Hungry Jack's NBL
Wagstaff's Understated Journey to History-Maker
Jesse Wagstaff is three games away from perhaps becoming the NBL's most understated ever championship captain which would mean he's the most successful player in league history, but it's a career that almost never even started.
The Wagstaff story is quite the remarkable one as he now prepares to lead the Wildcats into the ninth Grand Final Series of his 382-game career. However, this will be his first time doing it as captain having played under Shawn Redhage, Brad Robbins and Damian Martin previously.
With the Wildcats having beaten the Illawarra Hawks in three games of the semi finals to advance to the Grand Final against Melbourne United starting Friday at RAC Arena, it provides Wagstaff with the chance to becoming a championship captain.
Bigger than that, Wagstaff can become the most successful player in NBL history if the Wildcats prevail and he becomes the league's first ever seven-time championship winner and already he'll be the first player to take part in nine Grand Final Series.
However, the most remarkable aspect of Wagstaff is how unaffected by having such a successful basketball career he is.
He never started playing basketball until he was 15, he went to Metro State University as much focused on his engineering degree than basketball, and upon graduating he would have been just as happy to enter the workforce than start a professional basketball career.
Even now 12 years and six championships later, he shuns the spotlight, would never accept any praise you might try to heap upon him and would much rather go home quietly with his wife Stephanie and their three children than live in the glow of the championship career he's had.
That humility is what has made him so successful and it's remarkable to reflect back to 12 years ago when he first arrived in Perth and getting ready to play under Rob Beveridge with fellow rookie Kevin Lisch and alongside the likes of Redhage, Martin Cattalini and Paul Rogers.
He freely admitted at that time that with the NBL's future ahead of the 2009/10 season clouded, that had the Wildcats not offered him a deal he likely wouldn’t have continued playing basketball at all and might have even stayed in the United States with now wife Stephanie.
With hindsight of what's happened since, it's fascinating to reflect on Wagstaff's thoughts then.
"I originally spoke to the South Dragons, but everyone knows what happened there. Perth was a fantastic option for me, I'd heard great things from everyone I spoke to and it was an easy option to choose," Wagstaff said upon arrival in Perth for the pre-season of 2009.
"I actually didn’t know what I was going to do. I always wanted to come back, but with the confusion about what was actually going to happen with the league there was some scary times. I didn’t know what was going to happen and heard a lot of different things.
"I didn’t actually look into Europe, but I got my degree and could have gone straight into the workforce. I was banking on playing in the NBL coming through and luckily it did, but if it didn’t I was either going to stay in the States on a work visa or come back to get a master's or work.
"It was definitely a reality that I might not ever play professionally. If this fell through, I most likely wouldn’t have at least for now and would have focused on other things."
The Wagstaff today isn’t a much different person off the court, he just has several more degrees he has accumulated and he's now a husband and father, but his basketball success has never gone to his head.
That actually makes it surprising that his game can catch the ire of opposition fans or players, because off the court he is a mighty hard man to not like. But those old tricks once he hits the floor again in the Grand Final Series could prove a key to beating Melbourne.
The series does pit a scoring juggernaut up against the defensive masters, and Wagstaff is still backing in Perth's defence to shut down Melbourne's offence enough that they can win the required three games.
"We hang our hat on our defence and we don’t have to score much, we just have to score more than them," Wagstaff said on Thursday.
"We just have to score one more point than them and we hang our hat on what we do defensively, and hopefully we can stop a very talented offensive side scoring too heavily."
There's no question that for Wagstaff to lead the Wildcats to their first ever three-peat and for him to become the first ever seven time champion that he will need to play a key role.
Wagstaff will need to be a difference-maker whether it's knocking down his trademark three balls, pulling in offensive rebounds or taking his now famous, or infamous depending on your viewpoint, charges.
Whatever he needs to do, he needs to have a significant impact for the Wildcats to win minus three-time MVP Bryce Cotton, but as always, Wagstaff himself is playing down what lies ahead.
"I'm feeling excited. It's why you play basketball to play for a championship and it's an exciting time of year," Wagstaff said.
"It's not as if I'm thinking about those other championships, this year stands on its own and it's a pretty unique year so I'm just firmly focused on what lies ahead.
"I'm not thinking about if I might set a record, that's the furthest thing from my mind right now. It's all just about turning up for the game, playing our best basketball and seeing where the tips flow."
Perth gets to host the first two games of the series at RAC Arena on Friday night and Sunday afternoon, and while Wagstaff is glad for that he's realistic to know that after Sunday there'll be no more Red Army for them to play in front of.
"It wasn’t expected that we'd get those first two games at home but I guess it had been negotiated and in the works for some time, it's that kind of unique season," he said.
"It throws these things up but Melbourne still have the home court advantage and they still get three at home and we get two. So they still have home court advantage if you look at it like that.
"The first one is always important and anything can change, we've seen that all year with the type of year it is and you just have to adjust and roll with punches.
"I think we've been pretty good with that this year and I'm sure something will change again in the upcoming days or weeks. It could change hourly so we are just focusing on this first game."
With Damian Martin, Terrico White, Miles Plumlee and Nick Kay not returning for the Wildcats this season and now Bryce Cotton missing through injury, it's a decidedly new-look 'Cats team for this Grand Final.
Sure, Wagstaff has won six titles, Tom Jervis three, and Mitch Norton and Clint Steindl two apiece but John Mooney, Todd Blanchfield, Will Magnay, Jarred Bairstow, Luke Travers and Corey Shervill are all tasting an NBL Grand Final for the first time.
As for what advice their captain will give them, it's not much except do what you usually do but be prepared for the increased tempo.
"I think you just have to enjoy it first and foremost. It will sound cliché but the playoffs are a different season and what happens in the regular season doesn’t really count," Wagstaff said.
"The intensity goes up and possession means a whole lot more so my advice to them is to just enjoy it, do your role and nothing really chances in terms of what you have to do. It's just the intensity goes up."