In Honour of Jack Salt, Aotearoa’s First Ever NCAA National Champion

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As the Virginia Cavaliers men’s basketball team pulled away in the second half, 10 points up with 10 minutes remaining in the NCAA national championship game against their opponents from Texas Tech, Jack Salt sat calmly on the bench. He continued to sit calmly so even as the Cavs let their lead slip away late, surviving a potential game-winner at the end to take it to overtime. Even in overtime there was little chance that Salt would play much of a role. When he stood from his seat it was to offer some wisdom during timeouts or to applaud his buddies as they turned it all the way back up in OT on the way to the school’s first ever national title.

De’Andre Hunter was outstanding, scoring 27 points with 4/5 shooting from deep to go with 9 rebounds. Kyle Guy scored another 24 points while shooting better than 50% from the field. Mamadi Diakite had a crucial block at the end as well as hitting some clutch free throws. Jack Salt, meanwhile… he played less than five total minutes with one rebound, one turnover, and one personal foul.

But ask anyone at UVA and they’ll absolutely rave about Jack Salt. Sometimes he’d have a prominent role in games - setting screens, guarding the rim, and grabbing rebounds – other times he’d only play a few minutes. As the team progressed in the March Madness tourney he found himself on the latter end of that scale pretty much exclusively. A 34-min effort in the elite eight was the only time he logged more than ten minutes in the tournament, and for a bloke that had started all but three games across the previous three years on the team, coming off the bench for minimal minutes in the last few weeks might have been tough.

But Jack Salt’s not the type to moan about that kinda thing. And that’s why they love him. By his own admission it’s all about being “the best teammate I can”. Setting that example as the senior player on the roster, as a team captain, ensuring that those standards are matched by those around him. He’s the definition of a team-first bloke.

UVA head coach Tony Bennett: “Here’s a guy who’s a fifth-year senior who started and played a lot, and all of a sudden his role has been reduced and I remember talking to him and he said, “Coach, I just want to advance. Whatever you think is best.” Yeah it’s hard not to play, but whatever is best for the team.”

And it’s hard to overestimate the value of having guys like that in your team. A year ago Virginia were a first seeded team just like they were again in 2019, but up against the University of Maryland, Baltimore County they were absolutely pummelled, losing by twenty points. A first seeded team taken down by a 16-seed and it wasn’t even close. The first 1-seed to ever lose to a 16-seed in men’s college basketball. It was an all-time upset and it only went to add to a school legacy of underwhelming performances in March.

Yet here they are just a year later having completed a legendary turnaround season. From first round losers to national champions. You don’t do that without immense mental strength and leadership, which is a testament to the coaching of Tony Bennett… who once played two seasons, one as a player-coach, with North Harbour Vikings in the 90s – a two-time NZ NBL all-star in fact – and he also played a year for the Sydney Kings in 1997, before retiring and continuing to coach North Harbour before returning to the States in 1999. It’s also a testament to the selfless attitude of guys like Jack Salt. A small and unquantifiable aspect of the championship run… but potentially a crucial one all the same. It takes many little things to break right to win a title.

He’s also a leader by example away from basketball too, last year winning the T. Rodney Crowley Jr. Memorial Scholarship which paid for his final twelve months of studying. It’s an award that the University of Virginia hands out to a single student athlete who “demonstrates leadership, sportsmanship, character and integrity”. Salt, having graduated as an anthropology major in 2018, is currently polishing off his master’s degree in social foundations.

Tony Bennett, May 2018: “Jack is the ultimate team player and is very deserving of the T. Rodney Crowley Memorial Scholarship. He did a tremendous job as one of our captains this season, serving his teammates and being a fierce competitor each time he stepped on the court. The standard he’s set as a student-athlete, on and off the court, has impacted everyone in our program, and I’m excited that he has been recognized by receiving this award.”

Those are the same characteristics that make Steven Adams such a beloved figure within the OKC Thunder squad, and the same characteristics of humility and hard work that kiwis prefer to see in themselves on the worldwide scene. All of which makes Jack Salt a pretty bloody great ambassador for Aotearoa even if there’s basically zero chance he cracks it in the NBA draft. By the way, he’s also a former Breakers development player and the Breaks could do a hell of a lot worse than to give him a phonecall in a few months to see what he’s up to next season.

Which is where this tale takes another turn because, historically, Jack Salt’s done something that no other New Zealander has ever done. Kirk Penney made it to the final four with Wisconsin back in 2000. Jillian Harmon played in the NCAA women’s national title game with Stanford in 2008. But Jack Salt just won the whole damn thing. The first NZ baller to ever win one of these bad boys.

This isn’t a yarn about some naturally gifted supreme athlete doing amazing things. Jack Salt’s an excellent basketballer who should be a fixture for the Tall Blacks for the next decade, but his chances of any NBA buzz are pretty slim. At 6’10 without the ability to shoot from range, his skillset isn’t really that common in the big league, so either he figures out a way to grow another couple inches and learns to defend like Rudy Gobert or he settles into that vast and unknowable second tier of pro basketballers beneath the NBA.

No dramas there, it’s still a magical place to be. But that’s the beauty of this yarn. Jack Salt is a bloke who went to the States to chase the college ball dream. He’s made the most of his abilities while impressing basically everybody he’s worked with and becoming a cult hero amongst fans. He’s never compromised on what he does. He’s never taken adversity as a set-back. He’s never failed to lead and inspire his teammates, even at his own expense.

Now he’s an NCAA National Champion.

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