152 tests and out – the great Mika Vukona retires from international basketball

One of the greatest to have ever worn the black singlet, after a 16-year stint in the Tall Blacks, has called time on international basketball after a typically selfless display of love and commitment to his country.

Mika Vukona was called into the Tall Blacks this week by his good friend and former teammate, Pero Cameron, to help the New Zealand Tall Blacks stay the course as they look to the 2021 Asia Cup, 2023 World Cup and potentially the 2024 Olympics.

It seems fitting that the typically understated Vukona chose a post-game press conference, where he was asked by a local journalist if he would be back, to announce his retirement without fanfare. It comes after a test where the talismanic Captain’s career totalled 152 of the 154 test caps on display across the rosters of both teams.

“I’ve enjoyed my career – loved it. For me this game is something that was a unique situation and I always love playing situations like this, but that’s it. I’ve been blessed to be able to play this long and see some new talent, but it’s time to let the new crew come through,” said Vukona.

The announcement came after the Tall Blacks fell to the Australian Boomers tonight in Cairns, going down 52 to 81 at the FIBA 2021 Asia Cup Qualifier event.

This game was always tough to forecast with so many fresh faces taking the court. The Australians rostered a team of future stars from the lauded Centre of Excellence and the NBA Global Academy. Pero Cameron found himself restricted to players in Australia. Ten of the 12 Kiwis are permanently based over the ditch, while Jordan Hunt and Taine Murray the only two New Zealand based players in the Australia and released by their ANBL clubs.

The Boomers came out firing, with a barrage of three pointers in the first quarter, before the steadying hands of Taine Murray and Houston O’Riley brought the Tall Blacks back to ten by half-time.

A nice run from the Tall Blacks in the third quarter saw the deficit cut to five thanks to the sting of a Jono Janssen three. But the youthful Australian side, fit and well-oiled, were just too consistent for the ex-pat Tall Blacks in the fourth.

While this is the first loss for the Tall Blacks in these qualifiers, there is reward in seeing this game played. During the months of lead up with reschedules, quarantine restrictions and navigating the ongoing complications of playing international sport during a global pandemic, the Tall Blacks are still in this competition. The Asia Cup Qualifiers not only lead to the Asia Cup, but also to the 2023 World Cup and potentially the 2024 Olympics.

The Tall Blacks now drop to second on the table with three games to go – two against Hong Kong and one against Guam. The top two automatically qualify for the Asia Cup in August, to be held in  Indonesia.

Pero Cameron applauded this team, although defeated, admiring them for their commitment to ensure the Tall Blacks remained in the FIBA cycle.

“I think there’s something to be said, not just for the warriors who have played for the black in the past, but also for these guys who bleed the black. This was a unique challenge. There’s a lot of reasons why this game had to go ahead. I think we all love a challenge. What both basketball Federations have done – they’ve done a good job.”

Captain Vukona also acknowledge this ‘makeshift’ team.

“I’m just proud of the guys – to be able to put their hands up and say yep, we will walk off the cliff with you and represent the jersey and wear it with pride. I said to them after the game, ‘be disappointed with the scoreline, the fact that we lost, but don’t be ashamed for what you did out there’.

“These guys have literally come off the side of the street. They have had to put their jobs on hold and they’ve said, ‘we will give it crack and go against these Aussies’. They put their hands up and said they are going to play for the black jersey, that’s awesome,” said Vukona.

Ultimately the evening really came back to Mika Vukona hanging up the black singlet. Pero Cameron said Vukona was juggling a lot of things, but his unwavering devotion to New Zealand was at the forefront.

“[Tall Blacks] put everything on hold for the singlet. And when it comes towards the end of their career, the excitement of moving into the next stage of their life, that career transition is exciting. Then Mika is into it after a year and a bit, and then I call him back in.  It wouldn’t matter if he had one leg – it’s his leadership that I want [the debutants] to get a taste of and what he brings to a game every day.

“The opportunity for [Mika] to step in, put the black on and lead these young kids – from the outside, if you know, it’s terrifying. When I asked the question, he just said yes in two seconds.

“It wasn’t about anything else but leading these ten new guys. It’s a hiding to none and we knew it and spoke about it. But, like I said, he stepped up the challenge and I can’t think of a better person to do it,” said Cameron.

After the message was sent immediately after the press conference via the @TallBlacks twitter account, Tall Black Isaac Fotu tweeted from Italy (where he plays for Reyer Venezia of the Liga Basket Serie A).

“Mika was the first person I looked up to on the basketball court and still do. I remember being in awe as a teenager working at the Breakers games and watching Mika play. Congratulations on a great international career.”

Basketball New Zealand Chief Executive Iain Potter also acknowledged Vukona’s service after the game.

“For 16 years, Mika Vukona has been an exemplary example of what it means to be a Tall Black. Countless New Zealand basketballers will have looked up to and learnt from Mika. While the Tall Blacks will miss him on the court, his legacy will live on as one of the greatest to have ever worn the black.”

Notably Vukona’s last words in the black singlet was to acknowledge the emerging talent that had stepped on court earlier, giving special mentions for his teammates Taine Murray, Jordan Hunt, Ben Gold, Tane Kirisome and Jono Janssen. He added “whenever [Pero] needs a hand, in terms of just having a yarn to these guys, I will.”

Vukona bows out as the fourth all-time most-capped Tall Blacks player behind Pero Cameron, Kirk Penney and Phill Jones.