Seven-footer from Cornell, Spencer-Van Etten honing skills in D-League
The Ithaca Journal
ITHACA -- By any measure, professional basketball player Jeff Foote went through a lot during his college years.
From not being recruited out of high school, to walking on at St. Bonaventure University, to eventually transferring to Cornell and winning three Ivy League titles -- not to mention making a Sweet 16 appearance his senior year that thrust him and the Big Red into the national spotlight -- one could expect that Foote faced his fair share of obstacles along the way. And like many other college students and athletes around the country, Foote did his fair share of growing up and maturing.
But even all of that couldn't possibly have prepared the Spencer-Van Etten graduate and 7-foot, 265-pound giant for what would come following his time on East Hill. A testing journey through the ranks of international basketball took him, in barely over a year, to such faraway places as Israel, Morocco and Poland.
Forget worrying about handing a class assignment in on time, or making sure to get enough sleep before a big game. As a pro, Foote's daily challenges became making sure he got home from practice safely and figuring out how he was going to communicate with a coach or teammate who didn't speak English.
"I learned that you really get spoiled in college," said Foote, 24, who graduated from Cornell in 2010 and now plays for the Springfield Armor of the NBA Development League. "Everything is taken care of for you, whereas overseas you're really more responsible for yourself. You really have to act with your own best interest in mind, and you have to figure things out for yourself. You're not going to get a whole lot of help over there."
In June 2010, following three highly successful seasons at Cornell that saw the Big Red go 69-18 and win three straight Ivy championships, Foote signed a three-year contract with Maccabi Tel Aviv, a professional team in Israel and one of the most successful European clubs of the last decade.
Midway through the season, however, admittedly "more or less inexperienced in the overseas game" and after logging only four minutes with the Euroleague giants, Foote was sent to Spanish second-division team Melilla Baloncesto in November on a one-year loan.
Although technically a Spanish city, Melilla is in northern Morocco and serves as an African port city for mainland Spain. There, and despite gaining some valuable experience and averaging a solid 7.7 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2 blocks in 25 games, Foote would be exposed to some of the harsh realities of international pro basketball. It eventually led him back to the states.
"Maccabi Tel Aviv is a big-name team, so everything was really well-organized and well-run," said Foote, who describes his time in Israel as "by far the best" of his overseas adventures. "But Melilla was a pretty rough city. It was an awkward experience. There's a lot of poverty and drug-ridden areas. But overall, it was a good learning experience there."
His most loyal fans were particularly happy to see Foote home. His parents, Don and Wanda, had meticulously tracked their son's overseas career, albeit from half a globe away.
"As his parents, obviously our major concern was his safety and well-being," said Don Foote, who was the boys' JV basketball coach at Spencer-Van Etten while his son played for the Panthers. "With his being so far away, we really didn't get a whole lot of time to talk to him, but it was a great experience for him, to get to see the world and play basketball and do what he likes."
Big Red reunion
The following summer, Foote reconnected with three of his close friends, classmates and teammates from Cornell -- Louis Dale, Ryan Wittman and Jon Jaques. The gang all got a place together in New York, played basketball, explored their surroundings and generally caught up on lost time.
At summer's end, Foote gave the European circuit one final try, this time bringing his good friend Wittman along with him. The pair signed on with Polish club Zastal Zielona Góra of the Tauron Basket League, although the result was again a failed experiment.
"When we got there, things started off pretty well, but that's kind of the European standard and after we lost a couple of games in a row things got really rocky," said Foote. "They decided to let go of Ryan, and from there it became very uncomfortable for me, so I decided to come back, as well."
Since his stint in Poland, Wittman has landed a job with Morgan Stanley in Minneapolis, and according to Foote, "is pretty happy where he's at, and I don't blame him." Dale, on the other hand, is recovering from a torn ACL suffered while playing professionally in Germany, and after having his surgery done in Europe plans to return to his home state of Alabama in the next few months before living with Foote in New York again this summer to "figure out his next step."
Perhaps not surprisingly, considering his college experience, Foote says the biggest obstacle he faced overseas was adjusting to the difference in the attitudes of the players.
"The team game is more or less over," Foote said. "A lot of people are just looking out for themselves, looking to get what they want and advance their careers, and you can't really blame them. We had a very special thing at Cornell. We didn't really care how it got done as long as it did. That whole family aspect is more or less gone over there."
Even more worrisome, he said, are some of the structural issues he encountered, as well as the target he said he wore on his back as an American player.
"You have to learn how to deal with a lot of different things," Foote said. "They're going to be late on payments all the time, and they're going to give you a million different reasons why. And especially being an American, you're always going to kind of be the goat. If you play well and your team loses, it's going to be your fault. If you play well and your team wins, it's going to be because the national guys played well. You have to learn to take your lumps."
As if the odds weren't already stacked high enough, Foote says he was often held back by a language barrier that made communication with some of his coaches and teammates almost impossible. In Israel, where English is taught as a second language, the young center found himself under the tutelage of an American coach. But in Morocco, and especially in Poland, things were not so simple.
"In Poland, our coach spoke a bit of broken English, but after that there was literally nobody else who spoke English," Foote said. "So if you can't speak the language, good luck. If your coach mistranslates something and you go do it wrong, it's going to be your fault."
Since returning to the U.S. for the second time, a stronger and more seasoned Foote has made huge strides toward his goal of playing in the NBA. When the lockout ended, he was invited to the Portland Trail Blazers' training camp, where he rubbed shoulders with fellow big man Marcus Camby, a former Defensive Player of the Year and 14-year NBA veteran, before being one of the last players cut.
Determined to keep improving and continue pursuing his NBA dream, Foote signed last month with the Armor of the NBA D-League. In 17 games (16 starts) at center, he's averaging 15.4 points, 8.9 rebounds and 1.2 blocks while shooting 55 percent.
"I definitely think I'm right there, right on the cusp" Foote said. "It's just a matter of developing more and getting an opportunity."
» Career averages at Cornell: 11.0 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.8 blocks (87 games)
» Career record at Cornell: 69-18 (34-1 home)
» Ivy League Defensive Player of the year (08-09, 09-10)
» First-team All-Ivy selection (09-10)
» Second-team All-Ivy selection (07-08, 08-09)
Cornell All-time Rankings:
» Defensive rebounds: 1st (454)
» Blocked shots: 3rd (159)
» FG percentage, season: 2nd (.625, 09-10)