Baltimore native Tyler Foster didn’t play college basketball for two years, uncertain of his future in the sport that tied him directly to the city’s rich basketball history.

That connection led to Foster getting an opportunity at Fayetteville State University, ending a stretch of five schools in five years for the 23-year-old guard, who has been on a quest to find the right basketball experience since he left the Gilman School as a high school sophomore.

“I wasn’t sure what was next for me and I wasn’t sure if I’d ever play again,” Foster said, referring to the time he was away from college basketball upon leaving Youngstown State after the 2019-2020 season. “Doubt began to creep in because I wasn’t on the path that I thought I’d be on. I never lost faith and knew I wanted to play again. I just wasn’t sure if the right opportunity would present itself.”

Foster is making the most of his chance, as he led Fayetteville State in scoring with 13.8 points, despite only starting 16 of 30 games this season. He also averaged 4.9 rebounds and was second on the team in steals. At CFG Bank Arena last week, a large contingent of family and friends cheered as he competed in the CIAA Tournament. The Broncos advanced to the semifinals, where they lost to Lincoln University, 53-49. Foster didn’t have his best game, fouling out after scoring only seven points. But it was still a moment of validation for him.

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Tyler Foster, left, playing for Fayetteville State.

Playing college basketball again may not have happened for Foster if not for his father, Robert Foster Jr.

Foster Jr., whose nickname is “Rock,” was a smooth, 6-foot-5 shooting guard who was the only freshman on Dunbar High School’s 1992 national championship team. As a kid, Foster Jr. sat in the Dunbar gym, passionately reciting the team’s cheers as he watched players like Muggsy Bogues, Reggie Williams and Sam Cassell.

“Those guys were incredible,” Foster Jr. said. “They were our neighborhood superheroes.”

His teammates on that Dunbar team included Donte Bright, who played alongside future NBA star Marcus Camby in the 1996 Final Four and was coached by John Calipari at UMASS and Michael Lloyd, who played guard at Syracuse for Jim Boeheim with future NBA players Lawrence Moten and John Wallace.

Keith Booth, who starred at Maryland and won an NBA championship with the Chicago Bulls, was another headliner on that monster squad along with Tommy Polley, a football standout at Florida State who later played in the NFL.

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Robert "Rock" Foster Jr. during his days at Dunbar
From left to right; Bootsy Thornton, Rock Foster, Billy Wells, Tommy Polley, and Jeryl Singletary (front). (Robert Foster Jr.)

Foster Jr. had a stellar prep career at Dunbar but neglected his studies. By the end of his senior year, he was left with little choice but to attend junior college.

“I wasn’t prepared for the SATs and I wasn’t ready for the academic rigors of college,“ said Foster Jr. “I wanted to make sure that Tyler would not be in that position if he developed into an athlete with a chance to compete in college.”

The family’s roots in the hoops community run very deep. Tyler’s grandfather, Robert Foster Sr., played for legendary coach William “Sugar” Cain at Dunbar in the 1970s. He was a teammate of the incomparable Skip Wise, who is universally recognized as the greatest high school player to ever come out of Baltimore.

Tony Baysmore, Tyler’s maternal grandfather, played against Foster Sr. and Wise when he attended Northern High School.

“Every time I see him, I tell him, ‘Skip, I held you below your average every time we played you,’” said Baysmore, his eyes dancing with excitement while recalling that golden era. “He just laughs and says, ‘Shorty, every time I played you, I was only in the game for one half!’”

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Robert Foster Sr., #21 and Skip Wise, #44, during their playing days at Dunbar. (Foster Family)

After two years at Daytona Beach Community College, Foster Jr. finished up his college career at New Hampshire College, which is now known as Southern New Hampshire University.

“Rock was a really good player who was highly sought after coming out of Dunbar,” said Baltimore native Bino Ranson, the St. Frances alum and longtime assistant coach at the University of Maryland who is currently an assistant at DePaul University in Chicago. “He won MVP of the All-Star game at the prestigious Five-Star summer camp over Tim Thomas. He could really stretch the defense because he was an outstanding shooter, he could put it on the floor and pass the ball. And he had an intelligence and advanced understanding of the game.”

“Rock signed to play at West Virginia coming out of community college but didn’t have enough credits to qualify to play Division I ball,” Ranson continued. “We were in the barbershop and I convinced him to come and play with me at New Hampshire College, where he had enough credits to qualify. I always say that he was my first great recruit.”

Foster Jr. said his college experience shaped how he made decisions for his son as he was displaying basketball talent. Tyler’s parents enrolled him at Gilman starting in middle school, before his talents on the hardwood began to fully blossom.

“For us, it was all about academics with Tyler,” said Foster Jr. “I wanted him to get on track academically early so he could avoid the same mistakes that I made coming out of high school.”

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After his sophomore year at Gilman, the family transferred Tyler out, opting for a more intensive basketball experience at the South Kent School, a private boarding school and nationally ranked program in Connecticut.

The talent level at South Kent was elite, and Tyler played alongside future pros like Tremont Waters, Elijah Hughes and Myles Powell.

“It was an incredible experience for him, but when the head coach left to take an assistant job at Old Dominion, we started looking at other options,” said Foster Jr. “The coach really looked after him and took care of him. We weren’t confident having him up there on his own, not knowing who the next coach was going to be.”

Tyler spent his senior year at Middleburg Academy in Virginia, and then did a postgrad year at Mount Zion Baptist Christian Academy back home in Baltimore. Georgetown, Virginia Commonwealth, Southern Miss, James Madison and the University of Dayton were among the schools that offered scholarships. He eventually chose to play at East Carolina University and played for the Pirates as a freshman in 2018-2019.

Baltimore’s Tyler Foster. (Jimmy Fields)

“East Carolina looked like a hidden gem to us and the right situation for him at the time,” said Foster Jr. “They recruited him the hardest and we wanted him to be somewhere that really wanted him, as opposed to just going somewhere as an afterthought or a second option behind a recruit who committed elsewhere.”

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As a freshman, he played in 30 games and made six starts. He scored in double digits four times and ranked third on the team in steals.

When the assistant coach who recruited him mentioned that he was considering leaving for another job, Tyler transferred to Youngstown State. It was a decision that he and the family later came to regret.

“Top to bottom, that place was not a good experience for him at all,” said Foster Jr. “We had to get our kid up out of there.”

It had been a roller coaster since leaving Gilman, as Foster attended five separate schools in five years. Then the COVID pandemic hit, which left Foster in limbo. He moved back home to Baltimore, played ball every day but was out of college basketball for two years.

And then Luke D’Alessio, the head coach at Fayetteville State, called. D’Alessio, when he was coaching at the Community College of Baltimore-Catonsville, tried to recruit Tyler’s dad back when he was playing at Dunbar in the ’90s and had stayed in touch with the family over the years.

“I had a relationship with Rock and knew that Tyler hadn’t played in two years,” said D’Alessio. “I also knew that he was a very good athlete who played hard. He was very skilled, could get to the basket, he could shoot the three and was a tough player who took pride in his defense. He’s very exciting to watch and I felt like he deserved another opportunity.”

D’Alessio offered a scholarship but made no promises. Tyler would have to start over from scratch.

“I started the season coming off the bench,” said Tyler. “Nothing was handed to me and I had to earn my minutes. With not having played in two years, I was in good shape but not in the peak physical condition that you have to be in to play college basketball at an elite level.”

Tyler, quiet and soft-spoken by nature, didn’t complain. He kept his head down and worked. Having been disappointed over the years by coaches who made promises they didn’t keep, he was initially skeptical walking into a new situation. But D’Alessio eventually earned his trust.

“He’s a completely different player right now than he was at the beginning of the year,” said D’Alessio. “He was a work in progress and had to earn his way into a starting role. But he did everything that was asked of him and he eventually earned his starting role and became one of our best players this year.”

Baltimore’s Tyler Foster goes airborne for a dunk shot. (Jimmy Fields)

“It has been such an incredible blessing to play again this year,” said Tyler. “Not starting at the beginning of the season was perfect for me because it kept me grounded. I had to earn my way back. It helped me become a better player and a better person. It made me ask myself, ‘How important is this to you? How bad do you really want it?’”

“Coach pushed me, motivated me and helped me grow,” Tyler said. “It was a process to get my mind right, but by midseason, I was ready to go. I fully appreciate the blessing of being able to resurrect my career here.”

Within the first few minutes of their CIAA semifinal game against Lincoln, Tyler’s explosiveness and athleticism was on full display. He played a tenacious brand of defense. Angular and sinewy with a burst of exceptional speed, he drove into the lane and elevated high for an explosive one-handed dunk that left the backboard shivering and drew “Oohs” from the crowd.

“It’s so good to see my son doing well and enjoying his college experience,” said his mom, Montez Foster. “He’s come full circle and I’m beyond happy knowing that he’s finally where he’s supposed to be. He needed that time and those previous experiences to grow and mature, and it feels great to know that he found a place that cares about him and a place that he enjoys being at.”

“Fayetteville State took a chance on me and for that I’ll be forever grateful,” Tyler said. “I don’t want them to regret that decision. I’m appreciative and blessed to be in this position and plan to make the very best of it.”

alejandro.danois@thebaltimorebanner.com

This story has been updated with the correct spelling of Tommy Polley’s surname.