What are we losing with Mika Vukona’s retirement?

Vukona has announced his retirement from international basketball, a move which signals that his days as a professional basketballer are numbered.

Using sportspeople as personal heroes and role models is a bad idea. No one should do it. It’s dumb.

Mika Vukona is the exception that proves the rule. Basketball fan or not, Mika Vukona is someone worth idolising.

As a Kiwi who was lucky enough to grow up supporting the dynastic Breakers of the 2010s, I speak from personal experience. His return to New Zealand back in 2010 was the driving force behind an uber-talented Breakers team evolving into a group of champions. He added all the intangibles that the Breakers lacked: heart, leadership, tenacity, and a truly unstoppable will to win.

Because of those incredible intangibles, Mika was, and still is, my favourite player of all time. To say that the news of his international retirement turned me into an emotional trainwreck spiralling down a Vukona-related YouTube rabbit hole is an understatement.

Vukona hasn’t officially retired from basketball altogether. He might still pop up in state leagues — he was flying under the radar in the QSL late last year. But as far as high-profile, truly meaningful basketball goes, his retirement from the international scene essentially spells the end of his illustrious professional career.

Any Vukona fan, regardless of nationality, would’ve loved to see Vukona go out on top, in one way or another. But to end his international career as an emergency call up in the middle of a pandemic for a Tall Blacks side only able to bring in Australian-based players not playing in the NBL is... oddly fitting.

It’s an act that is symbolic of the qualities which make him so revered within Oceanic basketball circles. It exemplifies his qualities as both the most loyal possible servant of New Zealand basketball, and the single greatest leader that basketball on this side of the Tasman could possibly ask for — a combination only Mika could possibly stitch together.

Mika didn’t need to play in that game. He’s 38 and had virtually nothing to gain. The game was utterly meaningless. His lengthy career and play style must mean that his body is banged up beyond measure. In essence, he was doing a favour to a team and organisation that have not always done right by him. If I were in his shoes, knowing what he has already given to New Zealand basketball, I would have politely declined.

But Mika isn’t me. 

Mika has a sense of loyalty and commitment that is second to none. Take what he did just last year with the NZNBL. Instead of staying untroubled at home in Queensland, Vukona decided to play in the NZNBL’s ragtag Showdown for not a lot of money despite having to go through New Zealand’s rigorous two-week quarantine system. He then had to get his appendix removed immediately upon exiting quarantine and, yes, still played. I can only imagine that he did that almost entirely because of his love for the mighty Nelson Giants and desire to see New Zealand basketball prosper.

His commitment and unwavering loyalty is even better represented by his superhuman ability to play through debilitating injuries. Prior to the 2017-18 season, Vukona noted that he hadn’t been fully healthy for the two years before that as he was playing through a hamstring tear. In 2011 he famously played through torn knee ligaments to help the Breakers win a do-or-die game 2 in Perth. In 2019, he asked Andrej Lemanis to allow him to play through a partially torn Achilles so that he could inspire a middling Bullets team in the same way that he did in 2011. 

These acts aren’t performative for Mika. They’re who he is. He knows legitimately no other way.

If you account for his leadership, too, he holds an even higher place in the Oceanic basketball pantheon. Taking Pero Cameron’s offer to play for the Tall Blacks in Cairns showed not only his loyalty to New Zealand basketball, but also how much he cares about nurturing the next generation of Kiwi hoopers.

Given how often he’s done it over the last decade and a half, it’s not like Vukona was obligated to fulfil that leadership role again. Yet, he still sees it as his role to support the next generation. As Cameron noted, “when I asked the question, he just said yes in two seconds. It wasn’t about anything else but leading these ten new guys.” He knows how important it is that youngsters like Ben Gold and Taine Murray are instilled with the right work ethic. He knows how big of an impact his leadership and example can have.

Look no further than Steven Adams for the effect Vukona’s example can have. 

When a bloke who is making close to US$30 million this season goes out of his way to mention you as his biggest inspiration, you know you’re doing something right as a leader.

What’s funny about Vukona, is that if it wasn’t for his legendary loyalty and leadership, we’d remember all of his on-court attributes all the more clearly. In all honesty, it’s a crime that we don’t talk about those on-court gifts more — to use Bill Simmons’ terminology, Vukona was a complete unicorn in his prime.

Prime Vukona was a 6’6’’ point forward who loved throwing one-handed cross-court bullets, contested the boards like his life depended on it, hardly ever shot outside of about 15 feet, and capably defended 1 through 5 without ever being mismatched. By the time he entered his 30s he could barely dunk and still remained a terror all over the court.

Seriously, tell me someone else who fits that description. Point me in the direction of another power forward who could lead a press and snuff out ball-handlers with ease, whilst also doubling as the only guy I would choose to grab a clutch offensive rebound if my life depended on it. Point me in the direction of another player who had as many obvious deficiencies and still managed to be the single most crucial cog of a dynasty.

And that’s all without mentioning the last piece of his unicorn-ness: his absurd longevity and consistency. Despite the countless nagging injuries and intensity with which he played, Vukona was essentially the same player from 2005, when he got his first full-time NBL roster spot, all the way through to 2019. In that span, his box score stats barely changed from year-to-year. During those fourteen seasons, Vukona missed just seven games, playing 438 out of a possible 445. He added 152 Tall Blacks caps to boot.

What a freak. What a warrior.

While Vukona seems like a basketball dinosaur, if you add all of those on-court attributes together and you essentially get the ultimate modern day power forward. His ability to be a Swiss army knife point forward who can switch on to anyone is what teams crave and are searching far and wide for today, even more than they did 15 years ago. If 21 year old Vukona was around now, teams would be clamouring for him, thinking he was the next Draymond Green.

That diverse collection of attributes came to the fore once he returned to New Zealand in 2010. He became an NBL champion with the South Dragons in 2009, but he truly came into his own as the uncompromising, brilliant leader and legend that he is once he returned to the Breakers.

There were far more talented players that suited up for the Breakers during their run of four titles in five years, but none were more integral throughout. His return brought the fire, will to win, and determination that the Breakers were missing. He added the imperceptible ingredients which all championship teams have.

Throughout that run, there are dozens of games in which the often overlooked importance of Vukona is on full display. The aforementioned 2011 do or die game 2 in Perth, in which Vukona collected a crucial double double on a bung knee stands out. Still, there are numerous others which don’t get talked about.

Take, for instance, the 2015 semi-final series against the lava-hot Adelaide 36ers who had won their last 10 games of the regular season. Instead of that form continuing, the Breakers blew out Adelaide in game 1, sparked by a dominant Vukona-led press, and intensity that the Sixers couldn’t handle. He topped it off with a tone-setting, scuffle with Anthony Petrie, despite being up 30.

The great Marc Hinton compared Vukona’s performance in that game to that of a “French rugby player in the '80s -- eyes bulging, nostrils flaring and muscles flexing.”

Vukona’s performance during the 2016 semi-finals was even greater. Those Breakers scraped into the playoffs and were forced to face top-seeded Melbourne United. Undeterred, Vukona racked up 11 points, 13 rebounds, five assists, and four steals in game one, en route to a series sweep. 

In all honesty, though, Vukona’s impact is best demonstrated by what has happened since 2018, the last Breakers playoff run. That season’s Breakers were old and way down on talent. There was no Corey Webster, Cedric Jackson, Gary Wilkinson, or Tai Wesley. Instead they had Vukona, Kirk Penney on his last legs, a broken down Alex Pledger, and a couple of imports. They stumbled into the playoffs, not because of their talent but because they embodied everything Vukona brought to the table.

And yet, they gave Melbourne’s 2018 team (probably the most stacked starting lineup in league history) one helluva run for their money. 

After that game, Matt Walsh and company bought the Breakers, which was quickly followed by a decision to let Vukona walk to Brisbane. They have not returned to the playoffs since.

Under new ownership, the Breakers have prioritised star power, season ticket numbers, and jersey sales over the intangibles Vukona brought. The likes of the Webster brothers, Lamar Patterson, Shawn Long, and RJ Hampton (who was, for some reason, allowed to take Vukona’s number) are seen as more important.

The Breakers that Vukona was so integral to building are dead. It’s understandable why: the Breakers are a business. By the end of Vukona’s tenure, crowd numbers were tragic — his last playoff game in New Zealand was played at a half-full Vector Arena. Despite its success, the club simply didn’t make enough money to keep up with the NBL’s Joneses.

From that perspective, it's hard to criticise Walsh and the Breakers for that decision. The prioritisation the Breakers have made, in many ways, reflects what is happening to most sports clubs trying to carve out a market.

The intangibles that Vukona offered simply don't hold as much value anymore. Look around the NBL today and you’ll find so few who bring a fraction of the stuff which Vukona brought to the table. It’s the stuff that champions are made out of, and it’s the stuff that, for a lot of us, made us fall in love with sports as a whole.

On top of his rare combination of attributes, what makes Vukona the ultimate unicorn is that he was able to last so long in a sport and league that seemed to be going away from the mentality and values which he holds. He had wisdom beyond his years, the toughness and guts of players from the 80s and 90s, but also the adaptable set of skills needed to play at an elite level in the 2010s. To see another player in our part of the world offer that same combination seems like an impossibility.

If his international retirement really does spell the end of his professional career, the hard truth is that we’ll probably never get close to seeing a player quite like Mika Vukona again.

It may feel like we’re losing a ton with his exit, and yet, his impact will be felt long past that final Tall Blacks game. The generations that Vukona helped nurture will continue to follow in his footsteps, and his impact on basketball in this part of the globe will remain immeasurable. I think we all know by now that to him, that’s all that matters.