The Indiana Pacers organization has truly run the full spectrum of success and failure over the past twelve seasons. The team which only missed the playoffs once during the 1990s (1997) went from pushing the Los Angeles Lakers to six games in the 2000 NBA Finals to the club's current four season playoff drought.
During this span numerous events led to club dropping out of the conversation of the Eastern Conference elite. Four different head coaches have patrolled the sidelines, the infamous brawl of 2004 and the retirement of future Hall of Fame guard and face of the franchise Reggie Miller were all driving factors.
The revolving door at head coach represents a lack of stability which ultimately led to the club unsuccessfully searching for an on court identity over the past few years. The brawl robbed a team coming off a 60 plus win campaign the season before from reaching its full potential and their legitimate title aspirations. The brawl coupled with the retirement of the well respected Miller led to the franchise also searching to reestablish the identity of the team off the court in the community of Indiana.
One player remains from the 2000 finals team that witnessed firsthand the rapid descent from legitimate title contention to postseason afterthoughts – veteran center Jeff Foster.
Through 22 games the Pacers record stands at 11-11, which would be good enough to secure the Eastern Conference's seventh seed if the playoffs were to begin today. After going 104-142 over the past three years, Foster is thrilled about the team's start and outlook for the rest of the season.
"It's great," Foster commented to HOOPSWORLD regarding the franchise getting back to its previous winning ways somewhat. "For the last four years we've been an offensive minded team. But I think the guys have figured out that to win games you have to play defense and we're doing that at a very high level right now. If we continue to do what we're doing we'll make the playoffs."
Foster has spent his entire 12 season career wearing a Pacers uniform, with Indiana making the playoffs in the first seven. After being drafted by the Golden State Warriors in 1999, the center out of Texas State University was promptly shipped to the Pacers in exchange for shooting guard Vonteego Cummings and a 2001 first round pick which turned out to be current New Jersey Nets forward Troy Murphy.
The veteran has also had the opportunity to play behind a diverse set of talented big men during his time in Indiana. During his rookie year he was able to battle and learn from now retired center Rik Smits. He was also able to observe the coming of age and All-Star level emergence of current Boston Celtics reserve Jermaine O'Neal.
Now Foster is witnessing the coming out party for fourth year center Roy Hibbert. The youngster is averaging 14.8 points, 8.7 rebounds and 1.9 blocks so far this season. Foster has little doubt that Hibbert has the goods to keep Indiana relevant in the league for a long time.
"Roy is an extremely hungry individual. Today (Dec. 11) is his birthday and I didn't realize he's only 24. He looks like he's 27 or 28," Foster told HOOPSWORLD jokingly. "He's got a great work ethic. He's very devoted to his profession. You have a guy at 24 that can do what he's doing right now; hopefully he can continue doing it for a long period of time and it well bode well for the Indiana Pacers."
Hibbert himself has applauded Foster for his level of physical conditioning in the past and has stated that Foster pushed him hard in that area so that he could become more active on both ends of the floor. This season Hibbert showed up to training camp down 20 pounds from the 2010 season.
Circling back to the topic of age Foster will turn 34 years old in January and while the thoughts of retirement isn't a daily topic; Foster fully accepts his role as a veteran mentor and locker room role model as his career winds down.
"I just take it day by day," commented Foster on the subject of retirement. "I try to be a shining board for the young guys and when it comes time to play, go out there and do what I've always done. "So I'm just enjoying being a part of this team and I'm just looking forward to getting the Indiana Pacers back into the playoffs again."
Foster will be an unrestricted free agent next summer and having spent his whole career with one franchise its extremely clear that the veteran doesn't want to leave the organization that gave him the opportunity to lace up the high tops on the pro level.
"It's extremely important," Foster told HOOPSWORLD on the significance of ending his career as a member of the Pacers organization. "I never thought about going anywhere else. Those thoughts have never even crossed my mind."
"I guess in a way it's a scary thought," continued Foster in regards to the prospect of ever having to play elsewhere during his career. "But we'll see how things go the rest of the year and see what plays out with the lockout next year. But nothing would make me happier than to finish my career as a Pacer. So that's what I plan on doing and hopefully we'll be able to follow that through."
Foster's per game averages aren't going to get him press on the front page of national magazines, but his presence in the Pacers' locker room shouldn't be underestimated. Being a link to the organization's past and currently excelling at mentoring the team's present youth movement may bode well when it's time to begin contract discussions in the near future.