebounds attracted so much attention during a playoff series.

Then again, Jeff Foster's impact never has been measured by numbers, other than those in the left-hand column of the standings.

Because of his aggressive, physical play against the Bulls, Foster has been called, among other things, a "thug" and a "goon" by the Chicago media. One columnist went so far as to say he graduated from "the University of Stupid."

Not sure the folks at Texas State appreciate that.

His detractors couldn't have it more wrong.

Foster knows what it takes in the playoffs. He is the last link to the 2000 NBA Finals Pacers (though he was not on the playoff roster his rookie season). With 52 games, he has more playoff experience than the rest of the Pacers' rotation combined -- and more than anyone on the Bulls roster except Kurt Thomas.

Foster has gone a long way toward establishing the Pacers' physical, defensive, competitive personality that has turned the series from an anticipated walkover to a procession of heart-stopping duels heading into Game 5 tonight in United Center.

"He's been key in establishing it all year, not just in the playoffs," said coach Frank Vogel. "He's a physical basketball player. He brings a defensive mindset that you need to have if you're going to be a playoff team and if you're going to be able to succeed in the playoffs.

"In terms of what everybody else is saying about him, I think anybody that knows basketball has nothing but respect for the way he plays. He's not taking cheap shots. There's no plays out there where he's trying to hurt anybody. He's just playing hard-nosed, physical, good basketball. And anybody that knows basketball knows that's winning basketball."

Yet, largely due to two hard fouls in Game 3 that later were upgraded to Flagrant Type 1 after NBA review, Foster has become the bad guy, the target of Bulls' fans wrath, the subject of the columnists competing to produce the most mean-spirited one-liner.

"You know what? If they need a villain, it looks like I'm their guy," Foster said. "The Bulls have great fans. It should be a fun game. I look forward to going in there and trying to bring it back to Indianapolis."

Because his contract expires after this season, the potential exists for this to be the last game for Foster, 34, with the Pacers. As the last link to the team's glory days, he believes a new era could be dawning with the current group.

"As hard as the last several years were, it's just great for these new guys that are here and the guys that have been around these losing years to have the opportunity to play in front of crowds like this, get a sense of what it's like to win and be in the playoffs," he said. "It gives you something to play for in the future."

But first, Foster and the Pacers play for the present, to extend their postseason at least one more game in an arena where his every move will be the target of fans' ire.

"That'd be kind of cool, if I got booed," Foster said with a smile. "I'll continue to play my game, just do what I do, play hard and try to help my team win in whatever way possible."