Hungry Jack's NBL
New Zealand basketball legend Mika Vukona is set to play his 350th NBL game on Friday night, when the defending Champion Breakers host the Adelaide 36ers at Auckland’s North Shore Events Centre. Vukona will become the first New Zealander to join the NBL’s 350-game club, having played a club record 282 games with the Breakers either side of short stints with the South Dragons and Gold Coast Blaze. It’s a fantastic achievement by one of the League’s most highly-respected players. Much has been written and spoken about Vukona over his 13-year NBL career. He is one of only four men to have won five NBL Championships and stories of his physical resilience, strong family values and relentless approach to the game are well known. In many ways he’s like the Luke Hodge of basketball, a bloke who team-mates truly love and opponents deeply respect. To the inner sanctum at the Breakers, though, more than anything else Vukona is the cornerstone of their much-envied team culture. “Mika is kind of like our Timmy (Duncan),” agreed teammate Thomas Abercrombie when offered the comparison. “He is the captain of our team, the leader; he's the one we turn to in tough times. A lot of the culture we've been able to build is because of the way he leads and communicates with everyone. He's been a massive part of establishing what this club is all about.” That Breakers culture – the culture that Vukona has been so important in building over the years – can be described by one, simple, four letter word: CHUR. ‘Chur’ is a slang Kiwi term used to say things like ‘thanks’ and ‘cheers’. It has become the essence of who the Breakers are and what they’re about – the most important word in their team’s collective vocabulary. “It’s a little word that makes up who we are as a team,” championship coach Dean Vickerman explains. As part of building their identity and culture, the Breakers assigned a meaningful word for each of chur’s four letters. Four descriptive words that, together, define the self-image of the most successful NBL club in recent history. According to Vickerman, Vukona is the team’s living, breathing embodiment of that culture. “Mika is the guy who is selected as our captain because he is the most ‘chur’ on our team,” Vickerman explains. “He lives that every day and he's an example of it.” Ask a Breaker what the four ‘chur’ words are and you’ll be met with stiff resistance. Although Vickerman did unveil one when describing the importance of Vukona. “The ‘R’ in ‘chur’ stands for relentless and there is no one more relentless than him in the league.” Vukona’s team-mates view him as the guy you want beside you in the trenches. “Mika's relentless and he loves to win and will do so at any cost. You know when you're playing with him, he's never going to take any shortcuts,” Abercrombie said. “When you get yourself into close games and championship situations it's the little things that make all the difference. Having a guy like Mika who is willing to do those things time and again and never take a backward step, that's a massive reason why we've had so much success over the years.” Of course, Vukona’s influence on the Breakers extends much further than the hardwood. His friendly and caring personality have helped to build a genuine family feel within the club. “He's just such a great player and a great guy off the court as well. I'm very happy he's my teammate,” said import Charles Jackson recently. Try to find a Breaker who doesn’t echo those sentiments… you won’t. “He’s an unbelievable player and teammate,” said Abercrombie. “But, away from the court, he’s also a great friend who cares about all of his teammates which is a big part of what our club’s about. He’s been big in instigating that.” Above all else, Mika Vukona is a family man. He loves his kids and spends as much time with them as he can. Vickerman believes Vukona’s sense of family – which he says was partly shaped by former teammate C.J. Bruton – is an important aspect of his influence on the current crop of Breakers, many of whom have either recently become fathers or are about to. “That's something [Mika] learnt a bit about from C.J., how to be a really good father in a professional environment,” Vickerman said. “Those two got quite close with young kids and he's a great example now to these younger guys.” Vukona, 33, signed a new three-year deal with the Breakers this past off-season but Vickerman says the skipper does not intend that contract to be his last. “He's told everybody at the club that it's not going to be his last contract,” Vickerman said. “He's going to play another one after that. He's game as long as his body is good and he is capable of doing that.” 350 games and counting. Chur!