How Patty Mills created Indigenous Basketball Australia while playing in the NBA

How Patty Mills created Indigenous Basketball Australia while playing in the NBA

Thursday Island sits atop Australia’s northeast coast, surrounded by water so blue that it rivals the sky. T.I., as it’s called by locals, is known for having been at the center of the pearl and shell trade during the 1800s. The island is less than five square kilometers with a population of fewer than 3,000.

It does not sound like the place to go searching for elite-level basketball players.

But one morning in 2020, Mia Nakata, a teenage native of the Torres Strait island, sat in her dining room with her father, Kiyoshi, when his phone rang. On the other end of the FaceTime call appeared Patty Mills, the now 14-year NBA veteran and Indigenous Australian whose family hails from the island. Mills had a message for his niece, herself an aspiring basketball player.

“I want to do this huge thing,” Mills said, revealing his hope to create a basketball league for young Indigenous Australians. The league’s reach would stretch across the country, bringing the game to people who otherwise couldn’t easily access it. He envisioned an emphasis on education for the players — about the game, their nation’s history and about life skills they can hold onto. He hoped that it might provide a sense of identity.

On the island, word quickly spread.

“I got tons of messages like, ‘Is this true? Is this actually going to happen?’” Nakata shared on a Zoom from T.I. “I was like, ‘Yes, it’s going to be amazing.’”

A few months later, Mills’ vision became a reality. In early 2021, he launched Indigenous Basketball Australia.

Plenty of NBA players have set up their own AAU teams. LeBron James opened a school. But Mills’ creation is impressive in reach, scope and sheer multi-tasking. Mills, 34, has created a full-scale league to serve a country and a people, all while he continues his playing career in Brooklyn as a shooting guard with the Nets.

“He’s a very caring, charismatic, loving human being,” said Gregg Popovich, who coached Mills in San Antonio. “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.”

The IBA is in its third season, with some families commuting by boat simply to ensure that their kids can play. It’s based in eight regions throughout Australia, with the best kids from the community leagues advancing to a national tournament at season’s end. The league is now a multi-million-dollar operation, with a creator who hopes to build it into something even bigger.

“My vision for this is enormous,” Mills said.

It also is personal. In 2006, Mills became the first Indigenous Australian to play for the national team in three decades, succeeding his uncle Danny Morseu. And one of his biggest fears is that he may be the last.

“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.”

Because playing in the NBA has kept him in the U.S., Mills has communicated with league officials and players through video conferencing. (Courtesy Patty Mills / Indigenous Basketball Australia)

Mills’ idea had rattled around his mind for years. But he lacked the biggest ingredient to pull it off: time. The NBA’s regular season runs from October to April, and deep playoff runs mean playing into late May or even early June. That’s how it went for all but two years during his decade with the Spurs. Then there was his commitment to the Australian national team, which wiped out some of his offseasons. The schedule left little time for a passion project.

Everything changed in March 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily shut down the league, suddenly giving Mills plenty of time. For the first time in his NBA career, his wife, Alyssa, had her husband to herself. Yet they 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.

“We have the same values and we want to get the same things done, so we were aligned with the whole thing,” Alyssa said. “We were still spending time together throughout this.”

By the time the NBA Bubble commenced in the summer of 2020, Mills announced that the league would launch the following year.

It helped that Mills already had a model in mind. As a kid, he played for his parents’ youth team, The Shadows. Based out of Canberra, the country’s capital, where Mills’ family and others came for government jobs, the team gave Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander kids a way to be active and to network with each other. Mills sees Indigenous Basketball Australia as merely an extension of The Shadows, except his program reaches throughout the country.

While playing with The Shadows, Mills heard repeatedly that he needed to face better competition, the kind found in the country’s traditional basketball pipeline. But when he tried to break into that system as a teenager, often competing against players who looked nothing like him, he constantly heard that he wasn’t good enough.

It felt like discrimination, the kind known to be a part of the experience of being an Indigenous Australian. It was discouraging enough that he stopped trying out for those teams. He played for The Shadows until he left for St. Mary’s College (Calif.), which became his stepping-stone to the NBA.

“Why are you gonna (repeatedly) go through that deal,” said Mills of the challenges he faced as a teenager. “I see what this is.”

Now Mills hopes his success can have a domino effect on future players, specifically Indigenous Australians, the way it has in other places. The emergence of Joel Embiid, a native of Cameroon, helped spur the creation of the Basketball Africa League to establish a continental professional league. In Canada, a generation that grew up watching the expansion Raptors and Vince Carter as kids in the ’90s led to an increased number of Canadians in the NBA.

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 said.

Part of the issue is geography. Roughly 90 percent of Australia’s 26 million population lives within 60 miles of the coast. Meanwhile, Indigenous Australians are spread throughout the country after their movement was controlled by colony and state-based laws decades ago, which limited where they could live. Former government policies in the 19th Century and into the 1960s had relocated Aboriginals from their homelands to sanctioned territories to separate them from the White population.

They were deprived of their land as well, until Eddie Mabo, Mills’ great-uncle, took the government to court and won a landmark decision in 1992 that officially recognized the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Mills has compared his great uncle’s impact to Martin Luther King Jr.’s. Still, when it comes to providing Indigenous Australians access to elite basketball competition, the impact of those geographic and sociodemographic restrictions persists.

“‘Too hard’ is what I’d probably say,” said Mills. “I think if you look at it as if there’s someone good (at basketball) in these areas, these remote areas, there’s someone that’s closer to the city or in the city that’s just as good or almost (as good, and) they’re going to pick that person every time. So there’s a little bit of barriers here that we’ve had to overcome.”

Through his league, Mills is trying to capitalize on the country’s appetite for basketball while his target demographic grows. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the number of Indigenous Australians in the country in 2021 was just under 900,000, with almost a third of that being children 15 and under. In the next decade, the bureau projects the overall number of Indigenous Australians to reach 1.1 million.

“This has never been done before in Australia in any sport,” said Matt Adekponya, a GhanaianAustralian who, as Mills’ head of media, helped launch the league. “So we found a niche here.”

And given Mills’ sterling reputation in the basketball world and his connections, there’s a better chance of IBA players getting opportunities elsewhere because of the player running the league.

Players perform native songs and dances as a way to learn about and connect to their culture. (Courtesy Patty Mills / Indigenous Basketball Australia)

As part of the Australian government’s oppression of Indigenous people, Mills’ mother, Yvonne, and her four siblings were taken from their parents. She was just 2. That was in 1949, and Yvonne didn’t reconnect with her mother for more than 15 years, becoming part of what is known as The Stolen Generation.

Tragic stories such as these are why each weekend’s slate of IBA games includes an educational component that teaches the players about their ethnic history, native food and dance. This year, Mills is having every region learn a native song and dance to perform at the national tournament. In San Antonio, he was known for demonstrating them to his teammates, and at last year’s national IBA tournament, he led by example and appeared on a big screen performing a native dance.

Because of COVID-19 and the NBA schedule, Patty and Alyssa have yet to see an IBA game in person, though they plan to do so this year. Last year’s national tournament took place in April, during the Nets’ first-round playoff series against the Celtics, so he and Alyssa watched online.

“Everything’s working from the other side of the world,” said Mills, who continues his role in running the league from Brooklyn with daily meetings.

The league’s early success without him on-ground is one of the reasons some have such high hopes for it. “If Patty’s name’s behind it, college coaches are going to watch these kids,” said David Patrick, the head coach at Sacramento State, who has known Mills since he was a kid and recruited him to St. Mary’s. “Or now the way the world’s opened up, pro scouts are going to watch them if there’s good enough talent.”

At a Jr. NBA camp in April 2021, Nakata and Lennon Bann were the only two out of 48 IBA prospects chosen to be part of the Asia Pacific World Juniors team. Bann’s skill set also landed him a scholarship to Brisbane Grammar School, a prestigious boarding school in Queensland that his family otherwise couldn’t afford.

“I guess I sort of was on that pathway to get a scholarship offered,” Bann shared over Zoom. “I definitely think IBA got me over the line with the Jr. NBA stuff. That was another big thing to add on my resume.”

While Bann and Nakata are early achievements for the league, Mills hopes to create something where success can be measured beyond securing athletic scholarships.

This season, which started in February, will see the league expand from 14-and-under to include 17-and-under for the returning players. Mills eventually plans to scale the league to 20-and-under to create a pathway to the pros and grow it beyond its current eight regions.

“My gut all the time was like it’s going to be better to grow with the age groups instead of the regions,” Mills said. “Because if you have kids at 14 and then you don’t have anywhere else for them to go, then they’re going to drop off back on the street or back not going to school.”

Mills has joked that the IBA is the blueprint to his post-playing career, whenever that may come, as he can foresee himself in Gold Coast, a city in Queensland, and running the league from there.

For now, though, carrying Australian basketball to new heights in the Olympics remains a goal. Since joining the national team, he has become the face of the Boomers and figures he has one more Olympics left in him, perhaps two. At the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, he scored 42 points in a win over Luka Dončić-led Slovenia in the bronze medal game, marking the first time Australia’s men’s team has medaled in basketball – four shy of the women.

Mills knows he’ll be done suiting up by the time the Games come to Brisbane in 2032. And though he wants the IBA to give his people a better sense of identity and improve their lives on or off the court, he can’t help but let his mind wander about the possibility of the league sending an Indigenous Olympian to take his place on the court.

“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.”

Maybe that feeling can come from a member of his own family. By the 2032 Games, the players currently in the IBA will be old enough to suit up for the Boomers and the Opals.

“I am going there,” Nakata said. “I’ll be 24 and I’ll be playing in my home city where I go to the school and everyone I know will be there. I’m going to make this happen. … 2032 let’s go.”

(Illustration: Sean Reilly / The Athletic; Photo Mills: Matt Adekponya / Australian Olympic Committee via Getty Images; Inset photos: Courtesy of Indigenous Basketball Australia)

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