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Basketball Trainer A.J. Foster Challenges, Inspires Native Players

Rez ball is so much more than no-look passes or behind-the-back dribbling. It’s about walking with humility, playing with courage and knowing it’s all a gift from the Creator. That’s A.J. Foster’s take on it anyway.

The 33-year-old Seminole/Creek from Anadarko, Okla., had his college basketball playing career cut short when he tore his ACL his sophomore season at Hillsdale Free Will Baptist College. But his love of the game and desire to teach led to the development of Training with Foster, a development camp to teach Native ballplayers ball handling skills that will help take their game to the next level. “I believe every Native community has a Jim Thorpe or Jude or Shoni Schimmel,” Foster told ICTMN. “They’re out there. They’re walking around in the schools. They just need a little bit of attention from somebody. They need someone to give them a little bit of time and teach them a little bit of discipline. I believe Native kids want to be challenged, want to be disciplined. I tell my kids it’s time to get out of your comfort zone.”

The game is changing. It’s faster, more precise and ball handling skills are more in demand than ever before. Training with Foster is pushing rez ball to the forefront, not with its flash-and-dash, but by developing players who can think on the fly. “Ball handling builds confidence,” said Foster, who received his bachelor’s degree in education. “We do work on the shooting part. But it’s all shooting off the dribble. There is no more rotate it around to a guy who puts up the shot anymore. We do a lot of combo drills to help come off the screen and put up the shot, or shake the defender for a pull-up.”

Courtesy Training with Foster

Ronnie Harjo, Veronica Harjo, Rachael Harjo Seminole-Chickasaw) and AJ Foster

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But Foster will be the first to tell you; you have to know the fundamentals in order to break them. “I was raised on fundamentals,” said Foster, who was on the 2001-02 Hillsdale National Christian College Athletic Association national championship team. “I’ve been working at basketball camps since I was 15 years old. Over the years, I’ve developed a combination of fundamentals and NBA training. In today’s game, because of the fast pace, if you’re not able to go side-to-side you’re going to struggle. There are so many defenders that are faster than you and quicker than you that you can’t go straight line anymore. I’m talking about using combo moves and set the person up with a fundamental move. But sometimes it takes a behind-the-back dribble to beat the double team.”

He talks to his students about comfort zones. On the floor, it might be tendencies, moves that work, shots that fall. But he also knows the game can open doors to life skills needed to walk in two worlds – one of culture and humility and another with deadlines and commitments. “I always ask, ‘Does anybody have any questions?’ Native kids are real shy. I might have a group of 10 kids and no one has a question,” he explained. “I bring them back and tell them to get used to asking questions. If you do not understand, you ask. The No. 1 thing that keeps Native Americans from achieving greatness is because we’re scared to ask. I bring that up all the time, if you’re not certain, ask. The other thing I stress is handling their responsibilities. I hope every kid I work with goes off to college, but the main thing is be able to take care of yourself and to be able to take care of your family.”

Life is full of choices he says. “There’s a time and a place for everything,” said Foster, who is employed with Riverside Indian School as an education technician. “There’s a time for you to cut up, have a good time and laugh. But that’s not in the classroom or during my training session. That’s for when you’re gaming out with your friends. There’s time and place to dribble between the legs to go left to shed the defender. But if you’re up by 30 points in a ballgame, there’s no need to start getting flashy because all you’re trying to do is bring attention to yourself and that’s not what Native people are about. I was raised by my grandparents and they always taught me not to bring unnecessary attention to yourself … stay humble.”

Foster doesn’t demand a lot, but good grades and hard work in the classroom is a must if you’re going to Train with Foster. “I believe that whoever your hanging out with is who you’re going to become like. So if you’re hanging out with people that are getting D’s and F’s in school, that’s what you’re going to become,” he said. “I tell all my parents that if they’re on the D and F list in school to please let me know about it and we’ll cancel our training sessions until they get their grades up. I’m old school about it. If they’re not listening to their teachers, if they’re not listening at home, then they’re not going to listen to me. What I do isn’t about making money no matter what. I’d rather work with kids that potentially can get an athletic scholarship or an academic scholarship.”

Walk with humility, play with swag and see where the Good Red Road takes you. A.J. Foster has come full circle, helping Native kids believe in themselves through the love of the game.