From the Shadows to the Spurs

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Photo of Patty Mills by Rush Photography

Written by Lachlan Ross (ISN) / Photos by James Rush (Rush Photography) June 17, 2014 – Oregon, USA – ISN’s Lachlan Ross profiles Australian basketball sensation Patty Mills and his journey from Canberra to the NBA Championship.

You know a 10-year-old basketball player is good, when your parents spend more of the car ride home talking about his performance than yours.

Like any competitor, parent, or coach who was there, I will never forget Woden Basketball Stadium in Canberra, Australia, on a Friday night or Saturday afternoon when Patrick Mills was playing.

This was one of the last seasons they scheduled junior leagues in the aging tin roofed structure that saw spectators bundled in blankets in winter and sweating through t-shirts in summer. But when that number 13 royal blue, red and yellow Shadows jersey was carving up the court, the weather could wait.

Mills threw behind-the-back passes while most other kids were struggling to make layups with their off-hand – or for some, even their dominant one.

If he wasn’t slicing through defenders in transition for a basket himself, he was gifting points to his teammates by drawing four guys and dishing it off.

The one play that absolutely killed my team – the Shadows cross-town rivals – was Mills bounding above the rest of us for a defensive rebound, then quarterbacking a full-court pass to his mate for an uncontested layup. They did this repeatedly and we still couldn’t stop it.

Now 15-years later, Mills has played at St. Mary’s College in California, for the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers – including a stint in their Idaho Development-League team, in Australia’s National Basketball League for the Melbourne Tigers, in China during the NBA lockout, in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics for Australia, and finally with the San Antonio Spurs.

On Sunday, Mills lifted the Larry O’Brien trophy with a Torres Strait Island flag draped around his shoulders. He and his Aussie teammate, Aron Baynes, became the third and fourth Australians to win an NBA championship, with Mills being the first of Indigenous ancestry.

And not only did his Spurs win basketball’s biggest award, Mills heavily contributed, scoring 17-points against LeBron James and the Miami Heat in 18-minutes.

But Mills’ NBA success didn’t just wait for him at the other end of the court. His path came with the same accelerated changes of direction it takes the six-foot point guard to maneuver past taller defenders and get to the hoop.

His small junior basketball club, the Shadows, was founded by Mills’ parents Benny and Yvonne as an opportunity for predominantly Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander, and African kids to play basketball on the south side of Canberra. With Mills abilities propelling the Shadows, his team won almost every season between the ages of seven and 17.

He also dominated for the Australian Capital Territory state programs at National Championships. His talent switched the mindset of those teams from a little territory that annually battled with the Northern Territory and Tasmania for bragging rights over who didn’t finish last, to a legitimate threat to anyone.

Despite the crowds growing from a handful of parents to thousands of spectators, something that hasn’t changed since seeing him at Woden is how Mills gels with teammates.

Despite no longer being his team’s top scorer – a role reduction many players find hard as they evolve to higher levels – he embraces whatever duty will help his team compete. And the Spurs fans love it.

“He’s our little spark plug,” said a bartender at The Friendly Spot, a local patio pub that projects every single Spurs game onto a black and grey inflatable screen the size of a jumping castle for up to 200 fans.

While the Spurs home court, the AT&T Center, only holds 18,580 people – some 7,000 seats smaller than Canberra Stadium, where Canberra’s rugby teams play – their fan base is tremendous.

While the Spurs see some competition from the massive popularity of their local university football team, the only other major professional franchise in the city is San Antonio’s WNBA team – the Stars – who draw just 8,000 fans per game.

To put local support into perspective for Australians, the San Antonio Spurs 2013 revenue, for just their team, was $167 million – more than one-third of the entire Australian Football League’s (AFL) $446 million and over half the National Rugby League’s (NRL) $314 million.

In comparison to Australian cities, San Antonio’s 1.4-million population is closest to Adelaide. But when you add the 800,000 people from Austin – a city without any pro sports teams of their own and just an hour up the Interstate-35 highway – you’re looking at a support system around the size of Brisbane.

Imagine the city of Brisbane having just the Bullets basketball team, without competition from AFL, rugby league, rugby union, soccer, and cricket. That is life as a San Antonio Spur.

*

In April, I visited San Antonio to see the Spurs take on the Los Angeles Lakers for their final home game of the regular season.

Within 15-minutes and five blocks of getting off the bus from Austin, I saw six Spurs jerseys worn by different locals. Then I looked up. From one of the tallest downtown skyscrapers waved an American flag. While seeing the stars and stripes fluttering from buildings throughout the U.S. is normal, what took me by surprise was the Spurs flag flying beneath it.

This was five days before playoffs started and the day before the Lakers game. It was just another regular day for Spurs basketball.

What impressed me more about the fans in jerseys was the diversity in their merchandise. The singlets and team shirts ranged from the obvious current stars – Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili – to past greats and fan favourites, David Robinson and Sean Elliott.

One woman even told me her favourite all-time Spur was Michael Finley, who played just four and a half seasons for the team late in his career and despite being a solid contributor, was by no means their star.

“How could you have a favourite player,” my taxi driver to the Spurs-Lakers game, who had lived in the city for 30-years, said. “They’re all good and all contribute to the team.”

Unlike many other cities, San Antonio fans embrace their team – not just a superstar.

Photo of Patty Mills by Rush Photography

(Photo: James Rush / Rush Photography)

This pride around tradition, legacy and what founded their franchise came as little surprise once I started to explore downtown.

While the River Walk area is overwhelmingly colourful and touristy, being described to me by a local as a “tacky wax museum” feel – which was funny because the River Walk features the Plaza Wax Museum right by the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! Odditorium – the history of the Alamo and surrounding structures cannot be overlooked.

The Alamo fort in downtown San Antonio – which is the city’s unofficial symbol – is a monument representing the 1836 battle where 250 Texan soldiers defended the structure from 1,500 Mexicans troops.

The idea of working as a small team and doing whatever it takes, is deep in San Antonio’s heritage. And that is how the Spurs play.

Coach Gregg Popovich describes the Spurs as a group of players who have, “gotten over themselves.”

So in a system that rewards loyalty and thrives on cultural tradition, San Antonio is the perfect fit for Mills to promote Australia and its Indigenous culture.

Like when he held an Australia Day event over the NBA All-Star break, tweeting a picture of baby kangaroos he brought in for Texans to play with.

Furthering awareness of Mills’ Canberran, Aboriginal, and Torres Strait heritage, Canberra filmmaker, James Rush, released the trailer of his documentary “For My People” on June 4 and picked up major publicity just a few days before game five, when San Antonio won the NBA Championship.

The trailer combined with Mills’ 17-point explosion in the final game, lead NBA TV broadcasters to discuss Torres Strait Island culture and the Mabo Decision – a 1992 Indigenous land rights case that reshaped Australian law – during the third quarter on live international television.

*

Media focus is now quickly swinging from the excitement of NBA playoffs to off-season acquisitions, player trades, and contract negotiations.

Coming to the end of his two-year contract with San Antonio – earning $US1.3-million per season – Mills enters this American summer as an unrestricted free agent. After his performance in the playoffs, there is no doubt one of the 29 other franchises will throw money at him.

As a comparison, Gary Neal, who played Mills’ role in last year’s Spurs team, coming off the bench as an energetic scorer, earned a two-year $6.5-million dollar deal with the Milwaukee Bucks.

Furthermore, Jarrett Jack – who played a similar role for the Golden State Warriors in 2012-13 – signed a four-year $25-million deal with the Cleveland Cavaliers last year.

But between his team-first attitude, a city so suited to Mills, and a roster made up of international heroes, there is reason to believe he will turn down dollars and accept whatever the Spurs present him.

Considering nine of the 13 Spurs players come from countries outside the U.S., it is hard to imagine so many languages and personalities could operate together with such unison in a league that sees mainly American players succeed.

But Spurs basketball flows like Canberra’s annual Multicultural Festival, with each country bringing its own style to the event.

“It shows how well the world could work,” the Spurs bartender told me.

Adding to a collection of international stars, the Spurs are also made up of originally overlooked players, selected late in the NBA draft’s first round, or passed on until round two.

In fact, the only lottery – top 14 – pick on this Championship winning roster is Tim Duncan, who went first overall in 1997.

The Spurs don’t buy or luck into their talent – they build it.

Mills follows Australian basketball legend, Andrew Gaze, in both leading a Summer Olympic Games in scoring – as Mills did in London with 21.2 points per game – and winning an NBA Championship with the San Antonio Spurs – which Gaze accomplished in 1999.

Now, after Mills carried that Torres Strait flag onto the NBA Champions awards stage – the same way Cathy Freeman ran her victory lap at the Sydney 2000 Olympics with an Aboriginal flag – he has etched his name into Australian and Indigenous history.

*

Just like many people watching game five of the NBA finals – such as Mills’ friends and family on the big screen at Woden’s Hellenic club in Canberra, or at the game in San Antonio – I was watching basketball with my parents again.

We sat in a small pub on the Oregon coast, my parents on holidays from Canberra and I had come down from my home for the last five years in Victoria, Canada.

Moving to a quieter room of the bar, we got a TV with sound to ourselves. But as the room filled with strangers – some with more basketball knowledge than others – I think our passion for Patty caught on.

In the third quarter, as Mills caught fire, peeling off three pointers from everywhere, Mum was telling another mother she watched him play as a kid in Canberra, Dad threw his hands in the air, and strangers started screaming at the little screen with us.

Being together to watch Patrick Mills play again, was just like the Woden days – driving home from the game talking about the plays he made over anybody else.

Except this time, Patty wasn’t beating my team, his breathtaking buckets took the NBA title from LeBron James and the back-to-back NBA champions.

 

Lachlan Ross is a graduate of the University of Victoria’s writing program and intern with Independent Sports News. More of his work can be found at lachlanross.org.

Follow Lachlan Ross, @LachlanRoss89

The tralier for James Rush’s documentary “For My People

 

 

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