Foster one of all-time great professionals

By Conrad Brunner

March 22, 2012-- His jersey won't be hoisted to the rafters, and the talk-show hosts won't debate the merits of his candidacy for the Hall of Fame.

Jeff Foster, however, will be remembered as one of the all-time great professionals in Pacers history.

Unable to overcome back problems that truncated his final three seasons, the selfless center announced his retirement Wednesday at age 35. He concludes with career averages of 4.9 points and 6.9 rebounds.

In franchise history, Foster ranks second in seasons (13), fourth in games (764), fourth in rebounds (5,248) and fourth in personal fouls (1,921). He also ranks eighth in steals (507) and tied for 10th in field goal percentage (tied for 10th).

"It's tough," Coach Frank Vogel said. "Obviously, Jeff heads into retirement leaving a strong legacy behind and a great career, one of the league's all-time enforcers, rebounder-defenders, the epitome of a guy that can impact the game on a dramatic level without scoring. That's something you always try to teach young kids, that it's not just about putting the ball in the basket. The way he played always epitomized being able to change games without scoring.

"For what he did for us, he was one of the guys that led to our identity with the new Pacers of smash-mouth basketball, winning the war in the trenches and doing it with defense and rebounding. He was a big leader for us last year, a big contributor this year even when he wasn't playing, just being a vocal leader. He's going to be sorely missed."

Foster appeared in just 11 games this season due to back pain that just wouldn't go away.

He had surgery on his lower back in February 2010 after playing just 16 games in the 2009-10 season and came back to make 56 appearances last season, averaging 3.3 points and 6.3 rebounds and playing a key role off the bench in the first-round playoff series against Chicago. He earned the ultimate compliment in the process, invoking the wrath of Bulls fans, who painted him as a villain because of his hard fouls and physical play inside.

The plan this year was to move cautiously, preserve his health until the stretch run in order to have Foster available to be a difference-maker in the playoffs once more. But two treatments in the lower back failed to alleviate the pain and he was left with little choice but to end his career.

"Through 13 years now, he's been a staple of this organization, not just helping identify what this team's identity is on the court but being so active in the community and being a solid face of the franchise," Vogel said. "He'll be missed in all those regards."

Though the timing was something of a surprise, the Pacers have been preparing to move on in case Foster couldn't fully recover. They traded for Lou Amundson and signed Jeff Pendergraph prior to the season to stock the frontcourt.

Amundson has stepped right into the Foster role, winning over fans with his hustle and physical play. Pendergraph's progress was slowed by early injury issues but he now appears ready to step in if needed. Though Foster's retirement opens a roster spot, it doesn't necessarily create a hole in the rotation.

"Those (roster) decisions ultimately come down to (team President) Larry Bird and (General Manager) David Morway," Vogel said. "My thing is, I've been so pleased with how Lou has progressed the last few weeks that I don't feel a strong need right now to go out and get another player, another body. Obviously if there's a free agent that makes sense to help us in the playoffs we'll certainly look at that but I feel really good about the four bigs we have in our rotation right now. They're quality, quality basketball players.

"I also feel good about Jeff Pendergraph. He's champing at the bit looking for an opportunity and is working his tail off. We've been fortunate to have good health and he hasn't gotten his opportunity yet but when he does I think he's really, really going to impress some people."

Foster also was the last link to the team's glory years, the only remaining member of the team that culminated a decade among the league's elite with a trip to the NBA Finals in 2000. A rookie that season, Foster wasn't on the playoff roster but still bears the stamp of his time as a teammate to Reggie Miller, Mark Jackson, Rik Smits, Dale Davis and Co.

"The optimist would say those glory days were good but these are the good old days, right?" Vogel said. "Don't look at the past,
look at right now. We've got a good team and we're looking to make some noise."

They'll do so without a man whose quiet leadership and self-sacrificing approach helped make it all possible.