Mika Vukona extends his Nelson Giants stint
The buzz that was building around the Giants just became deafening.
A surprising phone call to coach Liam Flynn this week brought the news he had hoped for but not expected to hear - forward Mika Vukona was ready, willing and able to play the bulk of the 2013 National Basketball League season with the Nelson Giants.
Vukona, a fixture in the NZ Breakers' starting lineup and captain of the Tall Blacks international men's side, had been expected to sit out this season to rest from the rigours of the Australian league season and to prepare for New Zealand's test programme.
At best, it had been hoped he might front for the final regular season games, if it appeared the Giants could make the Bartercard NBL playoffs.
But Vukona has decided to follow his heart and commit to almost all of the Giants' campaign.
He will be available from a date three weeks after the Breakers' season ends. The way they are currently travelling, they are likely to make the Australian finals which begin on April 12. The Giants play their first game later that month.
The Breakers require a three-week rest period for their key players before they are released to other teams but that still means Vukona will be available for many more games than first thought.
"It's a change of plan from what I had said [to you] I was going to do, it's really only been a decision I have made in the last little while," Vukona said.
"I had a meeting with Andrej [Lemanis, the Breakers head coach], then rang Liam and asked if there was still a place in the Nelson team."
Flynn didn't need to ponder that question for long.
"It was the best phone call of the week," he said from Townsville, where he coaches in the Australian league. "Mika is a coach's dream player and I had held some hopes I would get the chance to work with him in a limited way near the end of the season. This is an unexpected bonus."
Vukona averaged 15 points and eight rebounds a game when he squeezed in four games for the Giants at the end of last season. He also delivered his trademark passion and intensity to a team that was floundering.
With the chance to spend a longer stretch with the Giants this year, he should be even more of a factor.
"There's a sense of excitement about the team with Liam coming in, Josh Pace signing and a great bunch of Kiwi guys - some of the regulars plus a couple of new guys who can really play, so I wanted to be part of that," Vukona said.
Season ticket sales are going better than they have in the past three seasons, despite last year's disappointing finish. Vukona's commitment is sure to give those sales an additional kick.
"Mika plays so hard that no-one would have blamed him if he had got to the end of the Breakers' season and said: 'I'm done, it's time to rest'," Flynn said.
"It is a mark of how the man feels about Nelson and the Giants that he has opted to get there as soon as he is allowed to."
Flynn aims to create a gritty, defensively solid team, a style that plays straight to Vukona's strengths. Flynn will be looking forward to sending his defensive dogs after opposing teams with the likes of Josh Bloxham, Brook Ruscoe, Pace and Vukona sure to set the standard.
The first true test of the Giants new-look side will come in Blenheim on April 13, when they play a pre-season game against Wellington. Tipoff time will be in the afternoon, although the actual start time is not yet known.
Nelson Giants squad: Josh Pace, plus one as-yet unsigned American forward, Phill Jones, Mika Vukona, Josh Bloxham, Rory Fannon, Darryl Jones, Brook Ruscoe, Sam Dempster, Ben Wright, Aaron Dempster, Angus Riley, Finn Delany, Scott Cameron, Zeb Lovell, Adam Carter. Bronson Beri is still injured.
The Nelson Mail