My life in sport: Mika Vukona

By Chris Rattue

Mika Vukona went where only one other New Zealand basketballer has been before when his South Dragons clinched the Australian NBL title last week.

The 26-year-old Vukona followed in the footsteps of Dillon Boucher - when the Dragons beat their Melbourne rivals the Tigers.

The Suva-born Vukona was raised in Tauranga, after his Fijian father Clem and Kiwi mother Marion escaped the violence of the 1987 Fiji coup.

Basketball took him to Nelson in his final school year, and he went on to become an integral part of the New Zealand Breakers before joining the Dragons for the just-completed season.

Under Australian Boomers coach Brian Goorjian, they completed the ultimate sporting turnaround, winning the title after finishing last the previous season.

Vukona took a break from the Dragons' celebrations to answer a few Herald questions.

What are your proudest achievements in sport?
Definitely winning this championship with South Dragons. It's been said over and over again but to go from last one year to winning the next is the stuff that fairytales are made of.

When this team first assembled I don't think we thought it could happen, but as we started to string wins together and got on a roll, there was a belief midway through the season.

Everybody is floating around here right now - we've laid a great foundation for future years. My first New Zealand title with the Nelson Giants is also very special to me, along with the first time I represented New Zealand as a Tall Black.

Worst moments?
Losing two New Zealand NBL finals, to Auckland and Waikato. To come so close and miss out ... getting cut from the Tall Blacks was another low point. I was lucky enough in the end to make the 2006 world championship team but at the time getting cut was very hard to swallow.

The coaches were great in the way they did it. They sat me down face-to-face and told me why. They wanted me to be more aggressive defensively, and more aware.

It was something I tried to work on and I guess I came up trumps in the end.

What are your immediate ambitions?
Winning the Australian NBL once is great but once you have that taste, you want to win it again. That would make people really look at this team and say 'These guys can really play'.

Name a career ambition you want to achieve before retirement?
To make the world championship team next year, to help the Tall Blacks go as far as they can.

The achievements of the 2002 Tall Blacks who came fourth is something every New Zealand basketballer wants to emulate and even exceed. With the talent that is still around it is going to be very exciting and I hope we can make the most of it.

What inspired you to embark on a basketball career?
The belief that coaches had in me while I was growing up.

When you were 13, what sport did you fancy yourself as a future star in?

I wanted to be an All Black. I love rugby. I always remember watching the TV ad where a kid opens up a big chest and takes out a jersey which he puts on and becomes an All Black.

That is something I wanted to accomplish. I tried to but my mother was anti-rugby so I followed my brother's steps and took up basketball. I guess rugby was quite rough and there were a lot of serious injuries at that time which is why she didn't like it. Thankfully for me, I took up basketball and here I am now.

Childhood hero?
Michael Jones. I wanted to be a rugby player.

Who in the world do you most admire?
My mum and dad. They have backed me 100 per cent and without them I wouldn't have been able to do what I have in basketball.

Who have been your most inspirational coaches?
Nenad Vucinic (Tall Blacks and former Nelson coach).

And Brian Goorjian at the South Dragons.

Both are similar in the way they get the most out of their players. The roster at Souths speaks for itself in how Brian was able to bring us up to championship quality.

Nenad was the guy who got me started seriously in basketball and has been a mentor to me. He is someone I really respect.

What is your favourite part of being a professional basketballer?
Being able to do something you love every day. Meeting so many people that you wouldn't otherwise.

Worst part?
Being away from your family. My wife Vanessa and I have an 8-month-old daughter, Gia ... when she was four weeks old I had to be away for a month and a half. Things like that are hard.

Does basketball get enough attention?
I don't think it does. After the 2002 world champs the attention was amazing, but it has been in a lull over the past couple of years.

They are trying to revamp the Australian NBL next season which could be good. Grass roots basketball is amazing in Australia, and I know it's good in New Zealand. They just need to bridge the gap between that and the professional leagues.

Does rugby get too much attention in New Zealand?
No. Compared to other main sports in other countries, it gets appropriate coverage. It is the No1 sport and I think it always will be. It gets what it deserves.

What are your hobbies away from basketball?
None really. I like to just not think about basketball - I eat, sleep, chill out, watch movies, play X-Box.

If you weren't a basketballer what would you be doing?
Social worker. I tried to start a degree and social work is where I want to end up once the basketball finishes. I'll hopefully work with troubled youth and things like that.

- NZ Herald

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