Darrell Foster is laughing.
What makes him so happy? Well, it doesn’t hurt that his son is playing for a team that is in the Sweet 16 instead of one that failed to make the National Invitation Tournament.
But that’s not all. He’s laughing because he sees an interesting irony in his son’s college career.
His son is an integral reserve for the Southern Illinois Salukis.
But before that, the 6-foot-10-inch Jamaal Foster was a dominant presence at Hickman High School, and hometown Missouri didn’t even recruit him.
Jamaal Foster had a school-record 78 blocks as a Kewpie, but when he graduated, Southern Illinois and Western Michigan — not Mizzou — were the ones leaving messages on his answering machine.
“We had the talent here, but they let it go somewhere else,” Darrell Foster said.
Without hesitation, he rattles off an impressive list of names: Jamaal Tatum (Southern Illinois), Lance Harris (Kansas State), Tyler Hansbrough (North Carolina), Ben Hansbrough (Mississippi State) and Jamaal Foster.
That’s one solid starting five, Darrell Foster notes, and all are in-state stars whose high schools are just a short drive from MU’s campus.
His take on Missouri’s blown opportunity to nab local talent is downright poetic:
“If you look outwardly, you might find what you’re looking for,” he said. “But if you look inwardly, you’re sure to find what you’re looking for. What you really need might be right around you.”
Though some on that list were, in fact, recruited by Missouri, he has a point. A glance at this year’s Tigers roster reveals just two in-state players, both from St. Louis.
Darrell Foster doesn’t get it.
“There’s an abundance of talent in this area,” he said.
But Darrell Foster doesn’t like to dwell on the past. He said his economic situation is such that he can’t afford to miss work to see his son and the Salukis in person, but he never misses a game when they’re on TV.
Jamaal Foster said his dad even supports him electronically.
“He’s always sending me messages before the games and telling me how good I played after the game has been over with,” Jamaal Foster said.
Though he doesn’t play for Mizzou, Jamaal Foster and the Salukis will play the Tigers’ sworn enemy tonight. Though he grew up watching the Tigers and Kansas Jayhawks battle it out since elementary school, he didn’t become a fan of either team.
“I just liked watching good basketball,” he said. “It didn’t matter who won the game, because I knew the game would come down to the wire.”
If a strong aversion to Kansas isn’t enough motivation for the typical Columbian to cheer for Southern Illinois, seeing a hometown product should be.
“Hopefully we can give them something to be happy about,” Jamaal Foster said.
But the Salukis’ burden is heavy.
“Kansas is a good team; they’re coached well,” Jamaal Foster said. “They produce a lot of great players who are playing in the NBA right now.”
Southern Illinois coach Chris Lowery sees it too.
“They’re good,” he said. “They have guys that are gonna shake Commissioner (David) Stern’s hand in the NBA draft.”
Senior guard Jamaal Tatum graduated from Helias High School in Jefferson City.
You might recognize the heavily tattooed senior guard as the Saluki with the long hair that seems to float behind him as he blows by defenders. He led his team in scoring this season.
Tatum said that when he was in high school he gave more attention to the Crusaders’ rivalry with the Jefferson City Jays than to college basketball rivalries like Missouri-Kansas.
He’s paying attention to Kansas now, however, but he said he’s more focused on his team erasing last year’s first-round loss to West Virginia.
“When you know you have the potential to do something, and you come up short it always hurts,” he said.
As the fourth seed, the Salukis haven’t spoiled too many brackets.
They’ve shed the Cinderella identity they rallied around in past years. Now they’re focused on just winning games.
“There’s plenty more respect to come, because I think we can make a big run still,” Tatum said. “We have the caliber of players that can get us far in this tournament. We’re not going to surprise ourselves.”