For Patty Mills, giving voice to indigenous Australians comes naturally
It was a regular late-November afternoon in the nation’s capital. The San Antonio Spurs had arrived in town to face the Washington Wizards, looking to win their ninth game in a row.
Just a few hours earlier, coming in from the airport, the Spurs’ bus had driven past the White House on its way to the team hotel. Australian point guard Patty Mills took particular note of the cultural significance of the building, a symbol of freedom and democracy.
Not long after, when the players had time to themselves, Mills headed out for some sightseeing. While exploring the city, he was stopped by a man who told him that, as a Fijian expat, he was proud of the way Mills represented his indigenous culture while in the U.S.
Guard Patty Mills, one of six foreign-born players currently on the Spurs’ roster, knows what he wants to do when his playing career is over. “I want to keep educating the world on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture,” he said. Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports
The man added that Mills should keep it up and left him with a message to “stay strong.”
“He was a Fijian man not from around there, and we both happened to be in D.C. on the other side of the world from where we both are [from],” Mills recalled. “For him to stop me and take the two minutes to say what he said, that really caught my attention.”
For Mills, it was an affirmation that the message he has been spreading about his history and culture was being received by people from a wide range of backgrounds — not just those from his homeland.
Mills’ father, Benny, is a Torres Strait Islander, and his mother, Yvonne, is an Aboriginal Australian. Courtesy Benny Mills
“The way that I represent Australia and indigenous Australia affects other people as well from other cultures,” he said. “That was a real big eye-opener for me to know that I am doing a good job of what I’m doing and to keep it up and do it the right way.”
As one of Australia’s highest-profile active indigenous athletes, Mills has become an ambassador of sorts for his culture, a path he never dreamed he would navigate when he entered the NBA with the Portland Trail Blazers in 2009. It was unimaginable to Mills, 28, that it would get to a point where he is able to spread awareness of his culture around the U.S. every chance he gets. But he’s relishing the role.
“You don’t realize it at the time,” he said, “but the more you travel around the country and you see the different lifestyles, from Texas to New York to Ohio, and how different they are — all those [are] opportunities [that] people want to know about you.”
Mills, shown supporting the Australian women’s team in the gold-medal game at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, has played for the Boomers at the past three Summer Games. Quinn Rooney/Getty Images
Mills didn’t wait until he had the megaphone that comes with being an NBA player to spread the word about indigenous culture. As the only child of parents who both worked in indigenous affairs for the federal government, it came naturally to him early in life. (His mother, Yvonne, is an Aboriginal Australian, and his father, Benny, is a Torres Strait Islander, the ethnicity of indigenous people from the northern Australian islands between the mainland and Papua New Guinea.)
“He’s been doing it for some time,” Benny Mills said. “Even though he was young at primary school, he was doing it. Our job is promoting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues and affairs, so that’s the environment he grew up in.”
Patty Mills’ achievements have not gone unnoticed. Since 2006 — before he started college in the United States — he has received four awards from organizations recognizing accomplishments by Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders, including the NAIDOC (National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee).
Mills and his mother pose with his trophy for male sportsperson of the year at the 2012 Deadly Awards, which recognize the achievements of indigenous Australians. Courtesy Benny Mills
“They [awards] are acknowledgement for what he’s done to promote Torres Strait Islander culture and Aboriginal affairs over the years,” said Benny Mills, who added that the indigenous community has been “overwhelmed by the support” his son has shown them.
In recent years, the Spurs have been a melting pot of cultures (six foreign-born players are currently on the roster). The team’s inclusive approach, a staple of head coach Gregg Popovich’s tenure, has provided a welcoming environment for Mills’ message.
“We try to do our best to include everybody’s experience and culture,” Popovich said, “because that’s an interesting proposition, and it helps people become closer as they understand more about each other. In Patty’s case, we’ve had team situations where we’ve talked about his heritage, the Aboriginal aspect of Australian history. We talked about Mabo Day. He’s part of all that.”
Gregg Popovich, the Spurs’ five-time NBA champion head coach, has nurtured a welcoming environment for players of diverse backgrounds. Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Patty Mills, who played two seasons at Saint Mary’s College in the San Francisco Bay Area before entering the NBA, says he sees parallels between race-related issues in the U.S. and some of the injustices endured by indigenous people in Australia.
“You feel what the people here are going through, and you can relate to it a lot, knowing that you have family and people that are going through the same deal in Australia,” he said.
Mills grew up in Canberra and became the first native of Australia’s capital to reach the NBA. Courtesy Benny Mills
The Australian criminal justice system has been criticized for racial inequality, notably since a 1991 report on the deaths of 99 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in police or prison custody the previous decade. In the 25 years after that investigation, 340 more indigenous people died in custody. According to Australian Bureau of Statistics findings released last year, indigenous people made up 27 percent of the prison population, despite representing only 2 percent of the general population aged 18 and over.
“I’ve been quite fortunate to visit juvenile detention centers in Australia, jails in Western Australia,” Mills said. “To be able to go out there and visit and see what it’s like, you get a feeling for it. Then to come back over here and see the same things are happening over here, that’s another eye-opener in a different way.”
Growing up in Canberra, Australia’s capital, Mills says he endured his share of racist insults and vilification from a young age. He had nobody but his parents to turn to when he would hear taunts in the classroom or on the sporting field, and they always told him to take the high road.
“When those things are encountered, then we’ll deal with it and explain why that might be happening,” Benny Mills said. “He’s been brought up in an environment where we’ve been open and welcoming to everybody. That’s the lifestyle we fostered so he could get through it.”
Mills posed with the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy while draped in a Torres Strait Islander flag after the Spurs beat the Miami Heat in the 2014 NBA Finals. Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
Patty Mills got through it, but it wasn’t always easy.
“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,” he said. “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.”
One of the darkest chapters of Australian history was the forced removal of many indigenous children from their families. The practice began in the earliest days of European settlement and was government policy in parts of the country until the late 1960s. Children as young as babies were taken from their families to be placed in group homes, with foster families or on church missions. Hence, the “Stolen Generations.”
Mills received counsel from his parents, who worked in indigenous affairs for the Australian government, when he was the object of racist taunts as a child. Courtesy Benny Mills
It would be easy for Mills to be bitter, but that isn’t how he was raised. That isn’t what his parents instilled in him. Always take the high road.
Instead, he seeks to inform. Mills says education is the key to overcoming a lack of sensitivity in regard to race relations in many corners of Australia.
“Either it’s just not talked about it enough, or it’s not in schools, or whatever it may be, but it’s just obvious when someone says something and they don’t understand the repercussions of what they’re saying,” he said. “Talking about it, educating people about it from a young age in households, seems to be the biggest [issue]. It’s definitely something that needs to be worked on because it’s got to be learned so that we don’t keep making the same mistakes over again.”
Mills’ heritage and culture have shaped his life to this point and given him a calling. He is already thinking of the role he would like to take on once he retires from professional basketball.
“I think about it a lot because it is something I want to be involved in,” he said. “[I’m] just trying to find the right way to do it. I want to be an ambassador [for indigenous people]. I want to keep educating the world on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture. It’s who I am. It’s what I know — even more than basketball.
“To be able to promote it or educate it or teach it in a way, whether it’s through cultural centers or dancing or art or anything like that, I think is what I would want to do.”