The chant thunders across the gymnasium: "Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! Oi! Oi! Oi!" A foreigner, an Australian teenager, has not only been instrumental in winning the game for his college basketball team in the San Francisco Bay Area, he's won hearts and minds as well. Humble St Mary's College, with its 3900 students and a ranking of between 70 and 80 in the 320-plus-team National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball first division, has beaten mighty Oregon, with 24,500 students and a top 10 ranking, by 12 points.
That player, Patty Mills, a business and communications student, has made the difference. As a wave of jubilant St Mary's students surges towards the court, a friend of Mills', Louella Tomlinson, brandishes a flag, one never been flown before in this stadium. It's emblazoned with bands of green (for the Pacific islands it represents), black (for the Melanesian people who live on them), and blue (for the surrounding sea), and has a white star and stylised headdress as its centrepiece. It's the flag of the Torres Strait Islands, and it's emblematic of the journey made by Patty Mills, whose father was born on Thursday Island and whose mother was a member of the Stolen Generations.
It's a journey that has taken Mills to basketball's big time, North America's National Basketball Association (NBA). He's only the second indigenous Australian to achieve such a feat, after Torres Strait Islander Nathan Jawai, who made history when he debuted for the Toronto Raptors in 2008. (Jawai now plays for Galatasaray Liv Hospital of the Turkish Basketball League.)
Signed by the San Antonio Spurs last year after being drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers in 2009, Mills is the latest in a short list of Australians who have cracked the NBA, including Mark Bradtke, Andrew Gaze, Shane Heal and Andrew Bogut. On his Twitter page, besides his 75,000 followers and a pensive photo of him in his green and gold Olympic jacket, Mills bills himself as a "very proud Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, Father - Thursday Island, Mother - Aboriginal".
"To see the flag waving at a school in California, miles and miles away from the homeland, it's pretty special," says Mills, recalling that memorable moment at St Mary's four years ago. "Knowing that not many ... no indigenous kids have come over to the school and gone onto the NBA - that's how I feel different from everyone else. I'm carrying the flag for everyone back home."
He's sitting hunched forward on a chair at the side of the San Antonio Spurs practice facility and has just finished a training session with his 14 teammates, under the close supervision of a swarm of coaches. Mills is still in his sweaty training gear - a sleeveless white shirt and shorts - as his conversation teleports us back to his childhood in Canberra, and the tough early years of his parents.
The 24-year-old's eyes are dark, deep-set and lively, the beard and hair clipped back to a millimetre-perfect fade. To the rest of us, he's above average height, a gangly 183 centimetres, but here, in the land of the giants, he's merely in the fifth percentile. That doesn't stop him from being a near perfect athlete, good at any number of competitive sports.
Mills has good reason to be proud: last June, he signed a contract to play another season with the Spurs, for a reported $US1.13 million (if that sounds like serious dosh, it's still a long way from the stratospheric, eight-figure annual sums commanded by the league's biggest stars). Mills explains that he has two driving ambitions: to make a name for himself in one of the best basketball teams in the world, and to show and tell the audience - large or small - who he is and where he is from.
Strangely enough, rugby league, not basketball, was the first real rival for Mills's sporting affections. When he was eight, his father, Benny, introduced him to league to accustom him to the body contact of the basketball court, as he was smaller than many of the other boys his age (he was "getting hit and beat around, like a ping pong ball", says friend and coach, David Patrick).
Mills's parents had already, in 1983, formed a basketball team called The Shadows, as a sporting and social outlet for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who had shifted to Canberra to work for the government. (Mills's father was sent to boarding school in Cairns and later went to university, worked for Foreign Affairs, and was seconded to the capital to manage the head office of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Commission; his mother, Yvonne, was involved in community work.) Although an only child, Mills spent his childhood in Canberra surrounded by cousins and close family friends, and says he always felt part of a group.
Benny coached the junior Shadows teams, preaching a team-first approach that had a deep and long-lasting impact on his son. To this day, coaches and teammates say Patty Mills is a team player rather than a self-promoter. In the complicated social dynamic that is a professional sports team, with its celebration of self, its highlighting of individual performances, and its rewarding of those performances with contracts worth tens of millions of dollars, Patty Mills is unusual, and it's a legacy he owes to his father.
But there's also a fierce streak of self-reliance and take-no-prisoners aggression that he learnt from his dad. He played his first game of basketball at the age of four, running up and down the court with the other under-nine kids at the end of each half, gradually getting closer and closer to the ball and the centre of the action. "No one backed off me," recalls Mills. "They wanted to go at me when they found I could play a little bit."
In addition to rugby league and basketball, Mills also excelled at Aussie rules. He won a best-in-competition award at the national under-15 titles, an annual event featuring the best junior footballers in the country. This put him on the radar of the AFL and two clubs in particular, the Western Bulldogs and the Sydney Swans. An impressed Scott Clayton, then the recruiting manager for the Bulldogs, listed Mills's speed and endurance, his fast reaction time, and his ferocious competitiveness in his notes.
Speak to Clayton today and he'll tell you that the young Mills was a "huge talent" who could have been a "very dangerous small forward", but he dismissed trying to woo him because in the end his heart belonged to basketball.
While finishing Year 10 at Canberra's Marist College, Mills was torn between three choices: a basketball scholarship at the Australian Institute of Sport, or a chance to move to Sydney or Melbourne to play AFL, either with the Swans or the Western Bulldogs. As there was someone else ahead of him in the queue for an AIS scholarship, he thought the decision had been made for him. "Okay, let's go play footy," he thought to himself.
But as it turned out, the guy ahead of him, another multisport prodigy, decided he didn't want to move to Canberra. And so Mills's fate as a basketballer was sealed. (The young athlete who turned down the AIS offer was Scott Pendlebury, now one of the best midfielders in the AFL, and winner of the Norm Smith Medal as the best on-field in Collingwood's 2010 premiership win.)
Basketball won for other reasons, too, according to Benny - most notably, the chance to play for Australia and for overseas teams. Mills has long since adopted the gypsy life of an elite basketballer, representing Australia at the Beijing and London Olympics, flirting with club basketball in China, and dealing with the different-US-city-every-other-night schedule of an NBA player.
Mills's appearance at the 2012 Olympics was not without controversy. In their lodgings at the Olympic village in London, Mills and his Boomers teammates held what he calls, semi-seriously, a flag raising, with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island flags ceremoniously unpacked and then draped over the balcony.
The International Olympic Committee had decreed non-approved flags could not be flown at the Olympic Village or elsewhere at Olympic venues, so as to avoid their appearance as political statements. Neither the Aboriginal nor Torres Strait Island flags was approved. Of the nine indigenous athletes among Australia's Olympic team, only one other, boxer Damien Hooper, made an overt political statement. He was forced to apologise for wearing a T-shirt bearing the Aboriginal flag into the ring for his opening bout.
The issue was eventually quietly settled, but not before representations by Australia's chef-de-mission, Nick Green, to the IOC. So the flags stayed up. "You gotta obey the rules," says Mills. "They're clear, but I have an indigenous background and feel there's a part of me that has to represent and show where I'm from, and part of the culture, just like everyone else on the team."
Mills had earlier faced a roadblock - or in American parlance a "lockout" - when the 2011-12 NBA season start went into a series of interminable delays through industrial action. As professional athletes, especially those on the lower pay tiers, some NBA players decided to supplement their earnings by playing overseas. Mills signed with the Melbourne Tigers, and led the team to a 82-76 win against the Sydney Kings in the inaugural Capital City Clash.
Mills then took up an offer to play with a Chinese basketball team, the Xinjiang Flying Tigers, based in the far western city of Urumqi. The Tigers had an American coaching staff but an impatient local management and, after a run of early defeats, the coaches - including the one who had recruited him - were sacked. "Coach is gone, Chinese coach is in; it's hard ... but you gotta play through it," Mills recalls.
Benny and Yvonne Mills flew to China in 2012 to see their son, and catch a game or two. But in the second quarter of the first game they attended, he tore his hamstring. His employers accused Mills of faking the injury, claiming he didn't want to play for the new coach. For his part, Mills did not want to come back too early, aggravate the injury and compromise his preparation for the Olympics. "I let them know this," he says. "I'm playing here, but in my mind, my No. 1 goal is the Olympics. I was strong and firm, but they didn't want any part of it. They let me go. Okay, fair enough.
"I'm glad I went through it," Mills adds of his disruptive time with the Tigers, for whom he only played 12 games. "It was adversity and now I know what it's like. Now I know what not to do."
Making the point
The San Antonio Spurs stadium looks like a UFO that's landed in a massive parking lot - an outsized metallic disc surrounded by bitumen. Tonight, the Spurs are playing the Chicago Bulls, but the Spurs are missing one of their trumps, Tony Parker, a point guard like Mills, so Mills will get more minutes than usual.
Mills will be one half of a conjurer's trick tonight, the recipient of a cross-court bounce pass from teammate Manu Ginobli that looks like a stone skipping across the water. The ball arrives in Mills's hands at chest height and he redirects its passage, as though the instant it was in his hands was the merest pause before the resumption of its true trajectory - a rainbow arc to the basket, 6.7 metres distant. Mills gets 22 minutes, and of his seven shots, six are true, one from the Ginobli pass. He looks like he belongs.
The Spurs are a singular entity, even by the rarefied standards of the National Basketball Association. The owner is a decorated Vietnam veteran and recovering alcoholic who is also the heir to the Caterpillar heavy equipment company; the coach, Gregg Popovich, is ex-military, too, schooled at the US Air Force Academy, with both his Wikipedia page and his assistant coach hinting at time in the CIA. The acting general manager, Sean Marks, is a New Zealander, and the team's administration and training complex is devoid of identification, save for a rock and polished-granite sculpture among the landscaping, a replica of the NBA championship trophy that the Spurs have won four times in the past 14 years.
But Mills is also one of the many complementary pieces of personnel Popovich juggles to fit with his superstars, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobli and Tony Parker. Tonight, he's everything his coach wants him to be. "We play him because he's an aggressive, creative young man who has great shooting skills," Popovich says. "He's someone we put into the game to change its complexion."
The 82-game, five-and-a-half month NBA season can resemble a pointillist painting. Strategies change and line-ups are tweaked, the better to negotiate the four best-of-seven rounds, potentially as many as 28 games, on the way to the championship. Mills has caught alight in individual games with the Spurs - 39 points last season against the Golden State Warriors, and 13 points this night in an extended cameo against the Bulls. It's all down to match-ups, says Brett Brown, the former Boomers mentor and San Antonio assistant who is now head coach at Philadelphia. With five-on-five, a mismatch can be more quickly exploited. Mills is perceived as a pure attacking player, and much less of a defensive presence. "It's one of the rhythms of the NBA season," Brown says.
Mills can tell, almost as soon as the ball leaves his hand, if the shot is good, he says. It happened in the 2012 Olympics against Russia, Australia trailing by two, the left-handed pass from teammate Joe Ingles to exactly the right place, as it had to be since there was only three seconds left to play. "I knew, as soon as I made that shot, it was down," says Mills. "For shooters, no, you're not aware [of anything else]. All you know is the ball is coming and nothing else matters. You gotta catch it and shoot."
The 2012-13 NBA season wound up going down to the wire, with the Spurs losing to the Miami Heat. Of a possible 341 minutes of court time during the seven-game series, Mills had 14, sitting out the final four games of the series. But his presence was identifiable, nonetheless, at the end of the Spurs' bench by the ever-present white towel, waved not so much in surrender as support, even as it became painfully apparent that he would have no real role in the outcome.
Shunning the spotlight
Not surprisingly, given his distaste for controversy, Mills chooses to live far away from the spotlight. He has a home on San Antonio's outskirts that he shares with his girlfriend, Alyssa Levesque, a former member of the St Mary's women's basketball team. "She's really good for him, she keeps him grounded," says Louella Tomlinson, who knows the couple. "Sometimes he gets a bit excited about things and carried away, and she helps to calm the storm."
Earlier this year, Mills stood before a class at San Antonio's Green Valley Elementary School, holding a book from his childhood. Mills told the children, a mix of Anglos and Latinos, his story, showed them Australia on a map, and then Thursday Island, where his father had come from, to show how far he was from home, and, truth be told, how improbable his journey. He doesn't look like them. But he doesn't look like a basketballer, either, among guys 20, 30, even 40 centimetres taller. He is the kid who could have been anything, who became something. He can look into their eyes and feel he is connecting with them. Patty Mills no longer needs a flag to show who he is or where he is from.
Then he opens the book his parents used to read to him, and tells these children of Texas the story of Tiddalik, the frog who drank all the water in Australia.