Basketball: We still hate the Wildcats - Vukona

By Kris Shannon

Mika Vukona and Shawn Redhage have enjoyed a number of battles over the years. Photo / Getty
Mika Vukona and Shawn Redhage have enjoyed a number of battles over the years. Photo / Getty

Watching the Perth Wildcats celebrate Friday night's semifinal win over Illawarra, a feeling began to brew deep within Mika Vukona.

It was a familiar emotion, one conjured by a particular combination of Perth uniforms and a playoff environment. And it carried a strong label but one the the Breakers skipper didn't shirk - hate.

"We're always going to feel that same way towards them," Vukona replied when asked whether his antipathy towards the Wildcats could still be captured by the H-word. "Even when we were watching them, you just start feeling it. Watching them celebrate, you're just like, 'Nah, it's not gonna happen'."

Vukona's chance to prevent a repeat of those scenes will first come on Wednesday night in Western Australia, when the teams who have shared the last six Australian NBL championships meet in game one of the grand finals.

That share, to be fair to the Breakers, is a little unbalanced, given the Kiwi club own four of those six titles. Since the first three rings in their collection came at the expense of the Wildcats - once in the semfinals, twice in the showpiece - it's only appropriate for Perth to be standing in the opposite corner when the Breakers attempt to become only the second side, after their opponents, to raise a fifth banner.

And it's also entirely understandable, given the physicality with which both teams play and the number of skirmishes that mark their clashes, for a little ill will to creep into Vukona's mind when anticipating the three-game set.

"In terms of personnel, we know each inside and out," he said. "Their core group and our core group have gone against it pretty hard. That's what we love about the match-up: we have a lot of respect for them but we love beating them as well."

Vukona is certainly correct when suggesting their contempt has been bred by familiarity. Four of the Breakers' starting five were on the club's books when they played Perth in the 2011 semifinals - Cedric Jackson joined the following season - while the Wildcats will also dress four survivors from that series: Damian Martin, Matt Knight, Jesse Wagstaff and Shawn Redhage.

It's the presence of Redhage, in particular, who is bound to incite bad blood between the clubs. The one-time Breaker has lost none of his boundary-pushing edge under the rim and Vukona knows almost every rebound pulled down against Perth will arrive with an elbow from Redhage.

"You just have to take it - as the old Bible verse says, you just turn the other cheek," Vukona said. "We expect it but we have to be smart about it. We're going over there to their turf and we can't get ourselves into foul trouble straight away. The intensity has to be there but we can't lose focus."

If the series needed any further spice, another pinch is added when recalling the last time these teams met. There was little remarkable about the Breakers' 21-point win in December, a victory that levelled the season series, but what happened afterwards generated headlines.

Having alleged that Wildcats centre Nate Jawai was racially abused by the North Shore Events Centre crowd, Perth coach Trevor Gleeson suggested pursuing a formal complaint. But, after the league investigated the issue informally, both clubs agreed to move on.

"The NBL discussed it with both clubs and we agreed to not take it any further," said Breakers general manager Richard Clarke. "There wasn't anything from our point of view to suggest racial abuse had taken place or whether there had been an misinterpretation.

"There's certainly no issues between the two clubs - other than the standard rivalry."

- NZ Herald

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