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Patty Mills experienced racism long before a fan taunted him

The Spurs guard and his family have endured a lot as black Australians

Patty Mills and his family have heard racist words for decades.

The San Antonio Spurs guard heard them on the basketball court, soccer field and track as a child in Australia. He recalls going home in tears in elementary school after he felt he was treated differently because of his brown skin.

So, after the proud Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heard a racist taunt while shooting free throws during a recent NBA game, he felt it was important to respond on Twitter to voice his displeasure with the latest episode.

“I had heard similar stuff growing up on the sporting field, basketball court, [soccer] field,” Mills said. “For me, it was, ‘Block it out,’ although I heard it at that time just like any other heckler. But I did hear it when I was shooting the free throw. It had no real effect at that point in time.

“I heard similar stuff growing up, big time. Brutal. Bad. It was equivalent of the ‘N-word,’ which is thrown around a lot in Australia. Another one is ‘black c—.’ That is just as bad as the N-word over there. Another is ‘Abo,’ short for Aboriginal, which is really bad over there to black Australians. Whether it’s heckling on a sporting field or within a sporting team, people are throwing around the word like it’s nothing, and I’m sitting here.”

As Mills was shooting two free throws on the road against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the fourth quarter on Feb. 25, a fan yelled, “Hey, Mills, Jamaica just called. They want their bobsledder back.” Mills stayed professional, calmly knocked down both free throws and ran down the floor.

After the game, Mills wasn’t silent anymore. He discussed the situation with Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. And in response to NBA fan Zandra Ashley, who tweeted about the incident, Mills tweeted back, “Thanks @thats_Z_Truth. I am a proud Islander. Like my Jamaican Brothers, me & my family in the islands of the Torres Strait have experienced racial slurs for decades. Hope your efforts will enlighten this confused, hateful fan. #BlackHistoryMonth.”

Two days later, the Cavaliers identified the fan after security found him on videotape and banned him from all events in Quicken Loans Arena for a year. The Cavaliers didn’t reveal his name or any details. Mills appreciated the Cavaliers’ response and the opportunity to preach against racism that came with it.

“I thought I did my part on bringing light to it,” Mills said. “To be honest, I had forgot about it until after the game when I went to my phone, and here I had texts, social media and Twitter reminding me of what he said with videos from TV. I had control of shining the light on the incident. Outside of that it was out of my control.

“The Cavs did what they thought was right and the best. This is bigger. This is way bigger than me, the Cavs fan, the Cavs and the Spurs. This is a massive, massive deal.”

Mills called the incident a “big-picture thing that was deeper than myself.”

Mills said he tweeted his response to show children how they can deal with a racist situation without violence. He added that he wanted to bring a spotlight to the fact that racism still exists in professional sports as well. Coincidentally, Mills hosted 75 black and Hispanic students the next day at the San Antonio Museum of Art, where the topic of discussion was dealing with racial issues. He used his own incident as a teaching moment. He added that he was surprised that a lot of Cavaliers fans showed their support on Twitter.

“It’s about understanding that this stuff still happens in professional sports at that level,” Mills said. “It’s about kids. It’s about educating them on how to deal with [racist] situations and understanding that it doesn’t have to result in violence, and also to find what is right and what isn’t right. Heckling is one thing. There is a line that one can cross to be offensive.”

Popovich believed Mills handled the situation with class.

“It’s always best when you run into an idiot like that to treat them as ignorant — humor and acknowledgment that the person is ignorant. You cannot help them, you move on and ignore them like they do not exist,” Popovich said.

To truly understand Patrick Sammy Mills’ and his family’s fight against racism, you have to go back before he was born on Aug. 11, 1988. Mills is a product of parents who both worked in indigenous affairs for the Australian government. His mother, Yvonne, had a white father and an Aboriginal mother. She is a member of Australia’s “Stolen Generations”: Mixed-race children were taken from their mothers and placed into missions and group homes as part of a social engineering project backed by the Australian government and churches from the late 1800s to the 1970s.

Courtesy of the Mills Family

Mills’ grandmother was Gladys Haynes, a member of the Nunga Aboriginal tribe who grew up at a Lutheran children’s home for Aboriginal children, according to Sports Illustrated. Haynes had an “exemption certificate” that allowed her to live among white people, but she couldn’t celebrate her heritage or associate with Aboriginals. A 2-year-old Yvonne Mills and four of her siblings were separated from their mother in 1949 and taken one by one to different group homes. Yvonne didn’t see her mother again until age 17.

Mills’ father, Benny, is a Torres Strait Islander whose indigenous people hail from the northern Australian islands between the mainland and Papua New Guinea. The elder Mills was one of the first Torres Strait Islanders chosen to attend school in the mainland. Benny Mills’ uncle was Eddie Mabo, whom Patty Mills described as “the Martin Luther King Jr. of Australia.”

Hearing the story of his mother’s and father’s backgrounds has never been easy for Patty Mills, but he says the knowledge has “helped me big-time.”

“It’s never been comfortable for my parents to tell me their story, especially my mom,” Patty Mills said. “It’s not a story you tell when you’re sitting around the living room or the dining table. It was kind of told to me as different things happened to me.

“They chose different bits of pieces of story to tell me when things were affecting me. Even me talking about it to other people, you get emotional thinking about it. I learned strength, perseverance and going through hell. A stolen generation, period, being taken away from your family is one thing, right? And then being put into a missionary and not be able to do anything with your own culture in what you know, and you have to grow up learning white ways, is brutal.”

Mabo’s fight for indigenous land rights led to a landmark decision of the High Court of Australia. On June 3, 1992, the court overturned more than 200 years of white rights of land ownership back to the indigenous people in a legal battle that lasted more than 10 years. The legal doctrine of terra nullius was known as “nobody’s land,” and the decision was widely known as “Mabo.”

Mabo Day is celebrated on June 3 in Australia, but it is not a nationally recognized holiday. On June 3, 2014, Popovich told the story of Mabo along with Patty Mills to the players during a practice on the eve of the 2014 NBA Finals.

Courtesy of the Mills Family

“He is on a high level for what he was able to achieve in Australia while overturning a legal doctrine by taking it to the high court,” Mills said of Mabo. “Everyone there sees him as a Martin Luther King for his achievements during a 15- to 20-year span. He put black Australians and indigenous Australians on the map for everyone else to see and to be acknowledged as Australians.

“People have been pushing to make it a public holiday with the feeling that it would be the correct way to celebrate it. It is such a huge part of Australian history. I don’t think it’s celebrated enough throughout the country. It’s a public holiday in some parts of Queensland, but it’s not celebrated the right way throughout the whole country.”

Popovich said that he wishes Mills’ family story was more widely known.

“It is something that nobody knows,” Popovich said. “I wasn’t aware of it before he came on our basketball team. You know about our country. You know about South Africa. You know about blah, blah, blah. But you don’t know about his situation. But his situation, when you get the details and what went on, you wonder how you could be so clueless or why it was never publicized, why was it never taught, how does this escape everybody.

“It’s just stunning. And then when you find out about the culture and the people and so vibrant that world is, it’s wonderful. He’s a very proud young man.”

How did the indigenous Australian become an NBA player?

When Patty Mills was 2 years old, he used to shoot at a hoop outside his grandfather’s home on Thursday Island, according to Sports Illustrated. Mills’ parents met while they were working in the Australian capital of Canberra in indigenous affairs for the federal government. They also founded a basketball/social club called “The Shadows for Indigenous Australians.” Mills began playing at age 4 for The Shadows and loved the connection he received playing with kids who looked like him.

“My parents played a little basketball growing up, and so did my uncles and aunties,” Mills said. “But they went to Canberra, where I grew up, and being in a government place, there wasn’t a lot of black people at all. So when they came for work, they started a basketball club only for black people so they could be in an environment where they could feel comfortable with other people like them.

“It kind of grew. I was born into this basketball club. They were on a team with people like them, which was different than going to work with all these other white people. … My first game I had no clue what was going on, but I was happy to be with other people who were like me. The same color. It was unbelievable. I played with that club all the way until college.”

Courtesy of the Mills Family

Mills would occasionally hear racist words while playing for The Shadows. But of all the racism he dealt with as a child, what stood out most were some derogatory words he heard, unbeknownst to him at the time, when he was talking with white kids before a track and field practice around age 11. One of the kids mentioned the word “Abo” while telling the story of an elderly Aboriginal man in front of Mills.

Mills’ mother was within earshot and explained to her son later what the word meant.

“Everyone else around me was white except me,” Mills said. “This one kid was a little bit of a loudmouth and he was telling a story. This was the first time that I heard the word ‘Abo.’ He was explaining this story and my mom was listening. I didn’t know he was making fun of this Aboriginal older man in this story.

“Everyone was giggling and laughing. I was doing it as well to fit in. I had no clue what he was talking about until we sat in the car afterward and my mom had to explain to me what he was talking about. She was furious, and I remember her saying she wanted to clip him on the ears for saying that stuff he was saying. Obviously, she didn’t. But it was that environment.”

Mills also recalled that his teachers “treated me extremely different” in elementary school because of the color of his skin. What gave him some solace was that his mother went through worse when she was a child. Mills said the nightmarish experience he felt at an elementary school before he was moved “made him stronger.”

“There were hardly any other people with my color skin and I was like, ‘Why am I being treated like this?’ ” Mills said. “I was going home bawling my eyes out to my mom and dad because I was made to do this. … I had to apologize in front of the whole class because I left trash lying next to the trash can or something like that. A bunch of stuff.

“I was awarded a little lollipop for my speech in drama because I did well. I remember eating what I was given from my teacher and then getting in trouble in the next class for the candy. I had to go to detention.”

Mills went on to land a basketball scholarship with Saint Mary’s College of California in November 2006. The two-time All-West Coast Conference selection departed after his sophomore year in 2009 for the NBA.

Mills said that while in college he had a few awkward conversations that became educational after classmates who thought he was African-American learned he actually was from Australia. It also took him some time to adjust to living in a predominantly white area near the school’s location of Moraga. Even black students such as Mills’ teammate and roommate Yusef Smith were confused about him being black from Australia.

Mills enjoyed his visits with Smith to Oakland, California, which has a large African-American community.

“They were all educating conversations. Some might say they were ignorant questions. They just had no idea,” Mills said. “But they all usually start with, ‘I didn’t know Australia had black people.’ Even my roommate, it took a while for him to wrap his mind around the fact that I didn’t come from America.

“He was thinking, ‘Wait, you were born here, then went to Australia and then came back?’ I was like, ‘No. There are black people [in Australia], and they have been there for a long time.’ But that is a common conversation that I have with people who are meeting me for the first time.”

Fifty-nine picks after Blake Griffin was selected first overall by the Los Angeles Clippers, Mills was selected in the second round of the 2009 NBA draft by the Portland Trail Blazers. The 6-foot, 185-pounder was a journeyman during his first three professional seasons, playing for the Blazers, the NBA Development League’s Idaho Stampede, Australia’s Melbourne Tigers and in China for the Xinjiang Flying Tigers. Mills finally found an NBA home with the Spurs in 2013 and has been with the franchise ever since as a sharpshooting backup point guard.

Mills won an NBA championship with the Spurs in 2014 and held up an Australian and Torres Strait Islands flag afterward. He was the first black Australian to win an NBA championship. After winning a championship and continuing his time with the Spurs, he has continuously found time in the offseason to give motivational speeches to Aboriginal and other underprivileged children in Australia. He’s also spoken at prisons and juvenile centers. He says it’s important for black Aussies to see a “successful black athlete.” Mills has also penned a three-book series in Australia called Game Day that explains his story and teaches about how to counter racism, and he has given the books to kids in Australia and San Antonio.

“I’m very proud to be the first black Australian to win an NBA championship, but I want there to be way more,” Mills said. “Or even in college. Or even get to some level of anything. And that percentage is low. That’s why I am trying to let them know that just because you are black Australian and you are a minority, you can still do it. You can still achieve great things.

“I am trying to do the best that I can to let you know that even though you are a black Australian and you are a minority and it is harder for you, you can still do it. You can still achieve great things.”

Mills feels at home with the Spurs for basketball and for the growth he has had off the court as well. Popovich, a former Air Force cadet, is known for his outspokenness about social issues, racism in America, President Donald Trump and the challenges of African-Americans. The Spurs are also known for being culturally aware, as they often have speakers talk to them about the world today.

Now six seasons into his Spurs career, a very comfortable Mills can’t see himself playing for any other NBA team or another coach.

Courtesy of the Mills Family

“Early on what I saw was that life was much, much bigger than basketball to him,” Mills said. “You get all these young kids and all these competitors. I’m a competitor and definitely a competitor, but everything is basketball. Then you come into an environment where you learn about the stuff that is going on in the world right now before you step onto the court.

“This is the stuff that matters. I appreciate it big-time. Part of the reason why I’m still a Spur and will stay to be a Spur is because there is stuff that I’ve learned off the basketball court that I don’t think I would have learned anywhere else, from world events to different cultures to different people of different countries. An unbelievable amount of stuff.”

Popovich once asked Mills during his first season with the Spurs if he considered himself to be black. The Chicago native, who was born to a Serbian father and Croatian mother, has posed the question to other players before and asked Mills out of curiosity since he is from Australia. Mills was initially surprised by the question, but he proudly answered, “Yes, I am. I am Aboriginal and I’m black,” and he now views the question as thought-provoking.

“I never have been asked that before because I am,” Mills said. “At that point, no one ever questioned if I am, especially coming from Australia. When he asked me that, I said, ‘Yeah.’ And he kind of walked away. … He wanted to know my answer, but also let me think about it and dwell on it a little bit more. This is coming from a white American male, especially a highly classed one. I will never forget that.”

Mills has lived in the United States for 12 years. He said the societal struggles that African-Americans face in this country are similar to what indigenous people have been facing in Australia, and perhaps even worse. According to the Australian organization All Together Now, 1 in 5 people living in Australia has been a target of racial discrimination. One in 8 people in Australia faced racism a year earlier. Moreover, the organization states that 3 out of every 4 indigenous Australians regularly experience racism.

Mills calls himself a role model to all Australia and is one of the country’s most popular athletes. But the Aboriginal black man will never forget where he comes from and the importance of continuing to fight against racism.

“Parents have to have a conversation with their kids that a white family would never have to,” Mills said. “And I’m familiar with that stuff, so when things happen I said, ‘All right. I’m here. I’m with ya. I know what it’s like.’

“It’s tough because I am a role model. I not only represent black Australia but all Australians, being here in the United States. I played for my country. I take great pride in it. But it is bad. You’re talking about how people are treated in public, how people are incarcerated and treated in there. It’s very similar. Sad. Sad.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.