A Bright Light from Down Under
Ken Rodriguez is a San Antonio native who covered his first Spurs game in 1981 for The Daily Texan, the University of Texas student newspaper. He spent 26 years in the newspaper business -- 21 of them covering sports -- before joining the marketing department at Our Lady of the Lake University in 2009. His Spurs.com column will appear every Wednesday.
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Patty Mills does not remember when he first heard the story of his mother's kidnapping. He does not remember when he learned about the government that snatched her from her family at age 2, or the welfare officer who checked her for lice, or the school that forced her to take intelligence tests -- all because her skin was dark.
All he remembers is that when people talked about The Stolen Generation in Australia, he didn't need a textbook or a teacher to explain the horrifying details. He had a mother at home who not only lived through it but devoted her life to improving the lives of Aboriginals like her.
"I'm very proud of my mother," Mills was saying after a recent Spurs practice. "Just the way you see her helping others is very warming."
The story of Yvonne Mills -- Patty's mother -- is one of heartbreak and heroism, one that shaped and inspired her son and propelled him to the NBA as only the second player in league history of Aboriginal descent.
Yvonne and her husband Benny Mills are Indigenous Australians, whose ancestors were original inhabitants of the continent. Indigenous peoples represent less than three percent of the population. Their health is poorer, their incomes lower, their life expectancies shorter. They are less educated and face more discrimination.
To understand the historical attitude toward Indigenous Australians, consider the official census. Aboriginals were not counted until 1971. The Torres Strait Islanders -- just north of the mainland -- weren't counted until then, either. Benny, Patty's father, is a Torres Strait Islander.
Benny and Yvonne met while working for the government to improve conditions for Indigenous Australians. They married and started a basketball club -- "Shadows" -- for Indigenous peoples. Their only child began playing for Shadows at age 4. Young Patty grew up with Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders at the club, and with non-Indigenous youth at school. His cultural experiences and ancestral roots make Patty Mills like no other Spur in history.
"I'm still learning how important and special my family really is," he says.
One uncle, Danny Morseau, was the first Aboriginal basketball player to represent Australia at the Olympics, first in 1980 and again in 1984. Benny and Yvonne both played hoops in their youth and taught Patty the game. "I like to say I got all my moves from my mom," Patty says, "and my dad just fine-tuned them."
Patty became a star player with Shadows and drew inspiration from Uncle Danny. "I looked up to him," Patty says.
Before long, children began looking up to Patty. Despite his smallish 6-foot-0 frame, he dazzled with speed, deft passing and scoring. He attended the prestigious Australian Institute of Sport with Nate Jawal, the NBA's first Aboriginal player, before taking his game to St. Mary's College in California.
In his fourth outing, Patty dropped 37 points on No. 11 Oregon, a St. Mary's freshman record. His performance prompted Ducks coach Ernie Kent to compare Mills to Tony Parker. "If he plays that way every night," Kent told reporters after the game, "he's a pro."
Five years later, Patty is playing with Parker and can hardly believe his good fortune. Patty spent two years as a backup in Portland (scoring 23 points in the final regular season game of 2011), and played overseas during the NBA lockout until the Xinjiang Flying Tigers released him in January.
"It feels great to be part of a team after sitting out for the last few months," he says. "But to be part of a great organization with great people around you makes it even better."
Yvonne never imagined her son would play pro basketball on the other side of the world. Not when she grew up in a world of oppression and humiliation. The Stolen Generation aptly describes her youth. Yvonne's four siblings were also removed from their birth parents.
"Young Aboriginal kids were taken from their family and put into what they called a missionary that was run by the Catholic church along with the Australian government," Patty says. "They were put into the missionary to learn what they called the 'white ways' of growing up. For example, they weren't allowed to talk in their native tongue. They weren't allowed to act in a native way. They were forced to grow up in another way from who they are. And they were separated from their family basically their whole life."
Yvonne was told her mother didn't want her. The truth is her mother begged the government for her daughter back. Years later, Yvonne, her siblings and her mother reunited. She could not recover the lost time but she did what she could. Yvonne became a strong advocate for Indigenous Australians, officially invisible to the government until 1971.
The club name "Shadows" fits. Yvonne and Benny took in neglected youth, gave them a ball, a game and a place to belong and watched the kids grow. From the cradle of that club, Patty Mills grew and grew until he became one of "Shadows" brightest lights.