Grant Chapman: Kiwi Jack Salt takes alternative path to basketball stardom

While most casual fans get their hoops fix as worshippers at the Steven Adams NBA altar, another young Kiwi has carved out an incredible career on the American hardwood.

That path may not lead to the world's most-hyped sporting league, but Tall Blacks centre Jack Salt has already achieved things that Adams may never accomplish.

Wearing the black singlet, for a start.

While Adams has been reticent to formally represent his country, Salt jumped at the chance as a raw teenager, banging bodies with veteran NBA centre Wang Zhizhi in China six years ago.

But when University of Virginia progressed to the semi-finals of the US college basketball championships - commonly known as 'March Madness' - this week, Salt become only the second NZ male to reach the vaunted 'Final Four'.

While Adams' course to the NBA included an increasingly common one-and-done pit-stop at University of Pittsburgh, Salt has gone the full five-year distance with the Cavaliers, helping establish them as one of the top college basketball programmes in the nation.

Since he 'red-shirted' his first season - essentially a non-playing chance to find his feet in strange surroundings - he's appeared in more than 100 games, starting most of them, for a Virginia team ranked as high as first in the country and making the 2016 'Elite Eight', while twice winning the ultra-competitive Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) regular season and tournament titles along the way.

It hasn't been all beer and skittles. In 2018, they entered March Madness as top seeds, but were shocked in the first round by absolute underdogs University of Maryland, Baltimore County - just their third loss of the season.

The disappointment of that result has inspired this year's team towards a much-improved showing at the business end of their journey.

Jack Salt contests a rebound against Perdue
Jack Salt contests a rebound against Perdue. Photo credit: Reuters.

During his stay at Charlottesville, Salt has played alongside several who have gone on to the pro ranks. Former teammate and now-Milwaukee Bucks guard Malcolm Brogdon won 2017 NBA Rookie of the Year honours.

The past two seasons, Salt has served as Cavaliers co-captain, and earned cult-hero status for unrelenting hustle and crushing physicality. That may not be enough to earn him a call-up to the NBA, where flash too often prevails over substance, but never mind - those are just his on-court credentials.

Last year, he won the prestigious T. Rodney Crowley Jr Memorial Scholarship, awarded to the Virginia student that demonstrates "leadership, sportsmanship, character and integrity". That pretty much made him King of Campus.

This year, he was named to the All-ACC Academic Team, recognising athletes from all sports who have also excelled in the classroom. Salt has an undergraduate degree in anthropology and is pursuing a master's degree in educational psychology.

Interviewed by US media after last month's Christchurch mosque shootings, he praised New Zealand's move to outlaw semi-automatic firearms and had the temerity to question why American lawmakers wouldn't follow suit.

Salt's presence in this week's Final Four matches the achievement of another Westlake Boys High/North Harbour/Breakers/Tall Blacks legend - Kirk Penney - who was a freshman rookie with the Wisconsin Badgers, when they reached the same stage in 2000.

Here's where Salt's story takes a real twist - his coach at Virginia was also Penney's mentor 20 years ago.

Tony Bennett in NBA action
Tony Bennett in NBA action with the Charlotte Hornets. Photo credit: Getty

In 1996, Charlotte Hornets point guard Tony Bennett arrived in New Zealand - almost by accident - after a foot injury all-but ended his NBA career. He had signed to play for the Sydney Kings in the Aussie league, but when that contract fell through, he was snapped up by the North Harbour Vikings, where he spent two seasons playing and a third as coach.

That was his first-ever coaching gig.

While here, he helped Penney become NBL Rookie of the Year and developed the work ethic that would see his protégé become one of world basketball's best shooters.

When Bennett returned home to assist father Dick at University of Wisconsin, he took Penney with him.

Later, Bennett became head coach at Washington State University and recruited another Westlake/Harbour/Breakers/Tall Blacks star - Tom Abercrombie - to his programme, before continuing that Kiwi connection with Salt at Virginia.

When Bennett arrived at the Cavaliers in 2009, they had just completed a 10-win/18-loss campaign, but he improved their win total over each of the next six years, culminating in their current standing as highest-ranked team left in this year's national tournament.

Their on-court improvement has seen them carve out a reputation as the best defenders in the country, often compared to a boa constrictor choking the life out of opponents.

Off the court, the programme is based on five 'pillars' - essentially a strict no-dickheads policy - of humility, passion, unity, servanthood and thankfulness. Two years ago, Bennett ruthlessly cut a five-star recruit for not measuring up to those values.

Tony Bennett oversees Virginia training
Tony Bennett oversees Virginia training. Photo credit: Reuters.

About that same time, Salt became their poster boy.

At only 49, Bennett has already won three US college coach-of-the-year awards. The only other man to do that was coaching doyen John Wooden.   

By the time he's done, this honorary Kiwi is poised to become one of basketball's greatest-ever teachers. Who knows where Salt will end up?

Perhaps some astute judge of character like Greg Popovich at the San Antonio Spurs will take a punt on him in the NBA draft's second round. 'Pop' has already steered Kiwi good guy Sean Marks to an NBA ring and towards front-office success as Brooklyn Nets general manager.

Maybe Marks will see something of himself in Salt and invite him to wave a towel at the end of the Nets bench.

Or Salt could return to the Breakers, where he spent a season in their development squad, to muscle show-pony imports off the block. Hopefully, he'll continue to be a Tall Blacks mainstay on the international stage for another decade or more.

Or he could become a high school principal or Prime Minister. Really, the world is his oyster.

But for now, as Adams and his Oklahoma City Thunder carry Kiwi hopes towards the NBA playoffs, Salt and Bennett have unfinished Final Four business to attend to.

Sunday 10:09am (NZT), University of Virginia Cavaliers vs Auburn University Tigers.

Grant Chapman is Newshub online sports editor.