<
>

How Cathy Freeman's legacy is driving Patty Mills ... and why he worries for the Boomers

play
Mills' courtside Cathy Freeman moment (3:47)

Spurs and Boomers guard Patty Mills shares the profound message Olympic hero Cathy Freeman told him after coming to watch him play. (3:47)

When Cathy Freeman talks, Patty Mills listens.

Take a relatively inconsequential NBA game in Portland toward the end of 2018. It was Freeman's first and, fittingly, she got to watch a compatriot in Mills take the floor.

The Spurs suffered an early-season loss to the Trail Blazers but the result is barely noteworthy compared to what Mills vividly remembers from that evening - "... a Cathy Freeman story," he teases.

"After the game, obviously she's ecstatic and a very joyful person, as I'm sure everyone knows," Mills tells ESPN.

"There was a moment in time of when we were together, where she looked me in the eyes and said, 'you don't know what you mean to our people'. I kind of answered in a way of, 'oh, I know, I know, I know'. And she grabbed me and stared at me back with her serious face now: 'no, you don't know what you mean to our people, so keep doing what you're doing'.

"That's probably a moment where, you know, it really made me think and go back to the point of, she's right. I think I do, but I don't really think I do."

Mills was just 12 years old when he, like the rest of Australia, sat in front of a television to watch Freeman win the 400m title at the Sydney Olympics. She became his idol. Representation breeds hope and Freeman became that symbol for every young Indigenous-Australian.

Mills is now that example. And he's stepped into the role with a cosmic level of commitment. There's the vast and diverse philanthropy he takes charge of, and the way he carries himself on the court, all stemming from an understanding and reverential recognition of his ancestors.

Then, there's his place in the Australian Boomers. To most, playing for the Boomers is an immense opportunity. Take it a step further and there's a jingoistic sense of duty. Mills goes even beyond that; it's almost an obligation for his existence.

It is no surprise he had such a desire to bring 'Boomers Patty' to the NBA after dominating for the national team; being within that personality is where he feels most at home.

play
3:29

Mills weighs in on Boomers Patty vs Spurs Patty

Patty Mills discusses the difference in his play for San Antonio compared to Australia, and how unlikely his fit with Gregg Popovich is.

Mills has reached a point in his life where playing for the Boomers isn't what he does - at the risk of sounding platitudinous, it's who he is.

Welcome to Ball and the Real World - Olgun Uluc's podcast on all things Aussie basketball

Because, in order to understand what the Australian national team truly means to Patty Mills, you first have to recognise what Australia means to Patrick Mills.

"I'll always say this: my name is Patrick Mills, I'm a Kokatha man from South Australia, and I'm a Naghiralgal and Dauareb-Meriam man of the Torres Strait Islands," Mills says, almost rehearsed.

"My connections and roots to this land of Australia -- the sea, the reefs, the sky, the stars -- come from a time and place that existed long before basketball was invented, and definitely long before the Boomers program was created. I always like to come back to that. That's my connection to everything, that my passion comes from my people, and what they mean to this country.

"The rest comes from adversity and barriers that I've experienced, that I know for a fact still exist for many other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people, especially kids today. But wearing the green and gold on the biggest of stages allows all of that to come pouring out ... I don't know if there was a defining moment or not, but I feel like the further and longer away I am from home, the stronger my connection I have. Wearing the green and gold allows all of that to come pouring out."

Mills' veneration of the program is unmatched. And the sentiment within the rest of the main Boomers group is famous within world basketball, so there are no questions or worries as to what the team's goal is, and whether the roster is singularly focused on it. It's what the Boomers may look like after the Tokyo Olympics that has Mills concerned, and what's putting a mountain-sized burden on him.

"The program is only as strong as its players will take it," Mills says, before repeating himself. "I don't say that necessarily as a good thing.

"We definitely have got some work to do in this area, I believe, but for now it's full focus on Tokyo, and a gold medal would do wonders for our program, as at least a starting point. There's a prestigious feeling within our program that needs to be a joint effort between the playing group and Basketball Australia to make sure when -- we've lost 'Bogues' [Andrew Bogut], obviously -- I step away, when Joe Ingles steps away, 'Delly' [Matthew Dellavedova], [Aron] Baynes -- that that program is still elite, if not even more levels up, as it should be.

"I always go to the prestigious feeling that it must feel when you receive your first baggy green [cap, from the Australian cricket team], or Wallabies jersey and coats and hats and the whole thing. Even [rugby league's] State of Origin, that prestigious culture and program, of feeling like you feel when you walk into that environment, that you're a part of something much, much, much bigger, and that will help you stay in the program, no matter what adversities you go through.

"That's probably why I say we've got a long way to go. But I stay true to what I say: it's full focus on Tokyo, and what we're trying to achieve in Tokyo. But, like I said, a gold medal would definitely do wonders for our program."

A gold medal would undoubtedly lift the Boomers into a position within the national consciousness that's never existed before, but Mills' first point is the more acute one: the program is only as strong as the players will take it.

Watch Mills belt out the national anthem before a Boomers game and you'd be hard-pressed to find a more passionate person on Earth during that moment. Ask any of the senior Boomers if they'd be willing to walk away from an NBA season to wear the green and gold in Tokyo, and chances are you'd get a resounding yes.

The Boomers' players care ... for now. That's what scares Mills - can the next crop of elite Australian basketball talent come close to cherishing the program as much as him and his current teammates? It's a legitimate question that comes from fear, with an acknowledgement that filling a Ben Simmons-sized hole can make all the difference.

"Massive," Mills says, when asked if Simmons' full-throttled involvement with the Boomers could lift the program's national standing.

"You're not gonna deny his involvement would not only reach a goal for the playing group of a gold medal, but the overall stature of the program; there's no doubt about it. This is where it's more of a group effort to be able to build our program to a point where someone like Ben Simmons, who's our first ever Australian NBA All-Star, says, 'heck yeah ... I wanna be back there, whether I'm injured or this or that or whatever; I wanna be part of that'.

"That's where I'm worried for what our program would look like moving forward, and sure, it puts pressure [on], and it's not a bad thing to have pressure for the success of this group, but I'm worried about our program, and where it could be once we lose our leadership group."

play
1:41

Mills on Ben Simmons' meaning to Boomers: 'Massive'

Boomers guard Patty Mills expresses just how much the presence of Ben Simmons in the Australian team would impact the program.

The first step to alleviating that pressure is a medal in an international tournament; something the Boomers have never done before. Mills and his teammates have always aimed higher than just a medal. They want gold. And as for the question of whether Mills will play in the upcoming Olympics -- now set for 2021, in Tokyo -- even amid global uncertainty and unknowns surrounding the current NBA season, the point guard was unequivocal: "Crystal clear, mate," he says.

play
1:48

Patty Mills' 'crystal clear' Olympic commitment

The Boomers guard stresses the buy-in and fire needed from the entire Australian program if they're to reach their gold medal goal.

"No hesitation at all. Everyone's well aware of that, throughout the program, the team, obviously 'Goorj' [Boomers coach Brian Goorjian], and the players as well. There's no doubt about it. Not a single ounce of blood vessel in my body says otherwise. I'm fully committed obviously.

"That obviously comes from a very genuine place, and a goal that we have as a team that we're also very determined to accomplish."

One of the big steps toward achieving that goal was the hiring of the new head coach, with Goorjian returning to the role after Brett Brown's stint lasted less than a year. As soon as the vacancy became open, the Australian Basketball Players' Association liaised with key Boomers players on the decision, and it didn't take long for most to put their support behind Goorjian.

"As the leader of the team, I would've been pretty disappointed if my voice wasn't heard in this aspect..." Mills says of the head coach search. "I was able to give my two cents, which I was pleased about, and of course very, very happy with the outcome. And very happy that the other boys got their two cents in.

"We're obviously a very tight group and have been for some time now. As for 'Goorj', my Boomers journey began with 'Goorj' as a 17-year-old, so I'm ecstatic to have him back. It's fair to say as well that he's definitely felt my determination come through the phone like a big right hook. He knows what we're about, and he knows what we're trying got do. Very pumped to have him back in the program. Just looking forward to getting back on the court with him."

Mills truly does light up when he talks about the Boomers.

There's a real sense that the 32-year-old has achieved a level of growth whereby wearing the green and gold is more than just competing in tournaments for your country. Winning is the pathway toward growing the platform of the Boomers program, to be sure, but the sport being played is a vessel for the larger, more important objective.

Mills knows he's not just a basketball player anymore. He's a symbol. He's a representation of hope for the Indigenous-Australian youth watching from home. And he's an example of what an Australian Boomer should strive to be.

"When I think about that interaction that I had with [Cathy] that night, I think the same way, that there's kids out there that are watching TV, or newspapers, or are gonna read this, that I'll have an impact," Mills says. "I think I know the impact I'm having, but I don't really think I do. That was Cathy's advice anyway: keep doing what I'm doing. So, I'll try."