Saturday, October 8, 2022

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Samuel Davis, Cape York Weekly

Megastar athletes are nice but meat pies, roadhouse burgers and hugs from daughter Talei are what really fuel this truckie.

Cooktown is the latest stop for Junior Virantuleo, whose amazing basketball journey took him from the cabin to courtside at the Tokyo Olympics last year.

And after touching down recently following a stint with the Utah Jazz, the man who made a living hauling prime movers just 18 months ago quickly proved he’s still the same bloke.

“I got off the flight at five-am and got a Big Mac straight away,” Viranatuleo said.

“The meat and the salad just taste so much fresher here.

“After the burger, I really felt like an old-fashioned meat pie – just plain – and it was so good.”

Former truck driver still pinching himself after landing NBA role

The hardest working man in Australian basketball is finally taking a break.

After 18 months of late night laundry, laying out jerseys and living off almost no sleep, Junior Viranatuleo is back where his wild journey started.

The Cooktown truckie, who swapped the cabin for courtside at some of the biggest arenas in the world, returned home this month.

And after putting his dogeared passport to one side, hugging his daughter, Talei, and wife, Ashton, the famously tireless Junior got a chance to rest and reflect.

First, there was the Boomers breakthrough bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics where he worked as team manager – but so much more in the eyes of the players.

“I can’t speak highly enough of him,” guard Matthew Dellavedova said following the historic win over Slovenia.

“(He’s got a) relentless work ethic and goes way above his job description.”

Then came the dream job as equipment manager with the Utah Jazz in the NBA, a deep playoff run and a chance to rub shoulders with some of the best athletes in the world each day.

The Boomers celebrated their 2021 Olympics bronze medal win inside Saitama Super Arena, Oklahoma City Thunder guard and fellow Aussie Josh Giddey and Junior Virantuleo catching up on the road, Aussies abroad Junior Virantuleo, Joe Ingles and Toronto Raptors assistant coach Trevor Gleeson. Photos courtesy Cape York Weekly

“I had a good relationship with all the guys like Donovan (Mitchell), (Jordan) Clarkson, Mike Conley and Rudy Gobert,” Junior said of Utah’s playing cohort.

“They were a really good group.”

The Jazz lost to the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the play-offs last season.

But Junior wonders what might have been if fellow Aussie and former Utah star Joe Ingles hadn’t suffered a season-ending knee injury.

“That really changed everything,” he said. “Not having him around, he’s a glue person and such a culture guy.

“But Joe and (his wife) Renae were amazing at helping me settle in. They’re like blood family now.”

Junior’s incredible journey to the Olympics and the NBA started in 2020 when Covid delayed Australia’s domestic competition, the NBL, from tipping off.

A team manager with the Brisbane Bullets at the time, the young dad moved to far north Queensland to work as a truck driver, delivering essential supplies to outback Indigenous communities.

But a brief stint with an NBL club in 2021 led to an invitation to join the men’s national team in Los Angeles ahead of the Tokyo Olympics.

Then, at Boomers legend Patty Mills’ insistence, Junior accompanied the Olympic flag bearer into Japan National Stadium at the opening ceremony.

“I was so emotional when he asked me,” he said. “I was literally bawling my eyes out.”

For NBL legend CJ Bruton, who worked with Junior as an assistant coach at the Bullets and the Boomers, his close mate’s will to see others succeed is what makes him special.

“When a player walks into the Boomers he sees the way Junior sets up a locker room,” Bruton said.

“(They see) how the jersey’s laid out, Indigenous flags are on the walls, he has messages for you from your family and fans to inspire you.

“It just shows you the value every member of an organisation has on your culture.

“Patty Mills was like, ‘If we’re going to achieve a medal, we need Junior’.

“He knew that every part counts. For Patty to recognise that and to see how valuable he is to our Australian culture says it all.

“It’s about the dedication you give to your job and understanding the heartbeat of a team.”

Following the Olympics, Junior’s work with the Jazz was rewarding but relentless.

“I did close to 90 games for the Jazz this season,” he said.

“Usually, I start at 7am and get out of the arena around 9pm.

Then, you travel to the next game, so you load the equipment truck, unload it onto the conveyor belt and walk onto the plane.

“When you land, you’re straight off the tarmac and trying to get ready. That’s usually two-or-three o’clock in the morning. You can work a 24-hour day easily sometimes.”

Having spent a fortnight back in Cooktown, the young dad plans to return to Salt Lake City with his family in October.

“It’s really an eye-opener coming from the Boomers and Aussie culture that is so together,” he said.

“Not every team in the NBA is like that. Some guys just come in and go home.

“The whole lifestyle of how the NBA operates and the unlimited budget for every department is so different (to Australia).

“You arrive and they give you four suitcases worth of Jazz gear. I’m used to having two pairs of shoes.

“But with the Jazz you get given 12 pairs.”

Having seen some of the world’s greatest cities in recent years has also given him a deeper appreciation for Cooktown.

“The Great Barrier Reef is right at our doorstep,” Junior said.

“You kind of take it for granted when you live here.

“It’s only when you leave you realise how special it is.”

Cape York Weekly 16 August 2022

This article appeared in Cape York Weekly, 16 August 2022.

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