On the road to the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, the Australian Olympic delegation has hit a couple of potholes. Claims of unjust and unequal treatment arose when the Aussie women's basketball team was made to fly economy class to London while the men's side flew business class. Combine that with allegations levied by runner John Steffensen that the national Olympic committee passed him over for a slot in the 400 meters due to racism — and Steffensen's claim that he was racially abused by officials during the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing — and the mood surrounding the Australian team hasn't exactly been as positive as some might have liked.
One athlete who Australian officials hope will offer a positive spark over the next two weeks is Patrick Mills, better known as "Patty" to hoops fans, who will run the show as Australia's point guard when the Olympic basketball tournament begins this weekend. Even without injured centerpiece Andrew Bogut, the speed, passing and scoring talents that Mills showed off in Beijing could help the Boomers advance past group play, as they did in '08 and have done in eight of the last nine Summer Games. No less an authority on point-guard play than NBA All-Star and Team USA member Chris Paul said he expects Mills to shine in London.
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But in addition to what he represents on the court for the Boomers, Mills inhabits another social space as an Indigenous Australian, the son of an Aboriginal mother and a Torres Strait Islander father. As a member of a group that has experienced racial discrimination in Australian culture over the years, Mills was asked during a recent interview with Chris Dutton of Australia's Great Lakes Advocate for his take on Steffensen's claims of racial mistreatment. He was reticent to speak much about them, saying he hadn't heard about the specifics.
"But," he added, "to say that [such treatment] didn't exist wouldn't be true."
"Things are said [on and off the court] when you grow up, but you don't let it beat you and let your playing do the talking.
"And the more success I can hopefully achieve, that's my way of sending a reply ... It's died off the further I've gone through my career, but that's the stuff that makes me want to be a role model, it's my way of giving back."
Being able to use the hate and negativity of others as competitive fuel while still remaining positive enough not to turn that anger inward, or allow it to manifest as something destructive, can be a difficult needle to thread. One would understand it being especially difficult for Mills, who has a very personal tie to one of Australian history's most awful stories of racial/ethnic abuse — the century-long, government-led abduction of Indigenous children from their families and homes later termed Australia's "Stolen Generation." Mills' mother Yvonne was one of the children taken; as Mills said in a 2011 interview, the knowledge that a whole side of his family never got to see him play is "the chip I carry on my shoulder."
If you can do it, though — if you can turn the hurt, pain and frustration into something productive, as Mills has — it can offer a neat little two-fer, the fulfillment of a pair of old adages: "Turn your face to the sun and the shadows fall behind you," and "Living well is the best revenge."
Mills has become one of the most decorated athletes in Australian basketball history — one of just 10 Australian-born players to play in the NBA, one of only four (along with Andrew Bogut, Chris Anstey and Luc Longley) to last at least three seasons in the world's top league, and one of two indigenous Australians (along with Nathan Jawai) to be chosen in the NBA draft. Off the court, he has taken his pledge to become a role model to commendable heights, pursuing charitable work through jersey and T-shirt sales to raise money for victims of Australian natural disasters.
He's continued to set an example on the court, too, turning his standout play for the NCAA's St. Mary's Gaels into an NBA role by scrapping, clawing and producing when called upon. Promising per-minute play during his second year with the Portland Trail Blazers led to strong stints during the 2011 NBA lockout in Australia and China (though the latter didn't end so smoothly). Those spun forward into a late-season deal with the San Antonio Spurs, during which he impressed San Antonio's brass enough to earn a return trip with the team this coming season.
Once his national team duties are complete, Mills will return stateside and try to earn backcourt minutes behind All-Star Tony Parker, battling with the likes of returning guards Gary Neal and Cory Joseph, as well as newcomer Nando De Colo, Parker's teammate on the French national club. But as he nears his 24th birthday, Mills has an opportunity to stick in the league and remain a point of pride not only for Australia as a whole, but "also ... the indigenous community in Australia and my family."
"Not only do I wave the Australian flag, but I wave both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander [flags as well] and that's something that means more to me than most things."
And as he waves those flags, every step he takes becomes another on the long journey of turning those racial slights, taunts and abuses into something more positive.
Hat-tip to Paul Garcia at Project Spurs.
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