I can only imagine a visitor from out of the area—a basketball fan—walking past the front widow of Big Foote’s Sporting Goods in Waverly and stopping to take a look at the collection of basketball memorabilia being displayed this month.
I can then imagine that person entering the store, being greeted by Big Foote himself (also known as Don Foote), seeing that the store’s proprietor stands 6 feet, 10 inches, and realizing that the memorabilia collection on display just might have an interesting backstory.
I would hope, for the visitor’s sake, that Don Foote had a few minutes to spare, because it is one great backstory.
The display at Big Foote’s honors the 10th anniversary of Cornell’s incredible run to the NCAA Sweet 16 and is based on (Don’s son) Jeff Foote’s unlikely basketball journey from a hardworking kid playing in an often-overlooked high school conference to a dominant Division 1 center that went on to play several years as a professional.
I have shared how Jeff Foote and Madonna ended up in the same story a number of times, but it has been a few years, so I will share it again…The story encapsulates my two shining moments as a prognosticator, and my willingness to acknowledge the depths of my cluelessness. In 1984, I was at a party and “Borderline” came on the radio. I asked, “Who sings this?” Someone replied, “Madonna,” and I said, “In two years, nobody will remember Madonna.”
In 2007, I was told that Jeff Foote would be suiting up for the Big Red of Cornell, and I said, “He will be a decent bench player, but based on what I saw when he played at Spencer-Van Etten, he’s not a D-1 starter.”
I am pleased to say that I was way off on both predictions, and every time I saw Foote throw down a slam or swat an opponents’ shot into the third row of the stands, I reveled in my own moronic miscalculation. Foote—in leading the Big Red to three straight Ivy League titles and that legendary trip to the Sweet 16—was a First Team All-Ivy selection and a two-time Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year. Over the course of his three seasons at Cornell, the 7-footer put on 55 pounds of muscle, added five and a half inches to his vertical jump, and when the Big Red very nearly beat powerhouse Kansas, the Jayhawks’ coach, Bill Self, was quoted as saying, “Cornell has a big man that can play with anyone in the country.”
A few weeks later, the Big Red were the talk of the Big Dance when they took down Temple in the first round, then shocked the basketball world by putting a whupping on Wisconsin (the Badgers were picked by many to go to the Final Four).
After Cornell, Jeff played several seasons of pro basketball in Europe, and he signed a 10-day contract to play for New Orleans in the NBA. While showing me his son’s NOLA Hornets jersey, Don said with a wry grin, “He helped hold Kobe to 33 points!”
After wrapping up his pro career, Jeff served as an assistant coach at the University of Miami, where he was enrolled in law school. He passed the Florida Bar, decided to relocate to New York City, passed the New York Bar and now practices real estate law in the Big Apple.
As I looked at the display case at Big Foote’s, the memories swept over me. There was that photo of Jeff dunking the ball in front of 30,000 crazed fans at Duke. There were his three Ivy championship rings, his Hall of Fame plaques, his jerseys from his various pro teams, his MVP trophy from the Madison Square Garden Holiday Tournament, and many other items. In reflecting back on that magical run, Don Foote told me, “It was a perfect storm… Cornell needed him, and he needed them.” He shook his head and said, “It’s hard to believe it has been 10 years.”
Jeff and his Cornell teammates were back in Ithaca over the weekend, as the team was honored on the 10th anniversary of that memorable run. It was great to reconnect with them, to see them as 30-something adults, as doctors, lawyers and fathers, and to see them hug their coach, Steve Donahue, who is now the head coach at Penn.
Don Foote reminded me that point guard Louis Dale said, in 2010, “We’ve got eight seniors on this team, and we want to take this ride as long as we can because after this it’s just nothing but babies and memories.”
For Don and Wanda Foote, it’s one out of two. Lots of memories, but no babies…Tune in for an update in 10 years.