With only 26 seconds left on the clock, it’s crunch time for the Commodores, who trail the Mississippi State Bulldogs by 3.
If Vanderbilt prevails, they’ll close out the season undefeated at home. If they lose, it will be a crushing defeat for star player Shan Foster and fellow seniors competing in their last matchup inside Memorial Gym.
The buzzer blares and the players hustle back onto the court, sneakers squeaking on the glossy wood floor. As the clock starts and the remaining seconds slip away, so does the likelihood of a comeback.
The players in pale-gold uniforms frantically pass the ball, looking for an open shot as the clock runs down: 20, 19, 18, 17, 16, 15....
Voices pierce through the thunderous crowd, screaming, “Get it to Foster. Get it to Foster.” And with just 14 seconds remaining, that’s exactly what happens.
Looking right past the Mississippi State player wildly waving his arms to block the shot, Foster jumps high into the air and gracefully releases the ball from behind his head, catapulting it over his defender. The ball settles easily into the hoop, a dramatic three to tie the game. A tense crowd lets out a cathartic scream, but it’s not over yet. Mississippi State races the ball down the court and with one second left, misses a shot—it’s overtime.
Students decked out in shirts that say “Memorial Magic” bounce in unison waving metallic pom-poms, while one particularly spirited elderly fan sporting a gaudy gold blazer leaps from her prime courtside seat and pumps her fist in the air.
The team is huddled around Vanderbilt Head Coach Kevin Stallings, who scribbles his plan of attack on a dry-erase board. Before breaking from the huddle, the players pile their hands in the middle, then throw their arms in the air. With five more minutes on the clock, Vanderbilt has another shot at victory.
The lead alternates throughout overtime, and with less than 30 seconds remaining Vanderbilt trails by two points.
Then, in a thrilling finale reminiscent of Jimmy Chitwood’s game-winning shot in the classic basketball saga Hoosiers, Foster snags a pass and with four seconds on the clock, sinks a three-point basket. The crowd erupts; Vanderbilt wins 86-85.
Players spring from the bench and flock to Foster, scooping up the 200-pound man and spinning him around like a child. Looking up, Foster points to the ceiling, thanking God for the fortunate outcome. Slipping away from the celebration, Foster walks toward the stands and embraces his mother and his grandmother, both weeping, while nearly a dozen other relatives encircle him. “We did it. We did it,” they loudly proclaim, hugging, jumping, laughing and crying.
For Shan (rhymes with “rain”) Foster, it’s been one triumphant moment after another in a year chock full of miracle finishes and unprecedented performances that have amazed even his most loyal fans. In clinching the implausible win against Mississippi State, Foster also racked up a career-high 42 points, the most scored by a Commodore in a single game in four decades. Sinking nine consecutive three-pointers in that March 5 matchup, the senior forward put on a record-breaking show that underscores an already outstanding season, during which he became Vanderbilt’s all-time leading scorer. With all the accolades he’s collected this season, it was no surprise when the Southeastern Conference’s coaches and the Associated Press voted to name Foster SEC player of the year.
It seems no one has a harsh word to say about Foster: He’s intelligent, spiritual and obviously a phenomenal athlete. In fact, when reporters recently asked Coach Stallings about Foster’s flaws in the game, he responded by talking about what his star player does right. When pressed again, Stallings got downright snippy. “Come on. Why do I want to do that?” he said before abruptly walking away.
All this gushing may sound like overkill, but Foster doesn’t let it get to his head. That’s right. He’s humble too. Seriously, if we could find the tiniest defect in his public persona or anything else for that matter, we would have told you by now.
Sports analysts predict Foster will almost certainly be drafted into the NBA next year, perhaps even in the latter stages of the first round. “I think it’s possible because he has a skill that the NBA covets: He can shoot,” ESPN commentator Jay Bilas tells the Scene, although he acknowledges that whether Foster gets picked in round one depends on how many underclassmen enter the draft. Obviously, the earlier a player is selected in the draft, the better the contract and higher the salary.
The best player in the SEC this year, Foster can make big shots when it counts, like in the upcoming NCAA Tournament. During the Big Dance, Foster will have a chance to flaunt his skills in the national spotlight, and a strong performance could go a long way toward boosting his reputation leading up to the NBA draft this summer.
Despite Vanderbilt’s loss to Arkansas in the second round of the SEC tournament last week, Foster told reporters he still is optimistic about the season, saying his team has an opportunity to “right the ship” in the NCAA Tournament. This year, the Commodores are heading into post-season play as a four seed and will face Siena College in round one on Friday. It’s the team’s highest tournament seeding in 15 years, and that’s no surprise, given knockout performances this season not only from Foster, but also from senior point guard Alex Gordon and freshman center Andrew Ogilvy.
After failing to even make the NCAA Tournament field in 2005 and 2006 and with Stallings’ job in jeopardy, Vanderbilt exceeded expectations last year, advancing all the way to the Sweet 16. The successful run was credited in large part to a breakout performance from Foster, who admits he hadn’t reached his full potential during his first two years on the team. Now in his final year, this is Foster’s last chance to dazzle in post-season play, and this time expectations are high.
“I think any time you have a senior who’s been through it and has that sense of urgency that seniors have—whether it’s bringing it in practice, understanding the importance of preparation—it’s a great thing to have,” says Bilas, who played basketball at Duke University in the 1980s. “If you’ve got a player who can lead by example and if you’ve got a senior who’s your hardest worker and sets the tone in the locker room, you’re more likely to have a successful team.”
Foster is certainly a better bet to stick around in the NBA longer than past Vanderbilt stars like Matt Freije and Dan Langhi, whose lack of athleticism doomed them from ever making a dent in the pros. Nobody thinks Foster, 21, will be an All Star. At the next level, where collegiate stars like J.J. Redick often struggle, the 6-foot-6 Foster can turn into the classic tweener—too small to play forward and not quick enough to play guard. But if he can find a team that can pluck him off the bench and take advantage of his sizzling outside shot, he could be Vanderbilt’s first decent pro player since Will Perdue.
But when you talk to Foster these days, he could not care less about the future, focused only on leading his team deep in the tournament and cutting down the nets at the end of the championship game. Of course, a Final Four appearance is an unlikely prospect for a team like Vanderbilt which has already overachieved this year, but if there’s one thing Foster has in common with every other great player, it’s his unbridled, almost childlike optimism. That’s the one quality we all want from our stars—we need them to believe—and there, Foster delivers yet again.
But if basketball is the senior’s top priority right now, he insists that he never let the sport overshadow what’s most important: his family and his faith. Yes, we’ve heard all that before from athletes—right before they’re served with a paternity suit—but Foster just seems, well, real. Maybe it’s the way he answers questions about himself, speaking deliberately, quietly and matter-of-factly as if he were merely reciting his name and address.
“A lot of people look at me as a superstar because of what happens on the court, but I do a good job of not letting that consume who I am,” Foster tells the Scene the day after a win over Mississippi State. “Basketball is something that I do, not who I am.”
Foster certainly lacks the bravado displayed by many athletes of his caliber. There’s no swagger in his step when he walks onto the court, although he isn’t overly modest either. Before being named SEC player of the year, Foster matter-of-factly acknowledged that he would be surprised if he were passed over, given his accomplishments this season.
Wearing a black practice uniform and his signature black headband, Foster speaks with his hands clasped behind his back. Although he’s polite and thoughtful in his answers, he repeatedly looks over his shoulder at the clock to make sure he isn’t late for practice.
A maintenance employee at Memorial Gym passes by and compliments Foster on the previous night’s performance, suggesting he might want to ice up his arm. Foster smiles and thanks him for the advice, adding, “Man, it was something.”
Wiping away tears with his jersey in the wake of the victory over Mississippi State, Foster returns to the court as the crowd chants “MVP, MVP,” and amid the chaos he finds Coach Stallings. The coach hugs his player, rocking back and forth, as both of them cry.
It’s as if the entire evening is following a Hollywood script. In fact, one Vanderbilt fan, spent from the intensity of tonight’s white-knuckle game, says in between puffs of a cigarette outside the gym, “Unbelievable, wasn’t it? That’s got movie written all over it.”
This is the last time Foster will play at Memorial Gym, and it’s on senior night no less. As the team’s departing players are honored alongside their families at center court, Foster, teary-eyed once again, gives his mother the bouquet of yellow roses presented to him. Again she embraces her tearful son, smiling and repeating, “It’s OK,” as if consoling a small child.
The gym still is packed with enthusiastic supporters, who have managed to maintain steady applause and boisterous cheering since the end of the game 10 minutes earlier. Finally, the players exit the court, some with arms around each other as they head to the locker room.
The crowd eventually trickles out of the stands, which are littered with stale popcorn, spilled sodas and other debris from a raucous game. A few fans stop to talk to Foster’s mom, still clutching the yellow roses against her long, pale-yellow dress that’s fit for church. They thank her for raising a “fine young boy” and tell her, “Shan will always have a home here.” They relay their disbelief with Foster’s last-second shot, to which she says, “Oh Lord. I can’t believe it either.” Overcome with emotion, she’s smiling one moment, weeping the next.
“I’m just so proud of him, not just because he plays good basketball, but because he’s a good kid,” says Anita Horne, whose round cheeks are beaming with pride as she waits for her son to re-emerge from the locker room. “When there are other kids out there getting in trouble and getting killed in the streets, he’s here and he’s succeeding. He’s just such a good person.”
Growing up just outside New Orleans in the town of Kenner, La., Foster spent the first five years of his life in his grandmother’s care while his mother finished college. The experience left an indelible impression on him: “My grandmother took care of me and taught me a lot of things. She always kept me in church and always kept me on my knees praying, and instilled in me a lot of values that I still carry today. My grandmother is probably the most cherished person in my life.”
To this day, Foster calls his mother and his grandmother “mama,” and he says both matriarchs are responsible for his strong faith in God.
Raised in a devout Baptist family, Foster’s beliefs frequently surface when talking to the media, and it’s not unusual for him to casually quote lesser known passages from the Bible, as he did during a press conference after the Mississippi State game when asked about his performance: “I would describe it by saying, ‘I look to the hills for whence cometh my help and my help cometh from the Lord.’ ”
But unlike some popular athletes who are conveniently born again to enhance their image, Foster’s faith took root in childhood.
In Foster’s family, prayer is not reserved for Sunday mornings, and attending church means more than just going through the motions. Early in his youth Foster began singing in the church gospel choir, and as a teenager he learned to play the piano. Eventually he began writing his own gospel songs, the latest of which is called “He’s the Answer.”
Upon moving to Nashville, Foster searched for a church reminiscent of his spirited place of worship back home, and he settled on Mount Zion Baptist, one of the city’s oldest and liveliest black churches. It’s a place where worshippers spend much of the service on their feet, singing, swaying and praising the Lord with hands raised.
Wanting more than just a haven to practice his faith, Foster also sought spiritual guidance in the absence of his family, and asked the leader of the congregation to serve as his mentor. The two have met one-on-one ever since, sometimes discussing faith, other times talking about everyday challenges like school.
“He’s such a quality kid. To see someone as great as he is in the sport of basketball be so grounded and balanced in school and his faith and in the community is an inspiration. His heart is just so pure and I’m just so proud of him,” says Bishop Joseph W. Walker III, who in addition to mentoring Foster just happens to be a faithful Vanderbilt basketball fan. “Considering everything that’s happening in his life, his humility is incredible.”
When he’s not on the road, Foster is at church every Sunday, and attends Bible study on Wednesdays. Even when he is traveling, he often calls Walker seeking advice, or simply to pray before a game. It’s not unusual for Foster to watch a DVD of sermons while on the road and unable to make it to church.
But Foster insists he’s a typical college student, saying he’s just as likely to play video games with teammates on the bus (his favorite game, appropriately, is “College Hoops 2K8”), or listen to his favorite rapper, Lil’ Wayne, who also hails from New Orleans. The rapper writes lyrics like “Born to be a hustla gonna be rich till I’m gone” and “Just to clarify the fact that I’m a muthafuckin’ mack.” It’s a far cry from gospel music.
When he was 5 years old, Foster stumbled upon an old basketball and taught himself to dribble on the sidewalk. Without a basketball goal, he began shooting the ball through a hole in the bushes outside his grandmother’s home.
It wasn’t until middle school that Foster joined his first organized team, and over the next few years he stayed focused on basketball, school and church, avoiding the troubles that lure many teenagers in the wrong direction. Being from New Orleans, a city with no shortage of vices, Foster credits the women in his family for keeping him on the right path. “My mom is like my best friend. I talk to her every day,” he says. “She’s always been encouraging, always telling me to keep God first and seek him first and everything else will be given unto me.”
Foster followed this advice, and by the time he was a junior in high school, college scouts were paying attention to his rising talent.
A recruiter approached Foster at a high school basketball tournament in Houston and asked if he had heard of Vanderbilt University. The high school junior admitted he had not, to which the recruiter responded, “We’ll be in touch.”
After twice visiting the campus with his father, Foster says he was sold, choosing Vanderbilt over more impressive programs, including Louisiana State, Kansas and Notre Dame.
“I really knew this would be a place where I could be for four years,” he says. “There is a great family, community environment here that’s taken me in from day one. It’s been a place where I can learn and grow not only as a basketball player, but as a person.”
But as much as Foster says he’s gained from Vanderbilt, his coaches and fellow players say he’s reciprocated tenfold. They don’t just mildly compliment him as a basketball player or isolate a solitary aspect of his game for praise, they nearly pin a medal on his chest.
When asked what Foster brings to the team, Stallings says, “Everything: leadership, great play, great person. Just everything that a coach wants in a guy that he recruits, Shan’s been that. We’ve been blessed to have him. He’s been an awesome person and an awesome player for four years.”
Talking on his cell phone from the loud and rowdy team bus traveling to Tuscaloosa, Ala., Foster describes a typical day during the season: class, shooting baskets at the gym, lunch in the cafeteria, a quick nap in his dorm if he’s lucky, back to the gym for practice, then studying, sometimes late into the evening. In his last semester, Foster is tackling the hardest class he’s taken at Vanderbilt thus far—biology—and he admits, “Science is not for me.”
Foster’s favorite classes have been in the field of religious studies, which you probably could have guessed by now. He declared it as a minor while majoring in human and organizational development, a popular jock major at Vanderbilt. When asked if he might consider eventually pursuing the ministry, he says, “If that’s God’s plan for my life, he’ll send me in that direction. Right now, I’m focused on basketball.”
Of course basketball dominates most of his time, particularly at this point in the season, but when Foster has a Friday night free, it’s likely to include going out to dinner with friends, followed by a movie or bowling. So he’s not exactly a party animal. Nor does he seem to be particularly smooth with the ladies. As for whether he has a girlfriend, Foster says after a long pause and nervous laugh, “Ahhh...something like that.”
Following church services at Mount Zion a few years ago, a high school student asked Foster if he had time to shoot hoops. Foster agreed, and soon he began spending more and more time talking with the young man, who is now a freshman at Western Kentucky University.
Then last year, a fan recognized Foster at a gas station near campus and struck up a conversation. The man explained that he and his wife had been trying to find a good role model to spend time with their son, an only child. Foster agreed to speak with the boy on the phone, and eventually he was regularly visiting the family for Sunday dinners.
“Being that I play college basketball, there are a lot of kids that look up to me,” Foster says without a hint of ego. “Given God has blessed me with a great talent to play ball, I feel like it’s my responsibility to make sure I’m a person who gives back and really tries to reach out.”
Just when it seems like Foster can’t possibly come off sounding like a better guy, he relays a heartwarming story that seals our crush on the star athlete.Following an emotional victory over Mississippi State, Foster received a text message from his 15-year-old sister. In the message she told her brother that she strives to be just like him because he has the respect of so many people. “That was the biggest compliment that I’ve probably gotten in my life,” he says.
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