Basketball: No plans to slow down for Vukona

Mika Vukona has grown from a hesitant kid into one of the most decisive forces in the Australian NBL. On the verge of his 200th game in a Breakers singlet, he talks to Kris Shannon about his drive, his dreams and his desire to be part of a dynasty.

Mika Vukona. Photo by Getty
Mika Vukona. Photo by Getty
Ninety seconds to play. The Breakers' once-handsome lead has been whittled to three. A Tom Abercrombie attempt to ice the game clangs off the rim and the ball bounces up for grabs.

Mika Vukona thinks he's been boxed out, but if Wollongong grab the rebound the Breakers' 11-game winning run could come to an end.

With two championships in the bag and his team sitting pretty in the search for a third, the 30-year-old could be forgiven for forgetting about the play, turning his focus to getting back on defence rather than busting his butt for a board.

A younger Vukona might have, the one who used to shy away from confrontation during games with his older brother because, simply, "who cares?"

But this version of Vukona is greedy. This Vukona doesn't care how many games have been won, how many championships have been earned. He wants more.

So he manoeuvres his 2m, 100kg frame between defenders and snatches the ball from the sky, laying it in despite being hacked by a couple of Hawks, before spinning to deliver a triumphant cry the capacity crowd on the North Shore have come to expect.

"Sometimes it's not good to hold it in," Vukona says of the emotional outburst. "Like that possession."

New converts to basketball - and the Breakers have recruited a fair few in recent seasons - are sure to be struck by the imposing figure of Vukona. He broods, he glares at errant officials and he's not afraid to lambaste teammates if he dislikes what he sees.

But Vukona, 30, is a different beast off the court. He's the type of person who phones you back and apologises for missing your call. He's a father who loves nothing more than playing with his two young children after a hard day's work at Breakers HQ.

It's almost jarring to see this softly-spoken individual clench both fists and scream at the ceiling after clinching the game with a pivotal play, but that's a balance on which Vukona thrives. Switching between domestic bliss and the heat of battle is as easy for him as draining a mid-range jumper.

"I think that's just the competitive spirit in any basketball player," Vukona says, even if his particular brand of controlled aggression appears unique. "On court, with our competitiveness, nobody likes losing."

It wasn't always that way.

Vukona was born in Suva before coming to New Zealand aged five during the 1987 coups which led to Fiji becoming a republic. He doesn't remember a lot of his homeland but, in his new home in Tauranga, one thing was soon indelibly imprinted on his memory.

Basketball was one of a number of sports Vukona enjoyed with older brother Ilati but, playing on asphalt courts at school, a young Vukona initially showed none of the passion for which he would eventually become known.

"I would shy away from confrontation. I was just cruisy because, you know, who cares? An easy-as-it-comes kind of attitude.

"But the more I learned about the game, reading about people playing and how the crowd is, you tend to realise that sometimes you've got to let go to get the team energised."

Vukona put that into practice on a succession of school and regional teams, banding together with a tight-knit group of friends to develop a deep love of the game. After moving to the South Island, though, that love didn't translate to an absolute focus to make a living from basketball.

"I was in Nelson doing nothing for a while," he says. "The Air Force was one avenue. Dad was pushing me to go towards that. He just wanted me to do something... and I really didn't know what I wanted to do."

That was until a conversation with now-national coach Nenad Vucinic, under whom Vukona played at the Nelson Giants.

"Nenad said, 'look, if you want to make this a career, you can, but you're going to have to work hard at it'."

A move to Palmerston North for study almost by accident put Vukona in the Breakers' sights, with Manawatu Jets coach Wayne Brown, an assistant at the newly-formed New Zealand franchise, opening a door Vukona had barely considered.

Perhaps his stuttered entrance through that door is what makes Vukona so keen to savour every second now he's on the other side. Perhaps, having never heard the assurances a prodigious talent would receive, that is why he wrestles for every rebound.

"I guess all that just instilled in me the love for [basketball]," he says. "When I'm playing now and I wake up and think it's a hard day, I look back and I'm like, 'nah, this is what you wanted'."

It's what he will continue to want for the foreseeable future. As he prepares to play his 200th game for the Breakers at Vector Arena on Thursday night, Vukona has no plans to slow down until his body tells him otherwise. And given his competitive nature is unlikely to wane with his physical abilities, don't expect Vukona to settle into life as a role player.

"It's all just reading how my body goes. I want to be playing as high as I can. If I start slipping and I'm only just being a part-contributor... I want to be a full contributor the whole way through."

Following his playing career, Vukona will put to use the IT degree for which he is currently studying part-time. He's excited about what the future holds but also daunted, because "this is all I've done all my life - play basketball".

He has a few more years left in him yet, as both captain of the Tall Blacks and one of the spiritual leaders of the Breakers. But what exactly remains for Vukona to achieve in a Breakers singlet?

One goal is to avoid what Vukona calls his biggest fear: the Breakers returning to the dark days of their early history, when wins were as hard to come by as paying fans.

The other is simple: "Winning more championships, man. That's what you want. The more championships, the better.

"We talk about it - not too much - but about trying to create a little bit of a dynasty. We've got the culture and we're getting there with all the wins, but we want more championships. That is what the club's built on and, by the time I finish, I hope to have more than just two or three."

Vukona knows the co-ordinates for that particular journey - a few clutch shots, the occasional remonstration with a teammate, and the odd outburst if the situation calls for it.

Luckily for him, there is always accelerant nearby when Vukona needs to fan the flames.

"Refs have a good way of bringing that out pretty quickly."


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