Jeff Foster, Elder Statesman, Returns to the Court

It didn’t take long for the Indiana Pacers to feel the presence of Jeff Foster’s return to the court. Fresh off the exercise bike he had been riding to stay loose, Foster checked in with 2:13 to play in the first quarter against the Celtics to make his season debut. Indiana missed its next shot, but the chaos that ensued under the hoop kept the ball on Indiana’s end for more than a full minute.

There was a scrum after the errant jumper that the Pacers used to re-secure the possession and get Tyler Hansbrough a layup. Then there was a steal, some free throws and an offensive board. You know: typical Jeff Foster “stats.”

As far as the stats the score-keeper actually records, Foster played 15 minutes and grabbed 4 rebounds, 3 of which came on the offensive end. But he was quick to point out that that doesn’t count the two boards Jeff claims he would have gotten if it wasn’t for Hansbrough. “He stole two from me,” said Foster after the game. “He even admitted it. [But] as long as someone gets them, I’m happy.”

The other thing that didn’t take long was for Foster to show his age. No, not in the game, but in the locker room.

Given that the game was in Boston, many reporters were eager for thoughts on Larry Bird. And Jeff, who played for Larry as a coach and has now signed multiple contracts to play for Larry the team president, was able to offer up this gem. “The funny thing is that a lot of these young players [on the Pacers] don’t remember Larry playing,” said Foster. “What did Larry finish up in? ’91? ’92? Somewhere around there. If you think about it, we’ve got guys who were born in 1988 and ’89. And they just hear of Larry Bird like I had heard of Oscar Robertson or I had heard of Wilt Chamberlain.”

Jeff showing his age in other ways is something that this young team needs, however. Of course, all NBA fans love the promise and potential of young players. The Pacers have several that fit the bill. Paul George has an outside shot — and perhaps an outside shot? — at becoming an All-Star, and Lance Stephenson has previously been called the most skilled player on the roster by none other than Bird himself.

But after trading away first-round pick Kawhi Leonard to the Spurs for George Hill, Bird stressed the fact that a winning team can’t be comprised of solely young players. Not that Hill is old. But he is battle-tested after going deep in the playoffs on a veteran, mature Spurs team his first few seasons in the league. Moreover, the team has added David West, a guy who, like Foster, leads by example and only speaks up when he really thinks something needs to be said.

And like Bird, Jeff has been thrilled to have West in the locker room.

“I’ve always had the respect of these young guys and they listen,” said Foster. “But to have multiple [veterans] that are able to say things and give poignant advice when needed has been huge. [West] has been great with Roy and Tyler.”

As far as Foster’s ability to continue to provide on-the-court contributions, Jeff said he felt “really good” after the game, despite sitting out the Pacers first six games to rest his chronic back condition. And after getting that first game under his belt, he expects to be healthy for the rest of the season and contributing just like he always has.

“We took a precautionary approach to [getting his back ready for the season],” said Foster. “The past few years, I’ve been slow to get back into it through preseason and everything. It’s normally taken me, from the beginning of preseason, about a month. So we’re right on pace for that month.”

Granger, too, is happy to have the teammate he has never played without back on the floor. “He’s one of those guys that will give you 10 minutes and change the flow of the game so much with his offensive rebounding capability,” said Granger. “He’s gonna shoot 3-for-3 just with offensive rebounds and give us extra possessions. And he hasn’t played. That just shows the veteran in him. He’s just always ready.”

It wasn’t certain that Foster would be back this season. For the first time in his career, the almost-35-year-old was free agent. Before this year, he had always signed contract extensions to stay in Indiana before he hit the market. And while he always put Indiana first, there were other teams  — “some really good teams,” he said — interested. He was flattered, but Indiana was all he has ever know and all he really ever wants to.

“It was where I wanted to be,” said Foster. “This is my 13th year now with the organization, and they’ve been great to me. We’ve been through some great times and some tough times. It looks like we’re finally headed in the right direction, and I look forward to finishing my career out here on a winning note.”

That’s not to say he is planning to start his retirement right away. Sure, he is going to be 35 next week and his back has long been a concern, but — health permitting — he isn’t necessarily planning to pack it up after this year. He felt good physically after the game, and the playing part was just like riding a bike.

“Obviously the bike has some rust on it … [and] you can’t jump like you once could jump,” said Foster. “But if you know how to play basketball and you have a decent basketball IQ, it sort of just falls back in place when you get out there.”

Jeff did break some news regarding his future last night, however: He will never become the longest-tenured Pacer in franchise history. “[Tonight], I officially became the second-longest-tenured Pacer behind Reggie,” said Foster. “And I am not catching him. I’ve got five more years to go [to catch up] — that’s not happening.”

Adjust your 2016 NBA fantasy league draft strategies accordingly.

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