Tall Blacks primed to shine at World Cup in Spain
Tall Blacks skipper Mika Vukona believes New Zealand has the potential to send the strongest team it's ever had to next year's rebranded basketball World Cup in Spain.
That's a big call from Vukona, considering the calibre of the 2002 team that finished fourth at the then world championship in Indianapolis. But the 31-year-old Breakers power forward is genuinely excited about the group coach Nenad Vucinic is looking to put together for 2014.
All going well, 20-year-old Oklahoma City Thunder rookie Steven Adams will be there anchoring the defence at centre, as will experienced Turkey-based sharpshooter Kirk Penney who has missed a few campaigns in recent years.
Add in US collegians such as Isaac Fotu, Rob Loe and Tai Webster, the swag of Breakers internationals and one or two others who may come back on to the radar, and Vukona believes it's a group capable of doing special things in Spain.
"It's probably the most exciting team to come out of New Zealand, in terms of talent, and in terms of potential," said Vukona. "For the first time Nenad's hoping to have 25 guys actually trialling, and nobody there will be safe. That's the best way to go into the worlds - everybody fighting, scratching and clawing their way just to get a spot.
"That's only going to make the Tall Blacks culture, which is already strong, even stronger. You saw how that worked out in 2002, so I'm excited, and can't wait."
Vukona was rapt High Performance NZ had stumped up $200,000 to fund the campaign, even if it's less than half the amount needed, and a fraction of what some other sports are getting. The onus was now on the Tall Blacks to produce a result that demanded even better backing from the funding agency.
He understands the complications that can arise around NBA players, but he's hopeful Adams will be cleared to participate by a Thunder outfit that will also likely have Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook (USA) and Serge Ibaka (Spain) competing at the cup.
Basketball New Zealand have been told Adams will confirm his availability some time around the end of the NBA regular season in May, or perhaps later.
Vukona's been watching every Thunder game he can and is hugely excited about the way the Kiwi rookie is performing.
"I'm really proud of him," said Vukona. "I don't really know Steve that well, but I think every New Zealander feels a part of him. Just what he's doing and the way he's holding himself has been so impressive.
"He attracted another ejection from an opponent the other day and he just turns the other cheek. That's great for a New Zealand ambassador to show the kids you don't have to react that way. He's doing all the right things, and just going out there and playing ball which is encouraging.
"To have him come into the New Zealand group will be great and by the sounds of it he's really eager to do that."
- © Fairfax NZ News