Jeff Foster formally announced his retirement on Monday night. I watched him play in the Blue-and-Gold for 13 seasons. Then I sat in on his retirement press conference. Then watched him do one-on-one after one-on-one with local media. However, I don’t think I quite grasped what was happening until I got the chance to talk to David West about him.
“He’s one of those guys, man, you know … rare,” West opened.
When West said that, my eyeballs clicked. It was a simple, but almost perfect way to sum up #10 for the Pacers. When taken as a whole, Jeff Foster has carved out an incredibly rare career.
He played 13 seasons with one team in a league in which that’s virtually unheard of, even for stars. He’s displayed a savant’s ability at both rebounding and getting under the skin of the opponent. Foster has seen some of the best days of this Pacer franchise. More impressively, however, he has lived through its darkest days and come out the other side with his dignity and reputation in tact.
West went on, “Not a big statistical guy, in terms of, he’s not going out and playing for stats. He’s playing the game the right way in terms of doing what’s necessary to win games. One thing we always used to talk about when we would scout against Pacers with him, is that you can’t underestimate his impact. He’s not gonna be out there looking for his stuff, but he’s going to be looking to make plays for the team.”
Jeff Foster is a guy who averaged fewer than 5 points per game over his career and never averaged more than 7. Yet, all he did was make his team better. In the summer of 2003, when the Pacers lost All-Star center Brad Miller and got little in return, Foster took the starting job over. His quickness helped transform what was a slow-footed team, and he was no small contributor to the franchise-record 61-win season. For each of the past five years, the team has performed better with him on the floor (according to BasketballValue.com).
Jeff is an easy guy not to “get.” I mentioned to West that my appreciation for Foster came from watching him so much, but that opposing fans would often dismiss him. He was the guy who had no offense, looked awkward, and couldn’t even hit lay ups.
“Yeah, but he’s destroying you,” West responded. “He’s beating on your bigs. He’s wearing you down. He’s not out there playing the game for himself. He’s giving it all for the team. That’s rare. You don’t find too many guys like that around the NBA anymore. It’s become an ‘I’ League … an ‘I’ … ‘Me’ sorta league. For him to be able to stay around as long as he did and be effective is a testament of who he is as a player.”
As I spoke to David, I was torn between the happiness of remembering who Foster was — a sharp-elbowed, no-nonsense paragon of the kind of teammate you want — and the stark realization of what the Pacers have lost.
No doubt, I was influenced by West’s flowing demeanor. In my admittedly limited time talking to David West, I’ve noticed that when he talks about a play that he liked or players he respects, his eyes light up. There’s an almost tangible buzz as his energy visibly increases. It was evident as he spoke about Jeff Foster as his opponent, just as it was evident earlier in our conversation. when discussing Leandro Barbosa. (On Barbosa: “We’re very fortunate. I’ve been on teams where you just don’t have that quality of guy. He’s played most of his career in the Western Conference, and people don’t know, don’t realize … He’s a good player.”)
But there’s a flip side. There was a decided touch of melancholy when talking about Jeff Foster as his teammate, something that has been limited (only 22 minutes on the floor together this season), and, now, cut short.
“It’s kind of disheartening I didn’t get a chance to play with him because he was one of the guys I was looking forward to having on my side,” West said. “I think, throughout his career, he proved the type of player he was. You just can’t put a value on a guy who’s not going out there and playing for himself.”
And with that, one of the newest Pacers put a finishing touch on a portrait of a Pacer fixture. Tough. Selfless. Effective.
There are a lot of things to love about this Pacer franchise these days, with David West certainly not the least of them. But still, it is something less now than it was before Foster made his announcement. And while there will be more good people and accomplishments added to this franchise, Jeff Foster will never quite be replaced. (Though there is hope that he will remain around the franchise and the community in some capacity.)
The Pacers will miss Jeff Foster. Not the rebounds. Not the defense. Not the hard-nosed play. Not the good teammate. They will miss Jeff Foster, himself, because he was all of those things, and he was more.
And guys like Jeff are just way too rare.