Championship or not, these JackJumpers are winners
Written off by most ahead of the season, the league's newest team has made waves on and off the court in their inaugural season, while staying in the championship hunt.
Credit: May Bailey Photography
With the finals hopes of the Tasmania JackJumpers on the line, head coach Scott Roth sat alone on his couch. After a remarkable performance in their first year, the NBL’s newest team had their fate taken out of their hands in the last game of the regular season. A South East Melbourne Phoenix win would see them sneak into the top four; a Perth Wildcats victory would end their season on the spot.
“I just wanted to be by myself and watch the game, and pace when I needed to pace,” Roth told the media the following day.
The Phoenix prevailed in an overtime thriller, making Tasmania the first expansion team to make the finals in their debut season since the Gold Coast Blaze in 2008. How did Roth, the architect of it all, celebrate that momentous achievement?
“I always have a cigar, so it’s always a win for me,” he said. “That’s why I smoke a cigar before every game, because no matter what, I’ve won.”
That’s an attitude befitting of a brand new team that entered the season with zero external expectations. The Sydney Morning Herald’s Roy Ward predicted a ninth-placed finish ahead of round one; ESPN’s Josh Garlepp labelled a top four finish “daunting with the JackJumpers’ additions”; The Roar’s Paul Sutter similarly said that a finals berth would be “extraordinary” and named Tasmania as “the favourites to take out the wooden spoon”. It seemed that Roth and his team would need to take joy from a postgame cigar, because the on-court wins would be few and far between.
“The game of basketball is played on the court — it’s not played on paper, and if it was on paper we’d be tenth,” Roth said.
Instead, they flew past even the most optimistic predictions and produced one of Australian sport’s most extraordinary debuts. With a roster that lacked the star power of their competitors, the JackJumpers took Roth’s winner’s mentality and turned it into real wins, playing with a relentless effort and energy that matched a team that needed to prove themselves to almost every pundit in the country.
That all came to a head on Saturday night, as they became the first expansion team in NBL history to win a finals game in their debut season. They did so by beating the defending champions and minor premiers in an elimination game, spurred on by a home crowd that was among the most raucous the league has ever seen.
At the same time, they have become a group that Tasmania could easily rally behind. The island state had been crying out for more elite sport for decades, and every denial from the AFL, A League and more only reinforced the “us and against them” mindset that all Tasmanians possess from birth. Despite having just one local on their roster, development player Sejr Deans, the underdog status of the JackJumpers saw them immediately connect with the fan base in a way that few other Tasmanian teams have.
When you combine the team’s on-court success with that off-court significance, you get a debut season that will be hard to follow up. The result so far, a finals berth and a chance to play for a spot in the grand final, is already hard to believe; the way in which it has unfolded only makes it more surprising.
Finding their feet
Even two months into the season, things were looking fairly bleak for the JackJumpers. A three-week COVID-19 layoff was ended with a blowout loss to the Phoenix, dropping their record to 2-6 and placing them towards the foot of the NBL ladder.
While they scrapped and clawed defensively, they were held back by an offence that was severely misfiring.
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