Vukona won't be back
The Giants' campaign for "two straight in '08" has had a significant setback with the announcement that forward Mika Vukona won't return to Nelson for next year's national basketball league season.
The 25-year-old told Blue Chip Giants coach Chris Tupu he had decided to remain based in Auckland, where he is currently playing for the New Zealand Breakers, and he is expected to join one of the two NBL teams there for the 2008 season.
Vukona told the Mail on Tuesday that he had agonised over his future and felt he owed Nelson an explanation.
"It was definitely a tough decision, one of the hardest and I wasn't sure up until the last minute which way it would go," he said.
"Nelson has given us (Vukona and wife Vanessa) so much and we love the city and the people, but I felt we needed a bit of stability and needed to stop in one place for a bit longer."
He said he hadn't committed to one of the Auckland NBL franchises but was leaning towards the Harbour Heat. He expects that decision to be made within a fortnight.
Vukona will be sorely missed by the Giants, who brought him to Nelson from Tauranga as a 17-year-old. The NBL's premier offensive rebounder, he averaged 10 points and 10 boards for the Giants last season and is known as one of the league's leading defenders, able to cover all five positions on the court.
As the Giants won their third NBL title in June, Vukona delivered 34 points and 26 rebounds in two matches in a man-of-the-finals performance.
"It's hard to describe how it felt to ring Toops (Tupu) and tell him I wasn't coming," he said. "Apart from one season away with Manawatu, I'd spent seven years working with Nenad (Vucinic) and those guys for that one goal and it was the proudest moment in my career.
"You don't walk away from that without some pain."
Tupu, who took over from Vucinic as the Giants' head coach after e NBL finals, said he always knew the decision could go against Nelson.
"The longer it took Mika to commit, the more I felt we'd struggle to keep him," he said.
"We put our best offer out there and Mika knew in no uncertain terms the role I saw for him with us but, in the end, he's made the choice to base himself in Auckland for the forseeable future and you have to respect that choice."
Tupu isn't moping and has been in talks with former Tall Black Brendon Polyblank. He expects a decision from the high-scoring Wellington forward within a week, while he is also pursuing a centre currently playing in the Australian NBL.
"You don't replace Mika," he said. "He's a champion player, one of those one-of-a-kind, X-factor guys but the Giants will go on without him. I believe we can put a strong team out there to defend that title."
Meanwhile, Vukona isn't closing any doors. He and Vanessa own a house in Nelson and he regards the province as his home. He also feels he owes the Giants a debt.
"The Nelson Giants created what I have, a career in basketball. I've been able to make a living out of it and play for the Tall Blacks and meet the best people and I'm forever grateful.
"For the immediate future, I'm in Auckland, but you never say never, do you?"
The Giants have confirmed the return of Nelson-raised international guards Phill Jones, Mike Fitchett and Chris Daniel for next season.
The Nelson Mail