Cape York truck driver to join Utah Jazz support staff in National Basketball Association
An outback trucker embarks on a remarkable journey from the Cape York wilderness to one of the world’s largest sports franchises.
- Far North Queensland truck driver Junior Viranatuleo will join the Utah Jazz as the National Basketball Association’s outfit manager this week.
- The Boomers team manager has been working in Cape York since last year after the global pandemic delayed the start of the NBL’s domestic competition
- Viranatuleo to join fellow Australian Joe Ingles at Jazz
Junior Viranatuleo is no stranger to long journeys, traversing unpaved roads delivering essential supplies to isolated indigenous communities.
But the driver’s next stop will see him swap the tropical terrain of Cape Town for the snow-capped mountains of Salt Lake City where he will join the Utah Jazz professional basketball team as equipment manager.
“It’s going to be a big adjustment,” said the humble Far North Queenslander at a pit stop near Lakeland, 250 kilometers north of Cairns.
Trading the sweltering heat for sub-zero temperatures is a challenge, he admits.
But if anyone can do it, Viranatuleo can.
He is the man who has forged an indestructible bond with basketball stars like Patty Mills, Joe Ingles and Matthew Dellavedova for more than a decade.
“But to be on top of basketball and work for a team that I’ve watched Michael Jordan play against and seen legends like Karl Malone and John Stockton play, it’s like ‘Wow!’
Viranatuleo’s whirlwind trip started with the Brisbane Bullets, followed by the Gold Coast Blaze, Adelaide 36ers, and then back to River City in recent years.
Late nights in hotel laundries and hours spent training early in the morning paid off when he caught the attention of the men’s national team.
In 2012, he joined the Boomers for the London Games where he became a trusted confidante of the core team that would eventually win bronze in Tokyo.
“He’s still on call,” said baby boomer Chris Goulding, impressed with his close mate.
“Junior is always working to make sure that the team environment is at an elite level.
“He’s as much a part of the team and the chemistry as any player and is still the hardest-working guy on tour, hands down.”
NBA champion and compatriot Boomer Matthew Dellavedova said Viranatuleo’s tireless efforts have helped shape the team culture of the Australians.
“I can’t talk about him enough,” said the former Cleveland Cavalier.
“[He’s got a] relentless work ethic and goes way beyond his job description.
A long road to the NBA
When COVID delayed the NBL season late last year, Viranatuleo took his talents north to Cooktown, leading major grocery-filled players to indigenous communities scattered across Cape Town.
“When I first took the step I wasn’t sure what it would look like, but I loved every part,” he said.
“Behind the wheel, it’s kind of my safe place, really.
“I love the long drives and the scenery. I love it, to be honest. It’s awesome.
“It’s such a beautiful part of the country. You can see the Great Barrier Reef from the beach and from our lookout.”
But it wasn’t long before Viranatuleo’s services were in demand again.
In February, Adelaide 36ers general manager Jeff Van Gronigen contacted him as the club “focused” on the league’s mid-season tournament in Victoria.
The role that a good team manager plays in a team is often underestimated, Van Gronigen says.
“It is a thankless task,” he said.
“You have a team full of well paid athletes and you need someone reliable in that role and if he wasn’t there you would be saying, ‘The fuck is everything?'”
A call from Olympic flag bearer Patty Mills to join the Boomers in Los Angeles ahead of the Tokyo Games quickly followed.
But the chance to stand alongside his great mate as he led Australia inside the Japan National Stadium in the opening ceremony exceeded his expectations.
“I was so moved when he asked me,” Viranatuleo said.
“Patty did it with his wife (Alyssa) on FaceTime. I was literally screaming.
“[Deputy Chef de mission and Olympic gold medallist] Susie O’Neill walked past her and she recorded herself saying, “Are you okay?”
“He literally caught me off guard. I was just excited to be part of an amazing group at the Olympics.
After entering quarantine in Brisbane after the Games, Jazz offered him the chance of a lifetime.
“[Boomers and Jazz player] Joe Ingles contacted me and asked if I would be interested in a concert in Utah, ”Viranatuleo said.
“Then we got a call [from the team], I sent them my CV and two days later they called me back and told me the job was mine if I wanted to take it. “
“I’m still overwhelmed by this. It’s so unexpected.”
Joining an NBA team with a salary cap of over $ 150 million for its roster will be a big change for the new Jazz manager, Van Gronigen said.
“The traveling groups are about three times the size of ours. NBA teams travel with around 45 to 50 people. There are thousands of them,” he said.
Viranatuleo says running a professional basketball team isn’t all that different from hauling supplies in his massive semi-trailer.
“I can definitely see some similarities,” he said.
“In the truck, you handle fragile goods and deliver them to remote indigenous communities.
“Now I take a flight to work with top basketball players.
“If you can be behind the scenes and be efficient and make sure everything is going well [that’s the aim].
“I don’t think there is much difference [between the two jobs] but, whatever it is, I’ll make sure it’s 110 percent done. “
Viranatuleo will report to Jazz this week.