Paulo Kennedy, Pagemasters
Few players around the world have a stronger reputation for doing whatever it takes for his team to win than Mika Vukona.
Across countless NBL seasons and international tournaments, opponents have marvelled at the Kiwi’s relentless energy, but wife Vanessa sees a different side.
“I think if you asked my wife that she would say I'm pretty relaxed, maybe a bit too relaxed,” Vukona said.
He said he has “that whole procrastination thing” down pat thanks to his Fijian background, but that wasn’t the only impression his native country left on him.
“Obviously, that time was a pretty violent one in Fijian history, all the army guys were out with their guns,” he said, recounting the 1987 coup led by Major-General Sitiveni Rabuka.
“You couldn’t really go outside and mum and dad just wanted to get us kids out of there. I don’t remember it as frightening, but it was like ‘oh wow’ with some things we’d see.”
Soon after his family arrived in New Zealand, Vukona followed his older brother into basketball and got hooked.
He made a national representative team in his first year playing basketball and went from junior national representation, to inaugural Breakers development player, to NBL champion, to respected international – all with a minimum of fuss and maximum hustle.
Vukona’s trademark is doing anything he can to help his teammates, but he couldn’t deliver when Tall Blacks coach Nenad Vucinic needed him to shine at the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Venezuela – and that hurt.
“It really did. Nenad had given me the captaincy and it felt like it was time for me to step up. But I felt like I got caught up worrying about other guys rather than just going out and playing,” he said.
Vukona slipped from ranking second in assists, third in steals, sixth in rebounds and 10th in scoring among power forwards at the 2010 FIBA World Championship, to averaging just two points at 14 per cent, four rebounds and four turnovers in Venezuela.
“I came back really disappointed we got beat. I felt … we had a great chance to get to the Olympics and there’s not many times you get that chance,” he said.
“When you have played against these top countries for years and you see them not as strong you just think ‘oh man’, and you think about what could have been.”
Vukona returned to Auckland and resumed working on his shooting game with Breakers assistant Dean Vickerman, knowing his club team would need their all-time leading rebounder to step up offensively after the departure of Gary Wilkinson.
The fruits of that labour have become obvious of late as Vukona has upped his production from 6.6 points at 39 per cent from the field to 12 points at 62 per cent in the past three games.
Not surprisingly, New Zealand piled on 90 points a game as they mercilessly dispatched Adelaide, Sydney and Wollongong.
While he knows this sort of production will go a long way to delivering the Breakers’ third straight title, Vukona’s mantra is typically modest and clearly from the Fijian roots his dad told him to never forget.
“I've been around long enough to know not to push it, but when it comes you’ve just got to jump on it,” he said.