Fit Vukona vows to de­liver

Sunday Star-Times - - SPORT - MARC HIN­TON Mika Vukona Septem­ber 17, 2017

Mika Vukona has had quite an off­sea­son. The heart­beat of the Break­ers has healed his body, cleared his mind and re­dis­cov­ered his love of bas­ket­ball. Now he just wants to win games.

The 35-year-old is in what you might call a good place as the tipoff to the 2017-18 Aus­tralian Na­tional Bas­ket­ball League sea­son draws ever closer. The Break­ers have three more pre-sea­son games, against Mel­bourne United (in Napier to­day and New Ply­mouth on Tues­day) and the Bris­bane Bul­lets (Tau­ranga, Septem­ber 27), be­fore launch­ing the new cam­paign at home against the Cairns Taipans on Oc­to­ber 8.

Vukona took the best part of six months away from com­pet­i­tive hoops (no Kiwi NBL, no Tall Blacks cam­paign) to es­sen­tially re­build a body that had been worn down by a ca­reer of sac­ri­fic­ing him­self for the good of his team as an un­der­sized, but over-com­mit­ted world­class power for­ward.

Now, ap­proach­ing the fi­nal year of his con­tract, mo­ti­vated like you wouldn’t be­lieve, Vukona says he feels the best he has in four years. He may no longer be the ‘‘Wolver­ine’’ with the mys­ti­cal heal­ing pow­ers, but he firmly be­lieves, even as one of the older play­ers in this league, he still has plenty to give to this club.

‘‘It’s been two years since I’ve been healthy,’’ re­flects Vukona af­ter play­ing the last two sea­sons through a ham­string tear. ‘‘I’ve been car­ry­ing lit­tle in­juries and you don’t re­alise how much of a dif­fer­ence it makes. Be­ing able to have this off-sea­son get­ting the body right, eat­ing right, I’m feel­ing like a spring chicken. Now I’ve just got to trans­fer that into bas­ket­ball form.’’

This is how se­ri­ous Vukona is about his health now. He has ca­joled long-time Nel­son-based trainer Claire Dal­li­son to take the chief strength and con­di­tion­ing role with the Break­ers. She has al­ways got the best out of him, whether it be with the Gi­ants or Tall Blacks, and now will at­tempt to do the same through the ANBL sea­son.

‘‘She’s great, and she thinks out­side the box in terms of train­ing meth­ods,’’ says Vukona. ‘‘It’s great to have her up. It will make a big dif­fer­ence.’’

Vukona re­ally is re­born. As part of his off-sea­son re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion he worked out with a group of vet­eran ex-Tall Blacks and NBL guys who were pre­par­ing for the World Mas­ters Games. It was an eye­opener for a pro who had be­come a lit­tle worn down by the game.

‘‘Just be­ing part of that, re­al­is­ing how much I en­joy the game, and how much they still en­joy it was re­ally im­por­tant. These were guys I re­ally re­spect and to be part of that I re­ally got a love for the game back again.’’ Vukona was not proud of his last sea­son, play­ing hurt, and strug­gling for the spring he needs to de­liver what he is ca­pa­ble of. His num­bers weren’t hor­ri­ble. He av­er­aged 6.5 points, 5.0 re­bounds and 2.1 as­sists, and shot 63 per­cent from the floor in around 19 min­utes a game.

But it wasn’t the Vukona Break­ers fans know so well.

‘‘The last part was a real grind. I didn’t re­alise how much I didn’t like it un­til I came back for this sea­son. I’m a dif­fer­ent per­son. I’ve trans­formed the whole way I ap­proach the game, and also how I play it too.’’

In essence, Vukona was play­ing un­der-pow­ered. ‘‘I’ve got it back now, and it’s night and day,’’ he says. ‘‘I can ac­tu­ally jump off two feet again, and I’ve got a lot more ex­plo­sive­ness. Now it’s the head.

‘‘I only took five out­side jumpers last year, and I have al­ways prided my­self that I can shoot it when I Be­ing able to have this off­sea­son get­ting the body right, eat­ing right, I’m feel­ing like a spring chicken. that have to. Last year I didn’t want take it be­cause I didn’t be­lieve my­self.’’

Vukona pledges to de­liver a dif­fer­ent game this sea­son. He wants to play smarter, for shorter pe­ri­ods, but at a higher in­ten­sity. He says he is en­er­gised by the pres­ence of young Tall Blacks star Finn De­lany in his po­si­tion and vows to ‘‘play younger’’.

‘‘Now it’s just the mind. It’s hard, man. The older you get, the more to in mind games come into it. You do it for so long, you can end up sec­ondguess­ing your­self.’’

Paul Henare has cer­tainly no­ticed a dif­fer­ent Vukona this sea­son.

‘‘It’s good to see him run­ning around with­out limp­ing,’’ says the Break­ers coach. ‘‘That was the first thing I no­ticed when I got back from the Tall Blacks and watched him work­ing out. He is mov­ing freely, and that can only be good for him and us.’’

Vukona was aw­fully proud of what Henare’s young Tall Blacks achieved at the Fiba Asia Cup. It has made him more de­ter­mined to fight his way back in for the up­com­ing World Cup qual­i­fy­ing cam­paign.

‘‘It’s so good to see the across the board, and that’s go­ing to push me.

‘‘Can I make this team that could qual­ify for the next cou­ple of big tal­ent re­ally tour­na­ments, and if so can I carry that through to hope­fully tick that box of get­ting to the Olympics?’’

But first up is an ANBL sea­son which will see Vukona carry a bit of a chip on his shoul­der.

‘‘We’re un­der the radar, which I love,’’ he says of the league chat­ter across the ditch.

‘‘I don’t think they should be talk­ing about us. We didn’t make the play­offs which was a to­tal dis­ap­point­ment. I hated that.’’

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