Optimism correspondent Chris O’Connell and San Antonio Spurs point guard Patty Mills share a conversation about optimism + setbacks.
Patty Mills hasn’t had an easy path to an NBA championship ring. But after a broken foot and the 2011 lockout derailed the early portion of his career, Mills found his calling as an important role player for the San Antonio Spurs, whose core values—leadership, teambuilding, resilience—reflect those of his indigenous Australian upbringing.
Chris O’Connell: You started playing basketball at a really young age. What inspired you to start?
Patty Mills: My mom and dad started The Shadows Basketball Club, so I grew up around the sport. Being an only child, I played a ton of other sports, too: rugby, Australian rules football, track and field, cross country … but basketball was the one that stuck.
CO: Was there any kind of culture shock when you got to the United States?
PM: Definitely. There’s the obvious difference in the accents, in the food, and in the people, but I’ve been here for 12 years now, and understanding the difference between cultures has been a real learning experience. I think the biggest one is for me to be able to educate people over here about where I’m from and that I’m not a stereotypical Australian.
CO: How so?
PM: Well, people’s first reaction might be something like, “Throw another shrimp on the barbie,” or they’re picturing a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, surfer type of guy. My appearance, as an African-American, catches people off-guard. My mother’s aboriginal. My dad’s from the Torres Strait Islands. And we’re the first people of Australia. That, for me, is one of the most important things of my upbringing.
“When it comes to have people from different cultures and backgrounds, [having fun] is the way to learn about each other.”
CO: When you first came over to play in college, how did you stay positive when you felt homesick?
PM: Once I stepped on the floor and in between the lines, that was my getaway. That’s where I could really concentrate and focus and not worry about home. I’ve got basketball to thank for a lot of the opportunities I’ve been given, for the things I’ve been able to learn, and for allowing me to really grow into who I am today. It’s all because of basketball.
CO: What was it like during the lockout? You went back to Australia, then over to China, and then you ended up with a hamstring injury. How did you stay positive?
PM: My first year the majority I was out because of a broken foot. The second year was my first year of playing significant minutes as a backup point guard. Then the lockout came. I went back to Australia to keep getting minutes under my belt, and to play in front of some family and friends that hadn’t ever seen me play basketball in person. Throughout that time, it was the goal of being able to play a significant part on an NBA team, play in the playoffs, and win a championship. That was the one thing going through my mind during that lockout.
CO: Around that time is when the “three goggles” came about.
PM: The three goggles came about as a way of getting to know teammates and getting along with each other. It was a way we really came together as more than Trailblazers players—we became friends. And it blew up, but it was kind of a cool thing just between teammates at the time.
CO: How important is that, especially during the slog of a long season, to have things like that?
PM: Oh, it’s really important. When it comes to having people from different cultures and different backgrounds, that’s the way to learn about each other. You end up leaving when the time is right, walking away from the sport, and you’ve made a ton of friends from people all around the globe, which is pretty cool.
CO: What was it about the Spurs organization that really caught your eye? Why was it the right move?
PM: The values. No question. The values and the leadership. It really resonated with who I am as a person. The phone call was, ‘I’m gonna try to do everything I can to be a part of this organization,’ and ever since, I’ve tried to do all I can to play a significant role here. Now, in my eighth year with the Spurs, I pinch myself every now and again just to realize how fortunate I’ve been.
“Make the most out of the smallest opportunities that you’re given to create an even larger opportunity.”
CO: One of the reasons I was excited to talk to you is how incredibly resilient the Spurs were to win the 2014 NBA Finals after that heartbreaking loss—the season before—against the Heat. Can you explain how you guys came back together after that loss and put it all together that next year?
PM: Oh, mate. Game six, probably one of the most heartbreaking, tough times in sports. My summer and the off-season were a lot of hard work, a lot of hours in the gym, in the weight room, trying to get my body as right as I could to be able to get these guys back. The following year, the first thing we did was to go inside the film room and relive those moments of game six and seven. We started a training camp with a huge chip on our shoulder. Being able to win that next year made it that much sweeter.
CO: You’ve had some pretty serious injuries during your career. Was there ever a time when you thought your career was in jeopardy or it was especially difficult to get back onto the court? How did you push through that?
PM: Yes and no. I always try and set goals and make the most of the opportunities. If I wasn’t playing at the time, it was, ‘How can I contribute to the team from being on the bench?’ The motto that I always had was, “Make the most out of the smallest opportunities that you’re given to create an even larger opportunity,” and, “Keep the passion,” for the times that I was injured. You try and find whatever you think is going to help get you through difficult times, and for me, it was trying to create little mottos like that.
CO: To play in the NBA, you have to have a certain amount of intensity to yourself, but you also have to have a sense of humor and a lightness about life to realize that it’s just a game. How do you keep that balance?
PM: I’ve always had that within me to be able to understand that I am more than a basketball player. It’s increased even more the time that I’ve been in San Antonio to understand from Manu Ginobili, from Tim Duncan, from Coach Pop, the lessons they’ve learned away from the court. There are far more important things out there that we need to understand are going on at the moment. At the end of the day, all of us are more than basketball players.
CO: How do you stay positive when you’re not on the court as much or the team hasn’t won in a while?
PM: Understanding the big picture. Being my eighth season as a Spur, I’ve come to be a representative not only as a Spur but as representing the people of San Antonio. The meaning of playing for the Spurs becomes a lot deeper than just playing a game of basketball. Maybe we have lost two or three games, but we have grown throughout them. How are we going to move forward with what we’ve just learned?
CO: Would you say that that’s a core value of the Spurs?
PM: I think it’s always been—whether it’s the front office, coaching staff, or players. It’s always looking at the big picture. What goes hand-in-hand is doing things for the betterment of the team. Being a leader of this team, that’s something that I’ve tried to hone in on and pass down to our younger guys.
CO: You’ve definitely become a leader of the Spurs. What was it like going being the “new guy” to a key player on the championship team? How has that helped you grow?
PM: It’s been everything. I don’t know how else to explain it. It’s all about listening, being patient and asking questions, and when you think you’ve got it figured out, you ask more questions. I can’t thank the Spurs and the whole city of San Antonio for the amount of support they’ve given me and really helped me grow into the person I am today. At the same time, they’ve give me a platform and the opportunity to promote who I am and where I’m from. It’s definitely been a home away from home for me.
Video portrait by Dyar Bentz.