Phill Jones was on the losing side in his final game, but that did not stop him winning over the crowd.
As the Nelson Giants star was subbed with two seconds left on the clock in the semi-final loss to the Wellington Saints last night, the large capital city audience and the travelling Giants supporters gave him a standing ovation.
It was recognition of his 22-year career and the affection he engenders amongst basketball fans up and down the country.
The Saints were deserving winners on the court, but the bigger story of the night was the Jones farewell.
Jones, who won two New Zealand titles with the Giants and, in his own words, "too many second place finishes", spoke of his loyalty to the Nelson club.
"Cut me and I bleed blue," he said post-game in his first interview as a ‘retired basketballer'.
"Nelson is where my heart is - it has been for the last 20 years, it will be sorely missed. This has been a huge part of my life that I have put a lot of time and effort into and we have always been competitive and I hope we will always be competitive.
"It is a great community in Nelson that supports basketball and I have been proud and humbled to have been a part of it."
Jones momentarily had to fight back the tears as he pondered the reality of his last time on court as a player, a reality that will surely sink in over the days and weeks ahead as he considers life without a pre-season, without a weights session and without having to farewell his wife (Kat) and the kids after work and head out to practice.
"Last week was pretty hard. It was an emotional week and I wondered if I had made a mistake calling the retirement early. But it has been an incredible ride.
"I lost a lot of finals, I can say that, I have been to a lot of finals but have always managed to stay level headed whether I won or lost. I am going to miss it, but I have so much other stuff to look forward to."
Jones knows his place in history and the group that he came through with, players like Pero Cameron, Paul Henare, Sean Marks, Dillon Boucher and Tony Rampton. Players he appeared alongside most memorably at the 2002 FIBA World Championship when he and his silver fern-wearing team-mates stunned the world with a 4th place finish.
"I suppose I am the last of the group, there is still Sparky but he is younger than me. Of that group I guess I am the last to call it quits. That was a golden era and I hope we see something like that again in basketball. I'm sure we have the talent. I really hope it happens again."
Jones was clearly emotional at the end of the game, but on the court he said that did not affect his focus.
"We didn't come out well enough to compete with those guys and turned the ball over too much," he said.
"I love playing so much though that when I am on the court I can shut the emotions out, I am just focused on the game. I never really thought of anything until that last quarter when I was sitting on the bench and wondering 'is the coach going to put me back in?' That was starting to get me a bit emotional because I really wanted to play just that one last time."
Get back out he did though, time enough to hit a sweet corner 3 that reminded his peers and the fans around New Zealand that he still has it, before he was called to the bench for the final time.
"I can't say enough about my career and the support I have had from so many people throughout it and how much I want to thank them.
"The rewards I have had are immeasurable, it has been an amazing journey. I have been to so many different places in the world, met so many great people. I have had ups and downs, there has been so much that has happened, I have enjoyed a great career."
A great career indeed from a fiercely proud New Zealander and an equally proud Nelsonian.
- The Nelson Mail
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