Vukona’s Fire In Belly Burning Strong As Ever

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He is New Zealand basketball royalty but Mika Vukona felt he had more left to give than the Breakers saw moving forward so he decided to join old friends at the Brisbane Bullets and starts his new life back in familiar territory.

Vukona built himself a remarkable legacy in two separate stints with the Breakers, firstly finding his feet in the NBL for the fledgling club, and then returning to be a remarkable figure in the four championships and five Grand Final appearances.

But the five-time NBL championship winner and veteran of 421 matches was feeling a new lease on life through the 2017/18 season, citing a greater focus on diet, recovery and taking care of his body for helping him feel the best he had in a long time.

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Despite turning 36 over the off-season, Vukona continued to take pride in representing the Tall Blacks too through the Commonwealth Games and FIBA World Cup Asian Qualifiers with his body remaining sound.

But discussions with the Breakers didn’t quite go how he hoped. While happy to welcome him back, new management saw a reduced role for Vukona with an eye to the future and he was anything but ready to accept that.

So he was open to the possibility of continuing his career elsewhere and Brisbane soon became the obvious option.

That was both in terms of the city with a strong connection with his wife’s family there, and then on the basketball side with Bullets coach Andrej Lemanis, assistant CJ Bruton and general manager Richard Clarke all more than familiar to Vukona.

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So the legendary tough man has settled well in Brisbane and now it’s only fitting that his Bullets debut is in the season-opener back at Spark Arena against the Breakers on Thursday night.

Vukona feels in the end the chance to join the Bullets could be of great benefit to him, and maybe even the Breakers.

“Sometimes you need a change of environment and with where the Breakers were going, it was a change that opened a door for me,” Vukona said.

“I thought if they were going a different direction with ownership and even though I still like what they had to say in terms of how they wanted to grow the game in the country but what I needed for myself personally, I was like ‘you know what, I need the change’.

“Even if we’d won last year, the feeling would have still been there. Change is a good thing sometimes and I know for myself, having a change in environment, pushing myself; again to prove myself, because in this team, there are a lot of new bodies and a lot of new people and nothing’s given.

“You have to start again and prove to them that you can still play and that’s a massive thing for me to have that feeling.”

Initially Vukona didn’t think he’d be leaving the Breakers at the end of last season, but it soon became clear if he wanted to play a significant role moving forward, that’d have to be elsewhere.

“After the season ended, obviously my mind was just to stay with the Breakers obviously after being with the club for such a long amount of years and coming to the back end of my career. So I thought what better way than to finish with the club that I started with,” Vukona said.

“But then as the talks went along, they made it clear they wanted to go in a different direction and they wanted me to play a role that I wasn’t happy with. As a competitor, you always want to push yourself and I felt like I’m not happy just to be there.

“So when the cards were shown by them, I decided to look elsewhere and with Brisbane they were always in front of my mind from the very start. Obviously here with CJ and Andrej and Richard we were part of the Breakers in the past so I knew they would have a great organisation and a club.

“Even though they were struggling last year, they were nearly there. They had a lot of games that they were close, and it is part of the country that I really loved visiting and obviously my wife’s got a lot of family there. We’ve got more family in Brisbane than we do in Auckland so that was my thinking going into it.”

Once he decided the move was on the cards, Vukona quickly realised Brisbane was the best option and that was on the back of the fond memories he had of playing at the Gold Coast Blaze in those in between years of his two stints with the Breakers.

From the moment he first broached the subject with Lemanis, Bruton, Clarke and even old South Dragons championship teammate Adam Gibson, he knew it just felt right.

“Then during the Commonwealth Games, I was able to have those talks with certain people and the more I talked to people, the more it felt like this is the right decision. I know I’m 36 and people might think it might not be a good time for the club but I felt I still have a lot more to give,” he said.

“Just the pre-season alone has shown that it has been the right decision and I feel like a 21-year-old again. The fire’s in the belly and I want to prove a lot more.

“I think as a player, that’s all you want; you want to keep having that fire because if you can’t ignite that fire, then you might as well walk away from the game. This is a test for me and as soon as I touched down I knew it was perfect and that’s where I want to come in and try and help this club.”

There’s no question the connection Vukona has to those at the Bullets, and his wife and family connections in Brisbane, were a massive factor in his eventual decision of his future destination.

“It was massive and CJ was one of the first guys to reach out. He and I have always talked during the year just about anything, and it was just that point when the talks had not gone so well with the Breakers, I just started talking with him and as you know, CJ has a good way of convincing people,” Vukona said.

“Obviously his family and my family are pretty close, we’d always say if there was an opportunity, this would be a great place to come and just be part of it together and still have a relationship with both families. CJ’s played a massive part in being able to convince myself and my family that this was a good decision.”

With the retirement of Anthony Petrie at the end of last season, there was an obvious role there for Vukona to play at the Bullets too and alongside Gibson, they provide the veteran leadership as the two most experienced players in the NBL.

Vukona then liked the idea of playing alongside Cam Gliddon and Jason Cadee which was another significant factor in him wanting to come to Brisbane.

“I hope I am a good fit, but I think things happen for a reason in life and I might be getting a little bit deep but I think everything was just perfect timing for the move,” he said.

“The position that was there from Peach leaving was perfect for me to come in and just build on what he had already done as well; and also just to add what I could or still add what I can. When they told us the guys they were going after and that they had signed, it was a no-brainer to want to be part of it.

“I’ve always looked from afar with a lot of respect and admiration towards the way Cam Gliddon plays and same with Cadee. He was always the one who I felt like he needed the chance to take over a team and lead it. So to find out these are the guys the club was going after, you want to be part of this team.

“Gibbo was already here doing his thing and I already had the opportunity to play with him down in Melbourne and I totally enjoyed that, and the leadership qualities that he brings to this club is massive. It’s probably underrated and just to be able to come in and help out and be part of that was one of the driving forces also.”

Now that the new season is upon him and Vukona will be pulling on a non-Breakers uniform in the NBL for the first time since playing at the Blaze for the 2009/10 season, he is focused on helping build up Brisbane to being the powerhouse that he looked up to when he was starting in the league.

“Without a doubt 100 per cent I’m excited the season is now so close. When you come into a new club, you don’t really know too much but when I first came into the league, it was all about the Brisbane Bullets,” Vukona said.

“It was all about Sammy Mac, CJ and everyone on that team because you look up to them and they were the top dogs. Just to see a little bit of that and being able to experience that kind of competition and to be able to come here and try and build that reputation back up is a massive challenge.

“And it’s a challenge that I really like. You have to honour the past and obviously with Leroy and CJ’s dad here and Kearls and everyone like that who I’m starting to learn more about, it’s awesome for me.

“I’m learning a whole new history of basketball and obviously in New Zealand it’s pretty young but when you come to Aussie and especially Brisbane, it’s massive.

“The support here is unbelievable and people are really passionate about their basketball. It’s a great club, the guys have been great and I know 100 per cent that this was the right decision for myself and my family.”

Vukona might no longer be at the Breakers, but he remains as ever committed to playing for New Zealand and helping see the next generation of Tall Blacks come into their own is one of his great joys.

“Playing for New Zealand is massive to me. I’ve always placed the Tall Blacks high on my list, they might not be on others. But the way I was brought up and what the Tall Blacks have been able to give to me, I’ve always wanted to give back and representing that team is huge,” Vukona said.

“Just to be able to have the opportunity to play with the younger guys coming through is big for me. It’s also like a litmus test to see if I can still keep up with these guys and to prove I can still play this game.

“But just to get an opportunity to play with Isaac Fotu and Tai Webster as they are coming into their prime, it can be real satisfying for me. I’m just proud to be part of it and part of that crew coming up right now.”

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