Bullets rapt to have Vukona
Andrej Lemanis could not believe his luck when the phone rang one day last offseason and Mika Vukona was on the other end asking for a job.
Lemanis, of course, had coached the 36-year-old Kiwi hoops legend at the Breakers, and they had won a three-peat of Australian NBL championships together during the club’s heyday from 2010-13.
Since then Lemanis has moved on, to become head coach of the Australian national team, and also take the reins at the Brisbane Bullets where they’ve returned to the league hoping to build a success story along similar lines as the Kiwi club.
To that end they also added former Breakers general manager Richard Clarke to run the organisation and CJ Bruton, who was an integral part of that three-peat as a big shot-making guard, as assistant coach.
They also swept up Tall Blacks swingman Reuben Te Rangi in 2016 when he was jettisoned by the Breakers, and have now gladly added Vukona’s steely presence to that Kiwi connection.
No-one knows better than Lemanis just how valuable a figure Vukona is, on and off the court, and how crucial a piece he is in a championship puzzle.
That’s why, when the veteran Kiwi came calling in the off-season, Lemanis jumped at the chance to secure what he believed was a difference-making signature.
Even at 36. Even with his game, in the opinion of the Breakers’ new ownership, in such decline that they were only prepared to offer him a minor supporting role to remain in Auckland.
Vukona made no secret of his desire to prove his old club wrong in the leadup to Thursday night’s season-opening 86-73 upset by the Bullets over the Breakers in Auckland, and was as good as his word, finishing with nine points (on 4-of-4 shooting), four rebounds and two steals in 17 energy-charged minutes.
Before the game, Vukona told the NBL’s website that he had been unwilling to take the ‘‘reduced’’ role the Breakers had offered him for 2018-19.
‘‘They were going in a different direction with new ownership. You have to start again and prove to them you can still play,’’ he said.
‘‘They made it clear they wanted me to play a role I wasn’t happy with . . . I feel 21 again. The fire’s in the belly and I want to prove a lot more.’’
Lemanis had no such reservations about Vukona adding what he believed would be a crucial ingredient in the turnaround of a club that had foundered since returning to the league.
‘‘You know what you’re going to get from Mika, and that’s why we were so thrilled we were able to get him,’’ said Lemanis after his side’s statement victory behind a 29-point outburst from super shooter Cam Gliddon.
‘‘Where we were as a club and organisation, we needed his energy, and that consistent fire in the belly – that spark we had been lacking to this point.
‘‘That stuff is infectious. You see it permeate through the group already.
‘‘With Mika, what you see out there [in games] is also what he does at practice. That’s how he plays and what he demands of his team-mates.
‘‘But he also gets with his team-mates and talks to them in the locker-room and on court and brings everybody with him.
‘‘You can see the younger guys learning off him . . . it’s hard to measure on a sheet of paper what Mika gives to you.’’
Fellow off-season addition Gliddon, who was 8 of 13 from the floor and 5 of 10 from deep, also paid tribute to his new Kiwi team-mate’s intangibles.
‘‘He’s been an important part as soon as he rocked up in Brisbane. At practice he demands better all the time, and that’s what you want.
‘‘But he’s the ultimate team-mate as well: he’ll tell you how he feels and then tell you how he loves you.
‘‘I couldn’t be happier to be playing with him. At practice sometimes he’ll catch the ball, look me dead in the eyes, dribble at me and go ‘there’s one on a platter’.
And he’s getting better at taking his own shots, because he can score the ball, and maybe the last few years he went away from that.’’
And what was Vukona’s mindset in the locker-room after that statement victory?
‘‘He’s a happy man, that’s for sure,’’ added Gliddon.
Happy to be where he’s wanted. Happy to be contributing for a club that values him.
Mika Vukona made a telling debut for the Brisbane Bullets in their season-opening win against Vukona’s old Breakers team in Auckland on Thursday night.