Bul­lets rapt to have Vukona

The Southland Times - - Sport - Marc Hin­ton

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.

GETTY IM­AGES

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.

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