In Australian basketball circles, it’s generally accepted that Anthony Stewart was the first to seriously suggest “JackJumpers” as the name for Tasmania’s shiny new basketball franchise.
Stewart says it came to him on a rowing trip to Lake Barrington last year, after a campfire discussion about the new team with basketball-mad family and friends.
“I said I’m going to run with it in the media and see if we can get some momentum, never expecting that it was any chance at all,” Stewart remembers.
“I thought we could have ‘the anthill’ as our home, and we will come at you in numbers. It was just perfect.”
To the wider Tasmanian sporting community, “JackJumpers” was just another “Stewie-ism”, a tongue-in-cheek piece of silliness for which the colourful local coach had become well known over the years.
But lo and behold, the name would be picked ahead of the more conservative “Pride” and “Timbers” as part of a statewide “name the team” contest, testament to Stewart’s popularity and standing among Tasmanian hoops fans.
“When it was announced I was gobsmacked and couldn’t wait to get to training and let the guys know,” he said.
Stewart the showman and stirrer is perhaps as well known in Tasmania as Stewart the basketballer: The veteran of 485 NBL games across 16 seasons, who drained more than 1,100 three-pointers for the Devils, Wildcats and Taipans.
He’s also known as the long-time local coach, whose passion for basketball has seen him somehow forge a coaching career in a state without a professional team.
“You’re always just trying to create your own job in the industry you love and that’s been so good to you.”
So far though, Stewart hasn’t received an invitation to be part of the JackJumpers.
He’s been told by higher-ups he’ll be involved, but as it stands there simply isn’t a role available for the man many believe is Tasmania’s greatest basketball product.
“Am I disappointed? Yeah. Absolutely,” he told ABC Sport.
Although he won’t say so himself, some believe Stewart’s omission is emblematic of a worrying disconnect between the JackJumpers and the local Tasmanian community.
Stewart’s desperation to coach at the highest level possible is best illustrated by his time as coach of the ill-fated Southern Huskies — a team created in 2018 that was to be Tasmania’s ticket to the NBL.
Accepting the coaching role of the fledgling side was fraught with danger. The team — and its mysterious owners — appeared out of nowhere, propped up by flaky finances and pie-in-the-sky promises.
Instead of the NBL, the team wound up playing in New Zealand’s national league while still being based in Hobart, leading to shambolic away trips across the Tasman which tested all involved, and strained relationships between staff and players, only some of whom were being paid on time.
At one stage late in the season, players threatened mutiny as the money dried up and Stewart was forced to act as the reluctant conduit between playing group and ownership.
Stewart, so keen to climb the coaching ladder, endured a period he describes as the worst six months of his life.
“I would challenge any other sporting code or team to go through something like that. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Somehow, Stewart willed the team to within an inch of the NZNBL playoffs.
When the Huskies’ powerbrokers fled Tasmania, Stewart found out via text message that the team had folded as quickly as it had appeared, and the rungs upon which his coaching career rested collapsed beneath him.
He hasn’t spoken to them since.
“You wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy,” he said.
Being overlooked for JackJumpers ‘hurt’
Despite the scars from his Huskies experience, Stewart was always going to apply for the role of JackJumpers head coach.
After all, this was the team he’d helped speak into existence and the opportunity he’d spent decades preparing for.
“All I’ve ever wanted to do was work in basketball. To do something you’re so passionate about, and to get paid for it is all I’ve ever wanted,” he said.
His hopes quickly faded when the calibre of competition emerged.
Stewart, Tasmania’s Burnie-born Mr Basketball, was suddenly up against the likes of Chicago Bulls assistant Dean Cooper and Los Angeles Lakers assistant Phil Handy for the top job.
Eventually, the role went to Scott Roth, a former NBA player and assistant coach.
Stewart, while dejected, understood he couldn’t compete in the new world of analytics and algorithms.
Had that six months of Huskies hell been for nothing?
But the real dagger though came via the appointment of Kiwi NBL veteran Mika Vukona to a JackJumpers “consultant” role.
The JackJumpers believe Vukona, a highly regarded player and person, will serve as a link between Tasmania and New Zealand, where they undoubtedly plan to lure talent from, in the quest to assemble their inaugural playing roster.
Suddenly, Stewart was the small fish in the big basketball pond.
Yet he’s unsure why he hasn’t been called upon, if not as a coach then as a Vukona-style consultant who could connect Tasmania’s professional team with its grassroots base.
“It feels weird that I’m not in there, working with them, promoting basketball as much as I can, and It’s hard to not be able to put on a shirt and say I’m part of the team,” he said.
Earning Tasmania’s trust
Whether Stewart lands a role with the JackJumpers won’t make or break the team’s fortunes, but it will serve as an intriguing case study as it attempts to connect with the Tasmanian basketball community.
Will the JackJumpers become their own basketball island? How deeply will they integrate with the rabbit warren of Tasmanian clubs, associations and leagues, whose histories and rivalries run surprisingly deep?
Perhaps the decision to look beyond the tried-and-tested Stewart speaks to the brutal reality of professional sport.
That one of the trade-offs of being represented on the national sporting stage is the acceptance that while Tasmanians laud and love their local products, sometimes, there’s simply better options available in other places.
Whatever the outcome, there will be no hard feelings from Stewart.
“He’s been completely open and honest with me,” Stewart says of JackJumpers CEO Simon Brookhouse.
Ultimately, simply seeing Tasmania back in the NBL is the cake. A job with the new side would only have been the cream.
“I always go back to why am I involved in basketball? Just to have an NBL team here to take my boys along to, if that’s as good as it gets, then at least I can say I played a part in getting a team back to Tasmania.”