High point: Patty Mills, 25, basketballer
This week, Indigenous Australian Patty Mills won his first NBA championship ring with the San Antonio Spurs. A point guard, Mills is already in his fifth season in the NBA, and has starred for Australia in two Olympic Games campaigns.
Richard Cooke The NBA finals series is on a scale different from anything in Australian sport.
Patty Mills Yeah, I think it is. I’ve never been involved in an AFL grand final, let alone an Ashes series, but I can say what it’s like to be involved in the NBA finals. It’s absolutely amazing. As a kid growing up playing basketball, it’s the pinnacle. The crowd and the atmosphere are definitely on another level from anything else. When you’re playing in your home town it’s great and loud and everyone’s on your side. On the flip side of that you have to play some away games as well, and it’s the total opposite – everyone’s against you. There’s a whole lot of pressure to perform. That’s why they say championship teams win games on the road. That’s what makes the NBA so tough.
RC Those crowds are also physically very close to the players; much closer than in sports played on a field.
PM It feels like people are on top of you at times; there are some interactions with players and people in the crowd, especially when you’re playing away. There’s no doubt the fans and the atmosphere are factors in the game. Those momentum plays – dunks, three-pointers or whatever – the home crowd can be critical in those. And you can definitely get the crowd heckling you more than in other sports.
RC The Spurs have a reputation for being a unique team within the NBA. They do a lot with less money than other teams.
PM Even before I was involved with the club, I knew it was an organisation that not only other NBA teams look up to and try to imitate, but all sporting clubs around the world. After being here for three years and seeing how it’s run, I’ve got to witness it firsthand. It has genuine people that care about you and your wellbeing, before they even think of you as a player. Of course you’ve got to perform, and bring it to work, day in and day out. But it feels like a family environment. I’ve got to know my teammates on another level – I don’t think I would have been able to do that on any other team. I’ll always remember San Antonio Spurs as being one of the highlights of my career.
RC What makes them different?
PM Diversity. We have people from all over the world from different cultures. Not only do we bring that to the locker room, we bring it on the court, too – the different styles of play we’ve learnt from all around the world. They come together, and in one team, on one court, it definitely changes things up a lot. And I think we really buy into the system that is run by Coach Pop [Gregg Popovich]. It’s a big factor on our success, not only this year, but also in the many previous years.
RC Speaking of diversity, are people curious about your background?
PM Over the past year I’ve started to get a little bit more recognition of being more than just an Australian basketball player – I’m an Indigenous Australian basketballer. Me being in this situation, I have a chance to promote my culture, and promote my background.
RC One of your opponents in the NBA finals series, LeBron James, is being talked about as possibly the greatest player of all time. How do you adapt to a player of that calibre?
PM You can’t. An individual cannot play one-on-one against him. He’s just such a great player, he’s a great athlete, he reads the game very well. He uses all his strength to his advantage and makes you pay for it. So, the way to adapt is with a lot of teamwork. He has this ability to score and shoot and get to the ring and do everything defensively, but it’s once he gets everyone else involved, and shows their ability to pass the ball – that’s what makes the [Miami] Heat a tough team to beat. It’s got to be done with the whole group.
RC You lost the finals series against the Heat last year. Are you taking some time to enjoy it this time?
PM You have to. You have to appreciate what’s going on. It’s so rare, a chance to make it to the NBA finals, let alone get an opportunity two years in a row. Last year, one of the huge learning experiences for me was to really sit back and take it all in, what it takes to be a part of the finals team. And this year I was ready to go.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 21, 2014 as "High point". Subscribe here.