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For Patty Mills, leadership extends from sea to sea

Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Overnight in Australia, Basketball Australia made a change in its policy on braids — yes, braids — worn by women players in the WNBL, the country’s women’s basketball league. From now on, players will not be required to tie their braids in a bun, a policy that American import Tiffany Mitchell had objected to — and called racist.

The policy had become quite the controversy Down Under after Mitchell highlighted how, contrary to Basketball Australia’s claim, FIBA had dropped their braid-to-bun rule. BA reviewed the policy and, on Tuesday, described it as “outdated and culturally insensitive”.

Mitchell and Australian player Ezi Magbegor received apology letters and the policy was removed by the WNBL Commission.

In pushing for the change, Mitchell and Magbegor got an assist from Patty Mills who tweeted out this in the midst of the controversy.

And who better than Mills? He is not just a Nets guard from Australia, but an icon, a national treasure and the conscience of Australia sport.

This summer, the 33-year-old became the first Australian of Aboriginal origin to carry the country’s flag into an Olympic stadium, then led the Boomers to their first Olympic medal in men’s basketball, a bronze, with a 42-point explosion vs. Luka Doncic and Slovenia. Then a few weeks ago, he was named winner of the Don Award, the highest honor in Australian sport,

“I go about my craft in how I think is the right way to go about it, but the recognition – this level of recognition – I think is about beyond basketball,” Mills said on receiving the award. “It’s beyond sport. For me to be recognized, this is about unity and the impact I think that this can have on the rest of the country.

“And I think that’s important for someone that minorities can look to and be inspired by. They can see it as evidence [of] something that can be achievable and they can start dreaming.”

Mills work on behalf of Mitchell and Magbegor is typical of the role Mills plays in Australia, as Brian Lewis wrote earlier this week for New York Post Sports+. He brings people together ... and gets results on and off the court. Ask Adam Caporn, who’s the head coach of the Long Island Nets and was an assistant coach of the national team.

“We’re all really obviously happy for Patty and proud of him [winning] such a prestigious award,” Caporn told The Post, “and what sticks out to me most is what he means to people across all levels of society, sport, community, families, young people.

“He’s an outstanding human, citizen, competitor. It was great to be a part of the team with him, feel his leadership and his charisma and his friendship. And we’re just a really lucky country to have a role model like that to look up to.”

The Nets are lucky to have him as well, noted Steve Nash on Tuesday night after Mills scored 30 points in what was the most satisfying, if not the best, win of the season.

“Patty’s added so much to our franchise. He made big shots down the stretch and he’s an incredible competitor, a clutch player and he’s a proven winner and champion,” said Nash on Mills’ play in the fourth and in OT. “Just his spirit, winning mentality and attitude is just off the charts. He’s added so much to our group. He’s been a guy that’s tied it all together, spiritually held us all together and leaves it all out there. His game speaks for itself. That fourth-quarter performance, he deserves it for everything he foes for our team.”

That leadership comes in part from his heritage. His uncle, Danny Morseu, was only the second indigenous Aussie to play for the national team and his great uncle, Eddie Mabo, was a leader among the indigenous people of the continent, generally recognized, in Mills’ words, as “the Martin Luther King Jr. of Australia.”

So, Mills understood in stark, personal terms how things worked in Australia (and the world) and what he could do about it. As Lewis writes, Mills’ mother, Yvonne, was part of Australia’s “Stolen Generation.” As the daughter of a white father and Aboriginal mother, she and her four older siblings were removed from their parents by the state following their separation in 1949 and put in an institution before ultimately being sent to live with a white family. When he heard the story, he’s said, it was a turning point in his life.

“You learn from those moments, even though those were tough times and left you in tears because you didn’t know how else to handle it,” Mills told ESPN in 2017. “But at the same time, my mum experienced far worse than I could ever imagine. That in itself is very motivating. I got it tough, but I can’t even imagine what the Stolen Generation went through.”

Lewis enumerated Mills efforts on behalf of his people, from championing clean water to donating a million dollars — his earnings in the 2020 “bubble” — to Australia’s Black Lives Matter and other anti-racism initiatives.

The Nets got him at a bargain price this summer in large measure because he trusted his former Spurs teammate — and New Zealander — Sean Marks. It’s hard to imagine a better off-season signing. More than one pundit have said it was indeed the best, based on fit ... and now results. He’s averaging 13.3 points a game (a career high) and shooting 44.7 percent from three (a career high) while making 3.2 per game (a career high), all of it helping the Nets make up for the loss of an absent Kyrie Irving and an injured Joe Harris.

As Nash has said. “His motives are so pure: He wants this team to do well, he wants to see his teammates thrive, he wants to help the group.”

As Mitchell and Magbegor know, that desire can cross oceans and mount barriers.