For more sports commentary, follow Reggie Hayes via Twitter at www.twitter.com/reggiehayes1.
Bishop Luers boys basketball coach J.J. Foster wouldn't call his coaching style a carbon copy of the great Al Gooden, but any similarities are indeed intentional.
Foster worked for several seasons as an assistant coach to Gooden at Harding High School, and they've been friends for years.
“We have different styles, but the philosophy is the same old-school mentality,” Foster said. “Al's a lot more rigid with his old-school. I'm a little new-school with old-school.”
Foster said he'll incorporate a variety of defenses and approaches beyond the standard, relentless man-to-man defense that Gooden has ridden to 373 wins with stops at Heritage, Harding and now New Haven. But some things will resonate with those who have watched Gooden over the years.
“As far as hard work, defense and rebounding winning ballgames,” Foster said, “That is the core of both our programs.”
Foster, 44, enters his first season as a head boys basketball coach after having worked as a girls head coach at Harding and Wayne.
The job – where he replaces James Blackmon as Luers coach – has been a long time in the making. Foster has loved boys basketball since his days as player at Homestead High School (and later Coastal Carolina University).
Circumstances led Foster into girls basketball, and he had some early success at Harding, which helped keep him on that side of the spectrum. But he always yearned to try his coaching skills in the boys game.
“J.J. had some good ideas when he coached with me,” Gooden said. “I stole some things from him. I think he'll do a great job over there.”
Foster has spent most of his life in Fort Wayne. He's currently the Urban League director of youth services. It's one of a handful of youth-oriented positions he's handled in his professional life. He's worked in the school system, in the Indiana Division of Family and Children and as a juvenile probation officer. He says he's worked with young people so long the initials in his first name stand for "Just Juvenile."
Basketball is in his blood. He's part of a family that includes older brother Tracy and younger brother Rick, both accomplished players in college and beyond.
“Dealing with young people as a career, I know you have to find out what makes them go, what motivates them and how to handle them,” Foster said. “Boys or girls, it's like a puzzle, basically.”
Foster said the mental side of the game is as important as the X's and O's, pointing to Bob Knight and Mike Krzyzewski as examples of those who emphasized coaching beyond the X's and O's.
“Phil Jackson is probably the most notable,” Foster said. “He had the X's and O's over here, and then it was about relating to the players.”
Foster said he realizes the impact on players can stretch beyond this year's wins and losses. Harding alum Trai Essex, who went on to play professional football with the Pittsburgh Steelers, recently introduced a friend to Foster. Essex talked about the impact Gooden, Foster and longtime Gooden assistant Bruce Stephens had made on him as a young player, Foster said.
Foster has some work to do with the Bishop Luers program, which Blackmon had built around big-time players Deshaun Thomas and James Blackmon Jr. the past few seasons.
This year's Luers team might not have a superstar, which would also make it similar to some of Gooden's teams at Harding over the years.
Foster will emphasize to his Luers players that the team is bigger than any individual and that it takes everyone buying in fully to make a championship run. That's a Gooden staple, too.
“There's a little bit of Al in me and a little me in him,” Foster said. “I think the chemistry we had as a coaching staff carried over to the players.”
Foster said patience has been a key to waiting for his chance to coach boys basketball. He enjoyed the girls game, but had always wanted to see if he could run a boys program.
Luers is a good fit, as is Fort Wayne. Foster and Anita Gerardot, who have been together 16 years, have four children. J.J. (or Lil Ja) Foster is a Luers ninth-grader who could play on varsity this year, Julian Foster is an eighth-grader, Cienna Foster is in kindergarten and Honore' Gerardot is a junior at Indiana University.
“I'm enmeshed in the community in several ways,” Foster said. “Fort Wayne is a great place to raise a family. I've got kids of my own, and Hoosier Hysteria is something I want to be a part of.”
If he has half the success of his friend Gooden, Luers will be in great hands.