Change of Pace : Rod Foster Serving as Volunteer Assistant Coach at The Master's

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nestled in the hills of the Santa Clarita Valley, the serenity of The Master's College contrasts starkly with the hustle and bustle of life in the NBA.

However, it is here that Rod Foster feels he belongs.

Foster was nicknamed "Rocket" at UCLA where, as a freshman in 1980, he played guard for the Bruins' last Final Four team.

But nearly six years ago, Foster's professional basketball career crashed when he and two Phoenix teammates were involved in an off-road accident that left his left leg broken in two places.

After a series of frustrating comeback attempts, Foster has chosen a new direction in the sport as a volunteer assistant coach at The Master's, a Christian liberal arts school in Newhall that competes in the National Assn. of Intercollegiate Athletics.

"I'm unofficially retired," Foster, 31, said. "It's hard to compare, but I don't think that I've lost any speed as a result of my accident. I just think it's time to go in another direction."

Foster, who in 1982 set an NCAA record for highest free-throw percentage in a season (95.0%), says he harbors no bitter feelings. He believes that his NBA days were numbered even before the accident.

"I was out of control," said Foster, a second-round 1983 draft pick who was in the final season of a three-year contract when the accident occurred.

"I was always craving more and was never satisfied. If I had a good game, I would want more points or more steals. I was running, and deep down inside, I knew I wasn't living right and serving God. My focus and priorities were off and I was heading for trouble.

"Looking back, the accident was probably the best thing that could have happened. I needed something to slow me down."

Last summer, Foster played for the Erie (Pa.) Wave of the World Basketball League and averaged 15.7 points in 28 games. He left the team when his playing time dwindled after a coaching change.

"I thought I was playing pretty well and had a chance to get back in the NBA," said Foster, who plays in a recreational league and, at 165 pounds, is five pounds over his playing weight.

"When we went through the coaching change, my minutes started going down and my stats went down. I tried to get overseas, but couldn't get any nibbles. I decided to just go back to school and finish up and possibly play in the (Continental Basketball Assn.) in the winter."

Foster, who averaged 7.5 points a game in his NBA career, was invited to join the San Jose Jammers of the CBA, an expansion team for which he played 23 games at the end of the 1989-90 season.

He declined the offer after becoming a part-time private basketball instructor while finishing his degree in sociology at UCLA last fall.

"My plan was to report (to San Jose) early in the season, but after I started one-on-one coaching, it didn't seem worthwhile to go up there anymore," Foster said. "I have a heart for kids, and seeing their joy and excitement when I teach them something, whether it be a new move or a new drill, gets me pretty excited.

"I had such a great experience that I knew it was something I wanted to pursue."

It was a warm night in the Arizona desert on March 23, 1986, when Foster and teammates Ed Pinckney and Mike Sanders began their return from a day of off-roading in the foothills of the Bradshaw Mountains.

While descending a steep hill, Foster suddenly lost control of his Jeep. He slammed on his brakes when the vehicle began to slide sideways, causing the Jeep to roll onto its side. It came to rest a few feet from the edge of a cliff.

"We were having a good time, and then the Jeep started to fishtail and did a 180 (-degree turn)," Foster said. "It was really miraculous that it didn't go over the side. For some reason, I stuck my leg out like I was Fred Flintstone or falling off a bicycle. There was not a lot of pain, but a lot of blood."

Sanders and Pinckney were unhurt. They tied bungee cords around Foster's leg to serve as a tourniquet.

Foster called for help on the Jeep's CB radio, but to no avail. Pinckney stayed with Foster while Sanders set off on foot in search of a ranch with a telephone.

A fisherman heading back from Lake Pleasant picked up Foster and Pinckney--and also found Sanders--but got lost on the way to the Maricopa County ranger station at the lake.

Foster reached a hospital in Phoenix shortly after midnight--three hours after the accident. Another hour passed before he was in surgery, the first of three operations he would undergo during a nine-day period. He was in a cast for 16 weeks.

"The first thing that entered my mind was whether I would ever run or play basketball again," Foster said. "I was told that it was probably a career-ending injury, but even when I was waiting for help, I wasn't afraid. I had an inner peace that everything was going to be OK."

Foster started rehabilitation three months later. He was given a two-week tryout with the Denver Nuggets in 1987 but was not offered a contract.

"I was in shock; it was the first time that I had been cut in my life," Foster said. "I was thankful that I was able to play again, but I was disappointed because I had worked real hard to make it back."

In November of 1987, Foster was picked up by the defunct Savannah (Ga.) Spirits of the CBA, who were coached by Henry Bibby, a former All-American guard at UCLA who played nine seasons in the NBA.

Foster was traded a month later to the Quad City (Ill.) Thunder and released before finishing the season with the Rapid City (S.D.) Thrillers. He was cut in camp by the San Antonio Spurs in 1988 and played for Athletes In Action the past two seasons.

"It was a real humbling experience playing for all those CBA teams," Foster said.

Foster began searching for a high school coaching job this fall when UCLA assistant Mark Gottfried referred Foster to The Master's Coach Mel Hankinson in November.

"When I first visited (The Master's), I could sense the warmth and sincerity on the looks of the players' faces," Foster said. "I was well received, and it didn't take long for me to make my decision."

Foster's only income comes from his work as a personal basketball tutor. When he is not giving a private lesson, he commutes from Manhattan Beach to The Master's--which has an enrollment of about 1,000--where he often spends nine to 10 hours a day.

"He has a real love for the game, coming the distance he does and volunteering as much time as any coach," senior guard Damon Greer said. "To understand what he has gone through makes me appreciate him more."

Foster is equally appreciative of the coaching opportunity.

"I'm happier now than I ever was as a player," Foster said. "It was a big step of faith to come (to The Master's), but I really believe it is God's will for me to be here and this is exactly where I'm supposed to be."

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