He's 35 going on 21 he reckons.
“The mind is playing like a 21-year-old,” says Mike Vukona. Okay, he holds a Fijian passport and plays out of Auckland, but he will always be one of Tauranga's favourite sporting sons and certainly a best-ever basketball export.
“But whether the 35-year-old body is moving at the same speed and in the same direction as the 21-year-old mind is another thing.” Delightfully self-deprecating off court, ruthlessly efficient hard man on court.
And Vukona's back in Tauranga next Wednesday, back home with his beloved Breakers at the ASB Arena, for the team's final pre-season workout against the Brisbane Bullets.
“It's an awesome place,” says the product of Bethlehem College. “I spent weekends as a teenager getting around town with friends looking for a hoop. Or surfing at the Mount – trying to surf.”
And the young hoop man had some massive influences in this city. “They taught me how to play,” says Vukona, the Breakers club captain. And he utters their names reverently – coach Keith Marsh, the late referee Basil Marsh, coach Graham Jackson and Lester Whenuaroa at Bethlehem College.
“I was a raw kid and these men turned me into a basketballer. Helped me enjoy the game and understand it a little more.” They built a foundation for a 197cm (6ft 6i), 95kg professional power forward … one who's played more than 300 games for the Breakers, also a Tall Black and New Zealand NBLer. Done it all.
But it could have been different. Very, very different, had it not been for his mother, Marianne.
“I played rugby until I was 13,” explains Vukona.” At that point there were some serious injuries. “A couple of props received paralysing injuries. “Mum said nah, that's it. And whatever Mum said, I had to do.” A good call Mum because a stellar basketball career was born. “It's turned out well. But there's still a passion there for rugby – definitely.”
But two decades on the body had been hammered. There was big heart, big attitude but it wasn't translating on court; it wasn't the tough and aggressive Vukona Breakers' fans know and love. He took a season out of the game to recharge– no NBL and no Tall Blacks.
“Now the body is great – better than it has been for years.” He's toiled through a damaged hamstring and other small injuries. But now the attitude is back, as is the explosiveness. ”Great trainer – Claire Dallison – she's doing a great job.” A great job with everyone – it's a healthy, fully-fit roster headed towards the opening round of the NBL against the Taipans on Sunday, October 8 at Spark Arena in Auckland.
“Better than last year when we went into the season carrying a couple of pre-season injuries. But we are looking and feeling good – everyone is fizzing and completely motivated for the season.”
That's the inspirational leader talking – the man who says and does, and others follow.
Looks like Vukona's got moxy his back – he's enjoying hoops again and hopefully the body and the mind are again headed in the same direction at the same speed. The Bay boy Vukona and his Breakers are at the ASB Arena next Wednesday evening, September 27.