The Breakers are set to kick off their finals series against the Perth Wildcats at 11.30pm. The Crowd Goes Wild’s Andrew Mulligan explains why the match-up is the best rivalry in Australasian sport.
The All Blacks’ and Wallabies’ rivalry has nothing on the one between the New Zealand Breakers and the Perth Wildcats. Whereas New Zealand owns the Aussies 106 to 42 in all-time rugby match-ups, the win count difference between Australasian basketball’s top two franchises is vanishingly small – 26 to 25 in favour of Perth. The Bledisloe Cup is a great contest. There have been some memorable tests. But ‘Breakers v Wildcats’ is the most competitive Trans-Tasman sporting match-up, and it’s about to play out again on the NBL’s biggest stage.
To get a sense of this rivalry, you need to start at the beginning.
2011: The Mika Vukona knee game
The Breakers were raging hot favourites to win the NBL Championship in 2011. They had a 22-6 record; Kirk Penney was at the peak of his powers; and the team still came within a few plays of blowing their title chances in a tense semi-final series against the Wildcats.
Perth, the reigning 2010 champions, came out in Game 1 and thumped New Zealand 101-78, blowing them out with defensive pressure from point guard Damian Martin (incidentally, he is related to a Wiggle), the cold-blooded shooting of Kevin Lisch, and their trademark physicality.
It took a legendary contest to turn the series around. Mika Vukona, the Breakers’ undersized-but-inspirational power forward, seemed doubtful to play after partially tearing one of his knee ligaments in a Game 1 collision with Penney. But he strapped up his flapping body parts, took the floor, and played a vital role as the team eked out a win behind a massive shooting night from Penney, who went for 38 points in arguably his greatest game. Despite it becoming physically impossible for Penney to miss, it took two late 3 point bombs by streaky shooter Kevin Braswell to secure the unlikely victory. Game 3 was won by 16 points, and the Breakers lifted their first trophy by defeating the Cairns Taipans 2-1 in the finals series.
2012: The humiliation of Shawn Redhage
The following year, the two teams met in the Grand Finals. The Breakers finally felt like a big-time team, with the addition of home games at Vector Arena to their schedule. The series was another classic, with Cedric Jackson launching into his championship-winning ways, and grizzled veteran CJ Bruton rising to the occasion despite dodgy knees.
Game 1 was an overtime classic, with the Breakers winning despite Abercrombie sitting out with a bad ankle
The series should’ve been wrapped up in Game 2 in Perth, but for a bit of Wildcat luck. With under a minute to go, the Breakers’ irrepressible ginger-haired centre Gary Wilkinson inadvertently deflected a pass into his own hoop, giving Perth the lead 87-86. The Wildcats’ supremely hateable star Shawn Redhage sealed the game by blocking a runner from Bruton.
Upon his return in the Game 3 decider, Abercrombie floated across the lane to block a Shawn Redhage fast break with under a minute to go. Bruton hit clutch three after clutch three, and the Breakers took the game 79-73.
2013: Total victory
2013 was a clean sweep, sealed with a rare Breakers victory on the Wildcats’ home court. That stung Perth. To have a team celebrate on your floor is one thing, but for it to be the team they felt took their potential dynasty off them the previous two seasons was a bitter pill to swallow.
2016: A Wildcat revenge mission
Game 1 in Perth tonight should be a classic. When the opponent was confirmed on Saturday morning, Mika Vukona openly confirmed the Breakers hate the Wildcats. At what point does anyone in this country who plays professional sport even begin to contemplate saying that to the media before going into an arena filled with 14,000 Perth fans? Mika does. He doesn’t care either. The man is the driving force behind the team, and one who is not only immensely respected but feared at this time of year. His dedication and desire is legendary and the rebounding battle will see him at the heart of the series.
While Cedric Jackson has been on a tear and Tom Abercrombie has elevated his play to the next level, it’s the play of Corey Webster who will be key. He’s been in a funk the second half of the season, but an offensive re-alignment by coach Dean Vickerman has seen the ball out of his hands more, which frees him up for catch-and-shoot opportunities. Add in seven foot centre Alex Pledger’s elevation to the starting line-up, and the Breakers now have a nice symmetry about their rotations, with foul-prone rookie big man Charles Jackson able to be more effective off the bench.
This is the worst possible finals for the league because the interest levels on the eastern side of Australia will be so low. But it’s the best possible outcome for New Zealand basketball fans wanting to see another chapter play out in the greatest sporting rivalry this side of the equator. It might not be pretty basketball, but it will be intense. Tip-off can’t come soon enough. Here’s a rap by the 1989 Perth Wildcats to help you pass time until then. Hissssssss
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.