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Mills' message having profound impact through Gaels, Spurs

Somehow over the course of the past 15 years, St. Mary's College in Moraga, California, has become a pipeline for Aussie hoops talent, either trying to use the college as a springboard to the NBA like Patty Mills and Matthew Dellavedova, or simply to further their education.

To recognize and honor the country's contributions to their programs -- not just the men's and women's basketball teams, but all sporting programs -- the school has embraced Australia Day and celebrated it with their students and athletes. Go to any St. Mary's basketball game and you'll see a Boxing Kangaroo flag flying. On occasions such as the Australia Day festivities, Australian fare such as meat pies and sausage rolls are served, and the game-night music selection is littered with songs that have an Australian flavor.

On Thursday night, the men's basketball team, which features six Australians on its roster this season, faced Brigham Young University (BYU), on Australia Day. It was the second consecutive season in which the team played on the date.

"The [first] actual Australia Day game was last year, against the University of San Francisco, but the Australian theme, the acknowledgment of Australia's contribution to St. Mary's basketball, has certainly been there for a number of years," the team's Australian assistant coach, Marty Clarke, tells ESPN via phone.

There was one difference this season, and it's helping spread a message that the school's most famous basketball alum, the San Antonio Spurs' Patty Mills, has been spruiking his entire life.

"This isn't the first time they've celebrated this day on a game night," Mills tells ESPN. "This year the difference is, they've done a good job of recognizing the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture at the same time."

Mills has been an endorser of Under Armour since 2014. Part of the reason he wanted to align himself with the brand was the fact the he liked their values, values that he has himself as a person, coupled with their receptiveness to helping spread the word of his culture throughout the United States. He felt it was a perfect match. So far this season, the brand has given Mills three different Player Exclusive makeups of their Under Armour Drive 4 sneaker for his home-and-away games with San Antonio. One is a tribute to Eddie Mabo and the June 3 date of his special day, another has a floral print representing Mills' Torres Strait Islander heritage, and the third features an intricate Aboriginal design on the inside of the shoe.

Under Armour came up with the idea to send the St. Mary's players each a pair of the special Aboriginal make-up to be worn on Thursday night.

"It was more so Under Armour, along with St. Mary's who have been behind this," Mills says. "Under Armour knew this date was coming up, they knew the hot topic of this day in Australia ahead of time, so they sent all the players shoes. They knew about them [St.Mary's] celebrating and having an Australia Day night against BYU, so they thought they'd send them my shoes."

In addition, St. Mary's put together a competition in conjunction with an Australian-based web company, 99 Designs, that allowed people to pick their favorite Indigenous Australian design to adorn their pregame warm-up shirts. In the end, the overwhelming winner was an Aboriginal-inspired kangaroo.

"There was a number of designs for the shirt placed out there and it was a popularity vote and the people came back and said 'this is the one we want,' coach Clarke said. "I think that's an appropriate, and nice, way for people to see there's a clear connection, and a clear desire for equality, [and] that we appreciate Australians, and Indigenous Australians."

As one of Australia's highest-profile Indigenous athletes, Mills has always been active in promoting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island culture throughout the United States as a member of the San Antonio Spurs, but also dating back to his time with St. Mary's as well.

"It's where Patty has been awesome," Clarke says. "From a young age he was real in-touch with his culture and made a real effort -- ...he didn't lose it,... he understood it, and... he represented it in everything he does. He's an example of someone that has been able to have a foot on both sides of that fence, and always tried to help people understand that it's an important part of Australia's history."

Clarke says Mills has been back to St. Mary's countless amount of times -- sometimes announced, other times not -- to speak with the team's players, but due to the grueling NBA schedule he has not been able to speak with the current group -- yet.

Given the divide the date of Australia Day has caused in Australia, and whether it is inclusive of Indigenous Australians, would Mills also use the opportunity to educate the team on that aspect of the date as well?

"I would touch on it regardless, regardless of whether it had to do with this day or not," he says. "Whenever I've gone back there to speak to the group, I've always talked about my background, but in regards to this date, it is kind of out of their control, but to have that knowledge, and to understand what this date is all about ...as long as they can understand it for now, and know exactly the meaning behind the date, that's all you can ask for. Which is why Under Armour sending them these Aboriginal shoes is really cool. It shows that St. Mary's and the boys acknowledge the Indigenous heritage by supporting these shoes on this date."

Clarke, who has been with the St. Mary's program since 2013, says he's still in awe of the way Mills has been able to spread the message of his culture to a wide demographic.

"He's a powerful voice, and his voice is powerful because of what he's able to achieve," Clarke says. "Some guys just wouldn't feel comfortable doing it, but Patty, he's comfortable in everything. He can talk to little kids, he can talk to sponsors, he can talk to people from all walks of life. That's a unique skill. Pat can touch everybody. Because he's got that gift, he's decided to use it, and that's fantastic.

"It can be a burden to some, but he takes it as privilege more than anything else."