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Braves New World: Fred Foster

(Budd Bailey and Greg D. Tranter have written a book called "Buffalo Braves From A to Z," published by St. Johann Press. Early in the writing process, they wrote good-sized biographies of all 71 men who played a regular-season game for the Braves during their time in Buffalo from 1970 to 1978. Publishers weren't so enthusiastic about all of that material, so most (59) of the biographies were shortened to about 500 words. However, the authors hated to waste all of that material ... so they are presenting it here. It will appear three times a week. A bibliography is available upon request.)

Records are scarce when it comes to Fred Foster’s life outside of basketball. There’s nothing to be found about his family life as a child, and he essentially disappeared from public view after finishing with the Buffalo Braves in 1977. At least we know what he did on the court, and he had some nice moments there.

Fred J. Foster was born on March 18, 1946, in Springfield, Ohio. He apparently spent his entire childhood in Springfield, which is located between Dayton and Columbus right along Interstate 70.

Foster attended Springfield South High School, and eventually became the second-most famous graduate of the school. Entertainer John Legend passed him at some point. Springfield merged its two high schools in 2008 due to enrollment issues, but the school district turned the old facility into something of a community center. People go there to see events at the John Legend Theater.

It can be assumed that those who watched Foster in high school were surprised that he became an NBA player. He played on the varsity at South Springfield, but he wasn’t a star. Fred was the team’s second-leading scorer, and a third-team all-district pick for southwestern Ohio; future pros Don May and Bill Hosket led that all-star team. Foster graduated in 1964, and went to college at the Miami University (Ohio) in nearby Oxford.

Foster was on the basketball team at Miami as a sophomore, but promptly broke his hand to spoil his season. He played in 16 games, and averaged 3.4 points per game. That made what was to follow that much more surprising. Foster didn’t have much of a role in the Redskins’ success, as they won the Mid-American Conference championship and reached the first round of the NCAA tournament.

As a junior in 1966-67, Miami had a new coach in Tates Locke, and he saw something in Foster that others didn’t. He played Fred regularly, and the 6-5 forward led the team in scoring at 23.1 points per game, and in rebounding at 10.1 per game. Double-doubles are noteworthy these days, but Foster averaged one for the season. He was the only double figure scorer on the team that season. Miami went 14-10.

The Redskins took another small step backwards in 1967-68, finishing 11-12. The team’s chances of success were reduced when four players left the squad in midseason as a disciplinary measure. But Foster was even better as a senior than he was as a junior. His scoring average increased to 26.8 points per game (a school record that still stood more than 40 years later), and his rebounding average improved to 12.5 per game. His career best came on December 2, 1967, against Ball State, when he poured in 43 points. “He is an outstanding athlete and a real gentleman,” Locke said. “He continuously makes the big play when we need it.” The numbers led to his selection as MAC Player of the Year. Fred was all-conference in both his junior and senior years. Foster finished his Miami career with 1,183 points, with nine 30-point games.

Foster lasted until the third round of the NBA draft in 1968, and he must have been happy about the way it turned out. He did have options. The Cincinnati Royals – in other words, close to home – drafted him at No. 68. Foster was taken at some point in the first five rounds by the Kentucky Colonels of the ABA. The Harlem Globetrotters supposedly talked to him about a contract as well. Still, Cincinnati was a great fit and an obvious first choice. He was the team’s leading scorer in rookie games in June. The two sides agreed to a contract, which was announced on July 8.

Foster joined a Cincinnati team that was coming off a losing season in 1967-68. The Royals had two All-Stars right at the top of the lineup. Oscar Robertson was one of the greatest guards in basketball history, and Jerry Lucas was an All-Star forward. Add in players such as Tom Van Arsdale, John Tresvant and Connie Dierking – all averaging more than 10 points per game – and you had the makings of a strong lineup. But again, the whole was less than the sum of the parts, as the Royals couldn’t have been more mediocre than their 41-41 record. Foster only averaged about nine minutes per game from a spot near the end of the bench. The 6-5 forward scored in double digits four times during the 1968-69 season.

The Royals got rid of coach Ed Jucker after that, and hired legendary guard Bob Cousy to replace him. Cincinnati shuffled its roster to reflect Cousy’s love of the fast break, adding Norm Van Lier as a starter and trading Jerry Lucas to San Francisco. That opened up some time for Foster, and he capitalized on the opportunity. Fred averaged 14.8 points per game in 28.1 minutes – a career highlight. Foster had a couple of 32-point games that season to set a career high, and hit double figures in points in his last 23 games. This team is best remembered for a Nov. 28 game in Cleveland (a neutral site) against the New York Knicks. The Royals led by five points with 16 seconds left, and somehow lost, 106-105, in regulation time. It was New York’s 18th straight win, an NBA record at the time. Cincinnati finished with a 36-46 record in 1969-70.

Cousy and Robertson were both back the next season, and their relationship continued to deteriorate throughout the year. Foster missed most of that, though. Foster played in one game and then was traded with Connie Dierking to Philadelphia for center Darrall Imhoff and a future draft pick. The 76ers had Billy Cunningham, Luke Jackson and Jim Washington up front with Bailey Howell in reserve, so Foster’s minutes dropped to 13.5 per game. The Sixers finished 47-35 in the regular season, and lost to the Baltimore Bullets in seven games in the first round of the playoffs.

From that point, the bottom fell out of the Philadelphia team. Foster was the youngest player among the top nine scorers on the team; four of them were over 30. Foster at least averaged about a half’s worth of playing time each game, and scored 11.9 points per game. The Sixers dropped all the way to 30-52 in the 1971-72 season.

Foster didn’t know it, but Philadelphia did him a favor on July 31, 1972. The 76ers traded him to Portland for a second-round pick, and the Trail Blazers immediately moved him to Detroit in exchange for Terry Dischinger. Therefore, Foster wasn’t a part of Philadelphia’s 9-73 catastrophe in 1972-73. In Detroit, the Pistons had two all-time greats in Dave Bing and Bob Lanier, but didn’t have enough talent around them. Detroit finished 40-42. Foster’s numbers held up – 8.7 points in 23.2 minutes per game. The Pistons waived Fred on October 8, 1973.

Foster was unemployed for a couple of weeks, and signed with Cleveland on October 29. The Cavaliers had been a bad team since entering the league in 1970-71, and they were looking for help in any form. Foster ended up 12th on the team in minutes played for a team that really didn’t have any top-flight talent besides Austin Carr and a 36-year-old Lenny Wilkens. The Cavs finished 29-53. Players like Jim Cleamons and Jim Chones arrived a year later, as the team picked up a pulse in the process. Foster ranked ninth in minutes per game at 15.6. The Cavaliers improved to the .500 mark, and had a chance to qualify for the playoffs for the first time ever entering the season’s final game.

The contest with the Kansas City-Omaha Kings came down to the final moment. The Cavs trailed, 95-94, but had the ball as the clock approached zeroes. With one second left, Foster’s attempt at a game-winning shot was blocked by KC-O’s Ron Behagen. That was it – Cleveland finished 40-42 and missed the postseason.

And that was Foster’s last moment as a Cavalier. He packed his bags again on September 5, 1975, when he was traded to Chicago for an eighth-round draft choice. But the Bulls didn’t play him and only kept him around until October 22, when they released him. It looked as if his NBA career was over when he sat out the rest of the 1975-76 season. Fred took some course that winter at Oakland University.

Then Locke came back into the picture. Foster’s college coach reached out and signed Foster as a free agent to play for Locke’s new team, the Buffalo Braves. The forward positions were crowded in Buffalo that year, as Adrian Dantley had arrived as a top draft choice, joining Bob McAdoo and John Shumate up front. Moses Malone even passed through town for a week. The Braves had hopes that Foster could provide a lift off the bench when Dantley needed a breather.

Dantley averaged more than 36 minutes per game and 20.3 points in winning the Rookie of the Year trophy, so there wasn’t much space for Foster. He did get in 59 games, averaging 3.9 points per game. The Braves’ season blew up when McAdoo was essentially sold to the Knicks in midseason. Buffalo finished 30-52, well out of the playoffs for the first time since 1972-73. Locke lost his job as part of the damage. The Braves cut Foster on September 11, 1977, completing his NBA journey. The totals: He played eight seasons for five different teams, and scored 4,093 points.

Foster picked up a couple of honors after leaving pro basketball. He was named to the Miami Athletics Hall of Fame in 1998, and to the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame in 2017. No details emerged about Foster’s life after basketball except one. He died on October 4, 1985, at the age of 39. His alma mater has no obituary in his file.

(Follow Budd on via @WDX2BB)

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