Basketball: Iceman Vukona is cool on stats

By Grant Chapman

Breakers basketball player Mika Vukona. Photo / Dean Purcell
Breakers basketball player Mika Vukona. Photo / Dean Purcell

Fijian on the rocks. What sounds like some exotic Denerau resort cocktail may also be an unlikely recipe that helps make Mika Vukona virtually unstoppable out on the basketball court.

This week the NZ Breakers power forward became the first player to accumulate 1000 points and 1000 rebounds for the club, marking the achievement with an inspirational 21 points/11 rebounds performance in a 106-85 win over the Gold Coast Blaze.

"I'm definitely not one to follow my own stats, so it was a big surprise to me when they announced it on the night," he reflects. Undoubtedly, Vukona walks the walk better than he talks the talk.

He's all intensity between the lines, but has a knack for totally understating his contributions to a franchise marching towards its second straight Australian National Basketball League title.

"I just let the game come to me," he said. "Sometimes you can try all you like and it just doesn't happen, but the bounce of the ball came our way tonight."

In truth, Vukona pursues the ball with such ferocity, he would tear an opponent's arm off if it somehow got there before him and that's where the cocktail recipe comes in.

To get into that zone, the Suva-born hoopster follows a pre-game routine designed to sharpen his focus on the task at hand. An ice bath is a key component of the ritual.

If the Breakers are playing at their North Shore Events Centre home, Vukona has access to the stadium's recovery facilities. If not, he'll improvise, sometimes utilising a convenient wheelie bin and a shower stall.

"During my first season with the Breakers, I saw [Aussie centre] Ben Melmeth taking an ice bath after a game," recalls Vukona. "It was pretty foreign to most New Zealanders and, I guess, even more foreign to Fijians, who don't really like the cold. But I like to work out before a game and thought the ice bath would freshen me up. I tried it and really enjoyed it."

These days, ice is widely used as a recovery strategy after practice or games, but not usually before. While Vukona's team-mates have all observed his preparation, none have been tempted to join him. Given his success, maybe they should.

Vukona (29) took 153 games to bring up his 1000 points and actually achieved his rebound mark first. Usually, it's the other way round.

"During my NBL career, I've never been known as a scorer, so reaching 1000 points is pretty neat," he says. "But it also feels good to get those rebounds and I think I still have plenty more in me."

Gold Coast got caught in a perfect storm on Thursday - Vukona in record-breaking mood and with added incentive to dominate. Sitting among the 3000 fans at NSEC was birth mother Mere, making a rare visit from her Californian home.

Adopted by his mum's brother as an infant, Vukona has come to regard his uncle and aunty as parents, and has kept only occasional contact with his real mum over the years.

"It was nice to have her there," he says. "Last time we saw each other was about five years ago and this was probably one of the first games she's ever watched me play."

Today, the Breakers (8-3) are in Adelaide against the 36ers.

- Herald on Sunday

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