Mika Vukona is in for New Zealand’s hybrid 2020 NBL, giving the contentious league an instant credibility hit as it builds towards its June 23 tipoff.
The 38-year-old Kiwi hoops legend and 162-cap Tall Blacks captain has put his name forward for the NBL’s historic draft, marking arguably the most significant commitment the dramatically revamped league has had since it opened up for registrations.
With leading clubs Wellington Saints, Southland Sharks and Hawke’s Bay Hawks all withdrawing from the 2020 competition which is being run centrally from NBL HQ by hard-working General Manager Justin Nelson and the New Zealand Breakers’ five contracted players all electing to sidestep the six-week league, Vukona’s signing is a massive fillip.
The long-time Nelson Giants forward, who debuted for the club as a teenager in 2000, and five time Aussie NBL champ is New Zealand’s most experienced and respected active basketballer and his commitment to the Kiwi league sends a clear message that this is a competition worth getting behind.
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More so when you throw in the fact that the Queensland-based Kiwi — just off contract with the Brisbane Bullets of the ANBL — will have to sit through a two-week quarantine and be away from his family for a couple of months to line up in the league, where he’ll likely be pre-selected by the Giants.
Vukona said getting behind the competition was the least he could do at this stage of his storied career and felt the mandatory quarantine would just provide one more hurdle to overcome.
“It’s always hard every time you leave your family,” he said. “Obviously getting the blessing by the family was a huge thing. But quarantine will be something new and I’m always up for new challenges.”
Vukona said he had followed developments around the reformatted competition, which will see the seven participating clubs play three times a week at Auckland’s Trust Arena as they build towards finals from July 28-August 1, and was impressed with how it had unfolded.
The league, which has a global pay-per-view platform and will distribute talent as evenly as possible via its historic draft, will be one of the first high-level hoops competitions to make it back on court in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Just watching [the league’s plan] unfold and the amount of hours and energy that people have put into it, it looks pretty awesome,” added Vukona. “With everything that’s unfolded in the last couple of weeks, I thought it would be fun to go back to the roots and enjoy playing.
“I love playing … it’s a bit of an addiction.
“This is where I made a living; this is where I got discovered, playing in this league.”
Vukona also backed the NBL, which had attracted an intriguing mix of New Zealand’s brightest young talent and a swag of more seasoned operators among more than 350 draft registrations already, to throw up contenders for both national honours and Aussie NBL contracts.
“[Tall Blacks coach] Pero [Cameron] is definitely going to be keeping an eye on this. You just never know who is going to spring up and put their hands up. We had Rob Loe when he was 16 or 17, and Isaac Fotu is another example.
“It’s going to be great to see the talent coming through. It’s also huge for guys that are free agents or fringe players in the ANBL — it’s a great position to showcase your talents. We’ve had coaches over [in Australia] talk about it.”
With basketball shut down in Australia because of Covid-19, Vukona said 10 weeks in lockdown had allowed him to get his veteran body as ready as it could be for the intense hitout looming.
“I had a pretty light load during the ANBL, plus getting away for 10 weeks has been great for me. I think that is why the fire is there.
“It’s an opportunity to play and within a six-week period, three games a week — for me, as a basketball nut, it’s heaven.”
The June 11 12-round draft will decide lineups, but the young players who end up alongside Vukona can be sure of a valuable experience, soaking up the knowledge and nous of one of the best to have lacked ’em up in this country.
Vukona debuted for the Tall Blacks in 2005 and has appeared at two Commonwealth Games (2006 and 2018) and three Fiba World Cups (2006, 2010 and 2014) during a standout international career.
He spent 13 seasons with the Breakers in the ANBL, playing a record 354 games before signing a two-year contract with the Brisbane Bullets for 2018-2020. He has won five ANBL titles — four with the Breakers and one with South Dragons in 2009.