There’s a little over 12 minutes left in the second half, and then-No. 3 Virginia is up 42-25 in a 2017-18 regular season matchup against N.C. State. Wolfpack senior forward Lennard Freeman is stripped of the ball by then-sophomore guard Ty Jerome, who immediately brings the ball up the court.
As Freeman runs past Jerome, N.C. State freshman guard Lavar Batts Jr. sprints to Jerome, guarding the New York native tightly as he paces up the court. To get away from Batts Jr., Jerome sprints towards the right sideline, and as Batts Jr. shuffles to catch up, he hits a brick wall. Not an actual brick wall, but 6-foot-10, 250-pound center Jack Salt.
Throughout his five years at Virginia, Salt has not only become a fan favorite thanks to his bone-crushing screens but also his intimate connection with Virginia and the greater Charlottesville community.
College basketball wasn’t always on Salt’s mind when growing up in New Zealand. However, a breakout 2013 season changed that. In that season, he averaged 18.9 points and 14.8 rebounds per game while leading Westlake Boys’ High School to a high school national championship and garnered attention from across the Pacific.
From there, the college choice was relatively easy — after the Auckland native visited Virginia, he found everything he looked for in a college basketball program.
“I met Coach Bennett, he seemed like a genuine guy,” Salt said. “I met the team, felt a good team environment, and also Coach Bennett played in New Zealand, so he had a lot of credibility with coaches that I’ve had [because] the people that he played with in New Zealand now were my coaches.”
Despite Coach Tony Bennett’s familiarity with the New Zealand game, however, Salt knew that a lot of work needed to be done before he was ready to even play a minute for a Virginia team that was coming off an ACC Championship. There were a lot of players at Virginia that Salt admired, and they inspired him to improve.
“I wasn’t good enough when I first came here, seeing the guys ahead of me, Anthony Gill, Darion Atkins, Mike Tobey, Isaiah Wilkins — they were just better than me,” Salt said. “I needed time to get used to the American game and transition, and it was huge for me.”
As players like Atkins and Wilkins — who won the Lefty Driesell Defensive Player of the Year and ACC Defensive Player of the Year, respectively — trained with Salt day in and day out, he slowly became a more integral part of the bench rotation and later broke into the starting lineup. After redshirting his first year in the 2015-16 season, during his freshman season, Salt started 9 games. After the departures of center Mike Tobey and forward Anthony Gill, however, he was immediately slotted into the starting lineup for his sophomore season.
Over the course of the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons, Salt started 68 straight games for the Cavaliers, and while he didn’t always have eye-popping numbers on the stat sheet, he was an integral part of Bennett’s pack-line defense and blocker-mover offense. During that two-year stretch, Virginia had an ACC Tournament Championship and an ACC regular season championship.
Despite all the success Salt and the Cavaliers achieved, the historic two-year stretch for Virginia ended in sheer disappointment with the loss against UMBC last year.
Salt went into the 2018-19 campaign as the lone senior on the team and was prepared to serve as a leader for the Cavaliers. He learned from natural leaders that surrounded him in his first four years, like now-NBA star Malcolm Brogdon.
“We’ve had a variety of guys who have been amazing leaders,” Salt said. “That’s helped me a lot. That’s helped my teammates from me learning from them, but this year we had a great group of leaders, it was Kyle [Guy], Ty and me. Those two kind of controlled everything on the floor, on the game, and I was there just trying to help out.”
Salt was a crucial role model for junior guards Guy and Jerome and helped them grow into leaders on this year’s team. Associate Head Coach Jason Williford says that Salt’s exemplary work ethic was contagious and that “his actions spoke a lot louder than his words.”
“He passed down to those guys a work ethic,” Williford said. “He works on his game, he works in the weight room, he eats right, he takes care of his body, he goes to class.”
With Guy and Jerome by his side, along with sophomore guard De’Andre Hunter — NABC Defensive Player of the Year and Second-Team All-American — the big man helped lead Virginia to its first ever national title, rallying the team past a crushing loss the year before to astronomical heights.
Despite seeing reduced minutes in his senior year, he averaged 16.6 minutes per game after averaging 19.8 minutes per game his junior season, and not starting consistently, Salt gave it his all every time he stepped on the floor.
“He doesn’t know, going into a game, how many minutes he’s gonna get, or if he’s gonna even take one shot during a game,” Jerome said in the press conference after Virginia’s 73-49 win over Pittsburgh in March. “And his attitude never changes. He’ll give 110 percent for us every possession.”
As much as Salt was a selfless leader for Virginia on the court, he has also been a leader off the court. For pediatric patients at University Hospital and elementary school students across Charlottesville, Salt has been their leader and mentor. He’s read countless stories for students, spoken at their school assemblies and consistently stops by the hospital’s pediatric unit to make a kid’s day.
“It’s so easy to give back, and it takes so little time out of your day,” Salt said about his service. “The pedestal that people put Virginia basketball on here, it’s like a celebrity status, so for kids to see us, and it brings them that much joy — it’s so easy for us to take an hour out of our day, so I tried to do that as often as I [could] my past five years.”
While his time in Charlottesville is coming to an end, Salt has forged bonds that will last a lifetime with people in the Virginia community from teammates to students and to professors.
“That’s an easy one,” Salt said when asked about what he’d miss most about Virginia. “The people I’ve met here. Just the relationships I’ve built, I have some of my best friends for life from this school … this will definitely be the thing I’ll hold close to my heart.”
On the court, Salt is known for his physicality, his never-say-die mentality and his unfaltering support for his teammates. Off the court he’s known for the bridges he’s built in the Charlottesville community. Throughout his five years at Virginia, Salt has embodied the five pillars — humility, passion, unity, servanthood and thankfulness.
“He was a true leader, he embraced our pillars, he served his teammates in every aspect, and he gave himself,” Williford said. “I’m most proud for his selflessness.”
As he enters a new chapter of his life, one thing is certain — he’ll have the University and Charlottesville cheering him on the whole way through.