Editor’s Note: When New Zealand Breakers captain Mika Vukona takes the floor this Friday night against Adelaide, he will become the first Kiwi to play 350 NBL games. To mark the achievement, we’re reposting this popular feature written by Michael Collins shortly after the Breakers won the 2015 NBL title. This story was first published on March 13, 2015.
With 21 seconds left on the clock, there was no doubt what Mika Vukona would do next if Cedric Jackson clanked the second free throw. The Cairns Taipans were determined to swing the Grand Final series back home, and of course, Scottie Wilbekin was there at the top of the arc neatly aligning his daggers across the hardwood. The Inevitable, former teammate and current rival Mark Worthington thought as Vukona swallowed Cedric Jackson’s put-back floater off his own missed free throw.
“That is Mika Vukona down to the T,” shared Worthington.
“Even when I was watching the game, as the play went on I said, ‘Mika’s going to get a rebound here’ as you just know what he is going to be like. Sure enough they missed and there’s Mika going after it. It’s just what he does.”
Explain how he made that ridiculous hustle play in the tightest of clutches for seemingly the hundredth time in his career? He can’t. Better you interview his heart and creaky knees. Or, better yet, ask any of his championship teammates.
“You spend every day with him and it’s every training and game you see it,” said Rhys Carter.
“If you were going into battle for your life, Mika would be the first guy you’d pick to fight alongside you. He’s tough, both mentally and physically. He’s just relentless and never gives up and will do anything to win.”
But wait! What about those two free throws that awaited him after the Matt Burston foul? Opponents used to embrace the idea of the human pit bull walking to the line. Yet, as Cairns can now attest, that’s a distant memory.
“I just remember thinking when that foul was called and it ended up being Mika on the free throw line, ‘Oh, I’m glad it’s Mika,’” said New Zealand Breakers Assistant Coach Paul Henare.
“Like of all five guys on the floor I had the most confidence in Mika.”
So often, a big man boasts a career of choking at the line, almost accepting the pending clank. But that’s not Vukona.
“Beforehand, there was no way in the world you would want him to step up to the line, but for the last couple of years he has worked relentlessly on his shot,” said Worthington.
“For him to knock down those two shots in a pressure situation just shows how far he’s come with his shooting touch.”
Vukona wasn’t fazed at the line despite the game being on the line with 14 seconds left on the clock. He never is, especially when he’s drawing upon his children, Gia and Noah, as a sort of calming, peaceful influence before every free throw.
“He has a nice little routine where, I don’t know the exact words he says to himself, but again, it involves his kids,” reveals Henare.
“He puts himself in a happy place when he’s on the free throw line and he never looks like missing.”
Talk to enough of his teammates and two words keep reappearing: Relentless and quiet. He’s not one of those athletes who must thump the chest and dominate every room to justify their greatness. Usually such an imposing and intimidating figure on the court is the loudest personality off it.
He leads but he doesn’t yell. And he almost always leads by example, whether accepting the challenge from South Dragons coach Brian Goorjian to corral point guard Corey ‘Homicide’ Williams, or swiftly fronting Chris Anstey (a few headlocks might have been exchanged!) in response to the Melbourne Tiger flattening Rhys Carter in game three of the ‘09 Grand Final series.
“When it got down to the nitty-gritty and where this team went, it always fell with how Mika was going, and what he would say and how he was leading the group,” said Henare.
It’s an intense aggression on the court cut with humility that renders the Kiwi a kind of paradox. After 40 minutes of banging bodies with Vukona on the court, most feel like they’ve boxed for 10 rounds, run a marathon and rammed their head repeatedly through a plywood wall. On the other hand, if you track him down for a chat, he may stun you with his gentle, unassuming approach.
Of course, the challenge here is wrestling Mika away from his aversion to self-promotion. In many ways, that’s him, slipping away from the spotlight, handballing the praise to his teammates. So much of basketball has become hype that it’s become a challenge to recognise something good and true when we see it.
“Off the court he is literally nothing like the Mika Vukona people love or hate on the court. He is the most humble and quiet guy, very loyal and a family guy. He loves his kids and spends as much time with them as one can,” said Henare.
“You’ve got to be around the guy every day to really understand the real Mika.”
Even though the Breakers finished the 2010/11 regular season with the best record in the NBL, they endured a poleaxing defeat in game one of the semi-finals against Perth. To make matters worse, Vukona tore his medial ligament – a grade two strain – early in the second quarter. This spelled season over or at least that’s what the Breakers’ squad thought when they glumly met him in the locker room after the game. And yet, there Vukona sat, deliberately looking each teammate in the eye, repeating, ‘I’ll be right boys.’
His reply jolted the team. Sure, it’s a typical macho response to an injury, but Vukona boasts an incredible ability to resist the pain threshold. The Breakers had to believe their power forward was right to go for game two.
Vukona was right.
His return in game two, which seemed as believable as Batman rising from The Pit, sparked a New Zealand revival and eventually delivered their first NBL championship.
“It’s kind of one of those things where you hear guys say it and you think that’s awesome that he thinks that,” recalled Henare.
“But for him to come back in game two and the rest of the finals campaign, I’ve never really witnessed anything like that in my lifetime. He gave everyone else such a lift and that was a huge part to why we won that game and the series.”
Sometimes it seems as if Vukona is handcuffed to the big moments, fated to decide what happens next… while carrying a busted knee or smashed lip.
Sweet Jesus! Can you see the pattern? He’s played with severe migraines, where Henare notes, “He literally couldn’t see at times, especially with the bright lights.” Hell, in the second last game of this season against Perth, he clawed 6 points, 8 rebounds, 2 steals and 2 blocks in 30 minutes of playing time despite barely lifting a limb out of bed the day before due to acute stomach cramps.
“I asked him, ‘what’s wrong?’” Carter recalled.
“He didn’t tell anyone and I had to drag it out of him, and he finally goes, ‘no, I can’t go to dinner. But can you hand me a drink.’ He just sat there on the bed. He hides lots of those things really well and it’s just a part of his toughness where he doesn’t complain.”
It ends for everybody. It ends for the athlete who has his face on billboards. It ends for the kid on the high school team who never catches a glimpse of playing time. But it’s hard to see when it’ll ever end for Mika Vukona.
He’s already a five-time NBL champion, and is merely one championship away from tying fellow Breakers legend CJ Bruton in the ring count.
“He has definitely proven that he is the ultimate glue guy to have ever played in this league. Success has followed him around,” Worthington believes.
That’s one way to put it. Here’s another way…
“He is the ultimate argument for the stats don’t tell the whole story. He has won five of the last seven championships or something ridiculous like that. He’s just been a huge part of it,” adds Carter.
You can seriously picture him eight years from now with a basketball in one hand, and a box of painkillers in the other, with the New Zealand Breakers’ name still beaming across his chest. And before you know what injury he’s carrying, he’d pour the fogs of fatigue and pain onto his opponents instead. It’s difficult to name another NBL player quite like him – as a player and personality.
“He is one of the gentlest and kindest guys you’ll ever meet off the court,” Worthington said.
“He loves his family. He’s just unbelievable with his two kids. I think he’s just a softy for his kids and Vanessa, but when he hops on the court, he seems to take out the frustrations he might have had in his life against the basketball.
“It’s like the basketball gods cheated on him with his wife, and so he just takes it out on us on the court.”