(Keff Ciardello was on site for the retirement ceremony at Texas State. This is his first contribution to 8p9s.)
Fourteen years after Jeff Foster left San Marcos, Texas, to embark on an NBA career, Texas State University hung his jersey in the rafters of Strahan Coliseum. On Saturday, the Bobcats officially retired the number 42.
Many would take this opportunity to relish in their personal accomplishments after such a successful life and career, but Foster, a consummate professional throughout his playing days, remains humble and appreciative of those that helped him achieve his success.
“I’m not really the kind of person for individual honors,” said Foster before the event, remaining more excited to see all his team members together again. “I really want to take this opportunity to recognize them for our accomplishments in the ’90s because that’s never really been done [at Texas State] … I can’t look at it as an individual honor because there were so many other people involved in getting me to where I am today.”
Foster played just one season of varsity basketball for Madison High School in San Antonio. Texas State (then known as Southwest Texas State University) was the first Division 1 scholarship offered to him. They would soon be followed by many other schools, after the relatively unheard of Foster started to make some noise his senior year.
“I kind of was — actually not kind of, I was — a late bloomer,” said Foster. “I was 6’9″, 175 pounds my senior year.”
His post-high school playing days began when Texas State sent one of their coaches to watch him during a three-on-three workout. Apparently the late bloomer was starting to show signs of improvement, because the coach sent him a scholarship offer not long after.
He continued to go other basketball camps and, increasingly, other coaches took notice as well. “I had offers from others schools,” said Foster, “but I’ve always been a very loyal person, and I kind of told my parents and friends that they were the first ones to offer me a scholarship, they’re close to home, I like the coaching staff, and so I decided to sign with Texas State.”
By his senior year in college, that once-wiry 6’9, 175-pound frame became a 6’11, 232-pound man who left a resounding impact on the Texas State history books. He finished as Texas State’s all-time leader in blocks, with 111 in 111 games. And by ranking third in the nation in rebounding during his senior year, averaging 11.3 a game, he now stands fourth all-time in rebounds for the Bobcats, with 931 career boards.
Despite all these accolades — and the fact that Foster once led Texas State to the NCAA tournament — the humble senior had no idea that NBA teams had taken notice of his game.
“The year ended and I planned on going to Cancun to be a college kid for the first time, because I hadn’t been able to go on spring break,” said Foster. “But I was given a box full of letters from agents who invited me to NBA draft camps. I cancelled my trip, hired a trainer and got to work.”
Foster knew he was good enough to play overseas, but this was somewhat of a new realization — or at least one that confirmed a though he had earlier while facing high-level college competition.
“We played Nebraska in a tournament in December of my senior year, [and they] had the Big 12 player of the year that season [Venson Hamilton],” said Foster. “I killed him in that game. I said to myself, ‘This guy is the Big 12 player of the year? Well, maybe I can get drafted.’”
With agent letters in hand and memories like those of him dominating, he was ready to take a shot at making the NBA. But he knew it wouldn’t be easy — and it wasn’t.
“I thought I could go in the second round or maybe have a chance to try out, but then I started going to the draft camps and teams started calling me,” said Foster. “I started to compete with guys from pretty good schools and I was holding my own. That’s when I realized maybe I do have a chance. It took a lot of hard work, which says a lot about my parents and the way I raised me to just keep working and always improve because you never know what will happen.”
Foster’s hard work paid off as he was drafted in the first round by the Golden State Warriors. His agent at the time was based out of San Francisco. When he called his agent to say he’ll be seeing him in California soon, his agent informed him that the Pacers had already traded for his draft rights.
“For me, I just always wanted a chance to play in the NBA,” said Foster. “I was excited to go to the Pacers. I mean, I worked out that morning for Larry Bird and all of their coaching staff. They had just gone to the Eastern Conference finals the year before, so I knew they had a great team. Larry [Bird] called me and Donnie Walsh called me to say I was drafted and I was coming to Indiana and we’ll see you tomorrow.”
The Pacers hadn’t made the NBA Finals before Foster’s arrival, but they finally broke that barrier in his rookie season.
“Going from just 15 months from the last game at Texas State to in the NBA Finals was kind of surreal,” said Foster. “As a rookie I was like ‘OK, this is really easy. We got here, this happens all the time.’ But, I always heard people going to the Super Bowl and just trying to take in every moment because it doesn’t happen that often. I can speak for that exactly. I still have snapshot pictures in my head of events that occurred on a certain series, but I really thought that would just be the first of many Finals appearances for me. Unfortunately for me it was the only one I got to play in.”
They didn’t win the NBA championship that season, and it has been the lone Finals appearance in the organization’s history, and though Foster wasn’t an on-court contributor to that team’s success he credits his ability to have a long pro career to having that strong core group of players and coaches around him his rookie season. It laid the foundation for the long NBA career he built.
“Larry [Bird] was my coach my rookie year,” said Foster. “Rick Carlisle was our assistant coach; he worked me out every single day. We had a great team, I mean, Reggie Miller, Mark Jackson, Chris Mullin, Rik Smits, Sam Perkins, Dale Davis, Derrick Mckey — just go down the list of the people that were on my team.
“It’s your experiences and mentors your first years in the league that define your career. Especially for a guy who’s not a star like I wasn’t. I learned so much from those guys on how to be a pro and just watching how they work and, at some point, those guys were the stars on their team and how they were able to integrate into one team was incredible. Watching Reggie work every day, I learned so much from watching those guys.”
In a way, the example those Pacers’ legends set for a Foster also helped strengthen the foundation of the success that Paul George, Roy Hibbert and others are having today. His career was cut short by back injuries before he got to see Indiana reach the heights the franchise it is at today, but after many down years in the middle, he was there for the start of the rise back towards the top — and every day he tried to let his presence teach his young teammates what being a professional is all about.
“It’s one of those things that I’ve always tried to do towards the end of my career with the guys that are now in Indiana and hopefully they have a chance to win a championship,” said Foster. “I just wanted to be an example for them that you need to come, do your job, work hard, do things the right way. And if they had questions about anything I just tried to give them the right answer. I had such great mentors my first year in the NBA that if I had gone to a team like Golden State — that was in shambles and wasn’t very good — things might have ended up differently for me. So I was very fortunate to end up where I did.”
Of course, after the great, fortunate start to his career in Indiana, things fell apart quickly. The Jermaine O’Neal/Ron Artest-led teams took the team to new regular season heights, winning 61 games in 2003-04, but hopes of a title crashed and burned.
In 2004, during a Pistons-Pacers game in Detroit, Artest jumped into the stands to confront a fan that threw a cup at him. What conspired next would be infamously known as the Malice at the Palace, as an intense brawl ensued between many of the Pacers players and Pistons fans.
“Well, there were a lot of high points before the incident in Detroit, but that kind of gave the organization a black-eye for a long period of time,” said Foster. “It was a crater that took us a long time to get out of.”
After the Malice, Indiana missed the playoffs for four straight seasons. Things began to change for the Pacers in the 2010 season, after they drafted Paul George in the first round and Lance Stephenson in the second round. They then added George Hill via a trade from the Spurs in 2011 and signed free agent David West, which would prove to be pivotal moves for the Pacer’s current success.
“To the organization’s credit, to Larry’s credit, he put good guys in that locker room and drafted good guys — high-character guys that were willing to work hard and are willing to improve their game,” said Foster. “Every single one of the players there now has something to prove. Paul George came from a small school; they said he was too slow. Lance Stephenson, they said he was a knuckle-head. David West, he tore his ACL and he’s too small. George Hill, from a small school. Their entire starting five — except for maybe you could say Roy, because he had some success at Georgetown, weren’t stars in college. That says a lot for Larry and his eye for talent.”
Back problems ended Foster’s NBA career in 2012, but his life after the NBA has been good to Foster. In a league where around 60% of retired players are broke within five years of leaving the NBA, according to Sports Illustrated, Foster was financially savvy with his earnings, saving most of it throughout his career and making smart investments to not just maintain his means, but increase it.
Despite his financial success, Foster says the best part about being retired is getting to spend time with his wife of 13 years and his twins, Carter and Elle. “I have been very blessed to be able to spend a lot of time with my family,” said Foster. “I was away a lot for 13 years — away from my wife and my kids — so I’ve been trying to make up for a lot of lost time. I get to see my parents a lot more now, they made a lot of sacrifices to come up and see us in Indiana during the season, so I am trying to repay that to them as well. Now I am closer and they get to be around their grandkids.”
Foster, the second-longest-tenured Pacer of all time, has had a career that is unique in many ways, but the roller coaster ride he experienced during his 13 years in Indiana is unlike anything anyone else has gone through with the organization, outside of Larry Bird.
His ability to overcome all those ups and downs, and yet still remain professional, humble and — above all — loyal is the reason Jeff Foster’s jersey will forever be enshrined at Texas State University. And the memory of his contributions, on and off the court, will forever be enshrined in the minds of both Bobcats and Pacers fans everywhere.
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