clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Patty Mills proving once again: it’s more than basketball

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Men’s Basketball Medal Ceremony: Day 15 Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Patty Mills is a national hero in Australia. Not just because of his basketball success: leading the Boomers, the Aussies’ national team when they first medaled in men’s’ basketball at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, being the first Aussie of indigenous heritage to win an NBA championship in 2014.

He is also an activist and has used his celebrity on the basketball court to draw attention to the plight of the country’s indigenous peoples. It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that he is the most recognized and most honored native Australian. It’s no wonder that after he led Boomers to the bronze back three years ago, “Patty for PM” bumper stickers popped up around Australia.

Although this season in Brooklyn may be a disappointment, he continues his work with his people half a world away, as Alec Schiffer writes Wednesday in The Athletic. Millis is the foremost advocate for Indigenous Basketball Australia, a league for the country’s 800,000 native Australians, one that focused not just on hooping but education and life skills.

“My vision for this is enormous,” Mills told Schiffer while conceding that at this point things are a bit bittersweet. The IBA is thriving but “There’s no one else in the pipeline,” Mills said of indigenous Australians. “I don’t want that to keep happening. So it’s just about providing opportunities and pathways for these kids.”

It’s not for lack of trying on Mills’ part. Schiffer recounts what it was like trying to build a basketball league in the midst of the pandemic and half a world away...

He and his wife, Alyssa, spent the quarantine working to build a league from scratch. The days quickly filled up with Zoom calls to Australia, 17 hours ahead of their home in San Antonio. Alyssa even proposed moving the couple’s mattress into the living room, which served as headquarters, in hopes of making it easier to work.

In Texas, the couple would stay up all night working and go to bed shortly after lunchtime, which put them on the same work schedule as those down under.

Now, three years later, the IBA is a reality and Mills has once again led his nation and his people.

“He’s a very caring, charismatic, loving human being,” Gregg Popovich, who coached Mills in San Antonio, told Schiffer. “Everybody is attracted to him. His love of other people and working for injustices and bringing people together was probably way more important to him than basketball.”

He is also part of a lineage that has changed Australia, the great-nephew of Eddie Mabo, an aboriginal leader who launched a lawsuit that for the first time permitted native Australians to inherit land, a change from what that one justice on Australia’s high court said, “made the indigenous inhabitants intruders in their own homes.”

Immensely proud of his heritage and his basketball success, Mills told Schiffer he is indeed worried that without the IBA, he might be unique in Australia’s basketball annals.

“There’s no one else in the pipeline,” Mills said. “I don’t want that to keep happening. So it’s just about providing opportunities and pathways for these kids.”

He added, “My vision for this is enormous.”

Ironically, his vision came to pass just when basketball had shut down, three years ago this month. The pandemic gave him the time to do what he had put off.

He also had a model to work with. He grew up in Canberra, the nation’s capital, almost exactly 10,000 miles from Brooklyn. There, he was part of The Shadows, a local team that gave the indigenous an opportunity to play basketball, form a community in the city.

Moreover, he understands that one NBA player can change basketball in his native land. Joe Embiid did that in Africa. Embiid, a native of Cameroon in west central Africa, helped spur the creation of the Basketball Africa League to establish a continental professional league. And it was Vince Carter whose presence in Toronto pushed Canadian basketball.

As Schiffer notes, Australia has become more than a great experiment. Aussies form a growing bloc of NBA players ... and coaches. On the Nets, there are two native Australians — Mills and Ben Simmons — and assistant coach, Adam Caporn. (And if you look at Australia the continent rather than just the country, you can add Sean Marks, too.) Beyond Brooklyn, Schiffer writes...

Through January 2023, according to the NBA, Australia ranked No. 1 in LeaguePass subscriptions for countries outside the United States. Mills is one of nine Aussies on an NBA roster, joined by teammate Ben Simmons and Oklahoma City guard Josh Giddey, to name a few. Australia is the third most-represented country in the league, behind only the United States and Canada. But that boom has missed most Indigenous Australians.

“We’re targeting aboriginal and Torres Strait island people, Indigenous Australians, who just can’t get into the main system that’s there,” Mills told Schiffer.

There are a number of challenges. Basketball is a city game and the country’s native population is spread out over the vast expanse of a U.S.-sized landmass not along the coasts, in part because of a national policy that forced them, like native Americans, to sanctioned territories to keep them separate from the white population. The lack of a basketball heritage is but one function of a racist policy.

Mills understands it will be difficult, but his personal story was too. As Schiffer recounts, Mills own mother was separated from her family at age 2 in 1949 as part of a government dictate, not reuniting with her parents until she was a teenager. She like so many were part of what Australians called The Stolen Generation.

He now has a deadline for his work: the summer of 2032 when the Olympics will come to Brisbane.

“The thought of having IBA kids have an opportunity to be a part of the home Olympics for me is … it might be even better than what I’ve achieved,” Mills said. “… I don’t know what that feeling would be like, but I can only imagine that it would be amazing.”

And just one more amazing moment in a life filled with them.