D-League Players Keep NBA Hopes Alive

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David Foster, a 7-foot-3 center, can fit inside a Mini Cooper. Trust him on this. He knows every one of the few cars he can comfortably drive.

But his family isn't shopping for new cars. Instead, they share a Hyundai Sonata they call their "commuter car," good on miles and perfect for a basketball career that could end any moment.

Foster, 28, is a rim-protecting center for the Los Angeles D-Fenders, the Lakers' NBA Development League affiliate. He wasn't drafted out of Utah, has never played in the NBA and is hoping his last-ditch effort to get there does not sputter out.

The D-Fenders draw about 150 mild-mannered fans - the gym's maximum occupancy is only 993, and it seats 508 - who pay $25 to sit in one of six rows of chairs.

When they play, there is normally a single food truck outside and on-court entertainment during timeouts and breaks between periods.

Those in the D-League, where annual salaries are set at either $26,000 or $19,500, can be loosely broken into three categories. There are recent draft picks who will likely get an NBA chance. There are players who had a chance and are clawing for another. And then there are those who were undrafted, unheralded and have no guarantee they will ever reach the next level.

That last category is where Foster fits. He had back-to-back foot surgeries to end his college career, a short stint playing in the Middle East and was a substitute teacher before the game started calling him back. It is a distinct path to the fringe of professional basketball, but in the D-League there's lots of hope to go around.

"Everyone in the D-League is looking to get called up," Foster said. "If you're a player, coach, referee, I mean you're looking for an opportunity to play in the big league. You're looking for that one shot."

Foster enrolled at Utah as a mountain of raw potential. He averaged four blocks per game as a sophomore and was named Mountain West Conference defensive player of the year. His junior season was similar _ limited offense, endless blocks - and NBA scouts expressed interest ahead of his senior year.

But then he felt pain in his right foot during a preseason exhibition. A CT scan revealed a stress fracture that would sideline him for the season. The NBA scouts vanished. Foster was determined to return as a redshirt senior.

But then the pain came back during a suicide sprint before the next season. This time Foster knew it right away: another surgery, another yearlong rehab, another reason to hang it up altogether.

Foster rehabbed with a Utah assistant every morning, and made money by teaching workout classes to the elderly in the afternoon. He received an offer from a team in Qatar and flew there in February 2014. But he missed home, FaceTimed with his wife Britta every night and wrote in a journal that his basketball career was over.

"It came down to me having to figure out what the heck I'm going to do without basketball," Foster said.

It turned out to be teaching. Foster started as a substitute at Rosamond High School in a small desert town north of Palmdale. To make ends meet in the summer, he walked door to door selling home security systems . Then Rosamond hired him as a full-time teacher and he took the job so he could also coach basketball.

That inched him back to the game.

"I knew he couldn't leave it the way he had," Lee said. "That's not David."

He, Britta and their two baby boys stayed in a friend's basement for a month while Foster worked out in Salt Lake City. A one-month showcase in China helped him earn a training camp invitation from the Delaware 87ers, the D-League affiliate of the Philadelphia 76ers, but he didn't make the 2015-16 roster.

Undeterred, Foster in January went to Chihuahua, Mexico, to play for a team on a 3-month contract. He returned for another summer of training before trying out for the D-Fenders, twice auditioning in the Toyota Sports Center. This time he made the regular-season roster, to start his D-League career at 28.

"You figure the window isn't going to be open forever," Foster said. "So why not take it while you still can?"

Some days bring confidence, others make it hard to find any hope.

Playing time has been hard to come by. Foster was active on Dec. 1 but did not play, and was inactive for a win over the Reno Bighorns a week later.

He stuck around to sign autographs after the Reno game, and a middle-aged woman told him he played great.

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December 19, 2016


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