Breakers ready to celebrate as captain fantastic Mika Vukona hits 300 not out
Stories about Mika Vukona reverberate around the corridors of the New Zealand Breakers. But none resonate more than the infamous Perth miracle comeback that inspired the club's first championship in 2011.
With the 34-year-old Vukona achieving a significant milestone in Thursday's visit to the NSEC by Andrew Gaze's Sydney Kings, becoming the first player in club history to bring up 300 appearances, it has been an appropriate time for reflection on a career that's netted not just four championships (he has five in total) and one runnerup finish, but countless memorable moments from a man who's never played with anything but total commitment.
Vukona is a marvel. At 1.98m and 103kg, he's drastically undersized for the power forward position he plays for both club and country. But seldom is he overpowered, and never is he outworked.
He has a Richie McCaw-type engine that allows him to play on full throttle whenever he is on court, and his mixture of athleticism, anticipation, toughness and smarts place him among the most respected players in the Australian NBL. Also like McCaw, his ability to play through pain has become legendary.
Which brings us to Perth and those 2011 playoffs.
Vukona went down with what turned out to be a grade two medial ligament strain early in game one of the semifinal series against the Wildcats at the NSEC. The Breakers lost that night, 101-78, and headed to Perth for a must-win game two three days later which, frankly, looked a forlorn prospect.
Every man and his dog at the Breakers believed Vukona was done. The doc told him as much, with a recovery time of two to three weeks, at best.
But Vukona jumped on the plane, and on game morning in Perth put himself through a fitness test that was so astounding that those present that day swore they couldn't believe what they were seeing with their own eyes.
"To this day I still don't know how he did it," said now Breakers coach and then team-mate Paul Henare. "I remember walking into the locker-room after the game one loss, seeing Mika with the doc and thinking 'geez, we've lost him'. To then turn up to the morning meeting at the hotel in Perth, and have Mika walk in and say 'I'm playing', everyone was just gobsmacked.
"It gave us that bulletproof type feeling we needed going into that environment to win game two."
Remarkably, Vukona didn't just play on what was effectively one good leg, but snared 10 rebounds and, along with a Kirk Penney shooting masterclass, inspired a 93-89 victory that kept the playoff run alive, and ultimately led to the first championship.
"That game in Perth sums him up," adds long-time national and club team-mate Tom Abercrombie. "There was doom and gloom after that home defeat ... but he gave everyone a huge boost when he laced 'em up and was able to do the things he did. It was incredible seeing the guy playing on one leg, and you couldn't help but be inspired."
Vukona was asked by one reporter this week to recall that special game in Perth. The response was beautiful.
"I think you could Google it," he replied. "I don't need to talk about that again."
Yes, Vukona doesn't do swag. He's a selfless, humble, team-first guy who would hate to think that anything was ever about him, rather than his contribution to the greater entity. He's also become, over time, a great leader and mentor, and both a standard-setter and a moral compass at the club.
He says the 300-game achievement shows he's "in a good place", he counts that 2011 run to the first title, and the obstacles navigated, as his career highlight and still vividly remembers the very first outing. "It was the first game the Breakers ever played. I was a development player, and came on in garbage time. It was awesome, the house was rocking, and we won."
Asked why he had stuck around so long (he jokes he'd like to play 300 more, and says he'd love to extend his current deal which ends next season), he said: "Family. When you're in a good environment, a good family situation, you always want to be there. Winning makes a massive difference too, and when you win championships you want to keep coming back and get more."
And the leadership? "It's not something you force. I learnt that early on with [national coach] Nenad Vucinic. The first time I captained the Tall Blacks he told me I was shit. He said let everything come to you. This environment allows you to lead the way you know how, and that's by your actions."
Henare says the 300-game milestone is a true testament to his skipper. "He's the guy people look to on and off the floor. Off the floor he's made massive improvements in terms of being able to have those honest and open, yet sometimes uncomfortable, conversations with team-mates. He has the respect to say those things."
Adds Abercrombie: "He's an inspiration and motivation for us all to go out and play that little bit harder every night. He's set the tone defensively for years and helped establish that culture of toughness we have at that end of the floor. I don't know if I've ever seen a better rebounder come through this country."
And off the floor?
"I guess he's a bit bi-polar ... super intense on the court, but off it he's the nicest guy you will ever meet, and a real family man who cares about all his team-mates."
Corey Webster concurs: "He's that leader any team wants and needs. He comes in every day and leads by example, and the intensity he brings is irreplaceable. He's our glue guy, in there hustling, doing the dirty work and all the small things nobody likes doing. That's huge.
"He just always been there for anyone. He's been through his own things in life, and he understands, and is there for anyone to talk to. He's not going to judge, he's going to help. It's great to have a guy like that around."
Captain Fantastic. Mr Irreplaceable.
Mika Vukona − breaking it down
Most appearances by a Breaker − 299
Most consecutive games played by a Breaker − 161 (2010-2015)
Most wins by a Breaker − 171
Most rebounds − 2,034
36 double doubles − 2nd all time
2239 points - 3rd all-time
213 steals - 3rd all-time
550 assists - 4th all-time
91 blocks - 4th all-time