By Scott Ostler
Gaels’ Point Guard Returns with Exuberance, Confidence and Manners Intact
Mills poses with an Olympic torch replica in Beijing.
Most of the skills and talents you look for in a basketball star, Patrick Mills has in abundance.
Category-5 hurricane speed, poise under pressure, inside and outside shooting, tenacious D, point-guard leadership — Mills has all that.
But in a few basic areas Patty Mills (nobody calls him Patrick) falls woefully short.
Trash-talking, for instance.
Potty-mouth badgering is a basic intimidation tool in the American game. But Mills grew up in Canberra, Australia, and his parents and relatives schooled him on the concepts of honor, respect and sportsmanship.
So when Mills, at 20 the youngest player on the Australian Olympic team, checked into the game against the U. S. team in Beijing on Aug. 20, he was unprepared.
As the 6-foot-0 Mills trotted onto the court, he heard U.S. point guard Jason Kidd say, “I got Mills.” The Americans knew of Mills’ potential for creating havoc with his speed and intensity. They knew what Carlin Hughes, Mills’ teammate at Saint Mary’s, learned last season: “It’s a different game when Patty’s out there.”
Mills tells the story:
“LeBron James interrupts Jason Kidd and says, ‘Ah, no, I’ve got him. I’ve got him, boys. Don’t worry about it. He hasn’t hit a shot yet, and he won’t get one on me.’ And I looked at him and just sort of saw him staring straight at me. I’ll never forget that look. I really didn’t know what to think. I definitely wasn’t thinking ‘attack,’ but I wasn’t taking a backwards step.
“It wasn’t the next play, but the one after that, I got the ball and (6-foot-8) LeBron James closed out on me, and I shot (a three-pointer) without having a sight on the ring (rim) because his hand was in my face, and I just remember the ball in the air and me saying, ‘Please go in.’ ”
Mills scored 20 that night. More amazingly, playing nearly 30 warp-speed minutes against a superstar team dedicated to hounds-of-hell defense, Mills — the only collegiate player in the entire tournament — had zero turnovers.
The Aussies won three games in Beijing and finished seventh. Mills led his team in scoring (14.2 ppg), coming off the bench. He was the surprise basketball star of the Games — to everyone but his teammates.
“It’s nothing new to anyone on our team,” said Aussie starting point guard CJ Bruton. “Patty Mills, he’s the future of Australian basketball.”
Ah, but what else is in Patty’s future? With his dazzling Olympics, had the most exciting hoopster in Gaels’ history outgrown the cozy confines of the Moraga campus?
Worse, would success spoil Patty Mills? He seemed to survive unaffected his spectacular freshman season at Saint Mary’s, but in Beijing Mills took his game to a higher level.
He was given a hero’s welcome in Australia.
Then, after battling the flu for a week, the exhausted sophomore-to-be packed himself onto a plane for the 14-hour flight back to reality and … a comedown?
“I couldn’t sleep on the plane, that’s how excited I was to get back here,” Mills said the day he returned to campus. “I absolutely love this place. I was so excited to get back amongst the people, especially to see my boys again, my teammates and the coaching staff and the support staff.”
Sounds almost corny, doesn’t it? But if it’s an act, everyone is fooled, including Gaels’ coach Randy Bennett. When asked if he found any flaws in Mills’ game or character, Bennett answers quickly.
“There’s no downside.”
Except that this might be Mills’ last college season. The lure of the NBA will be strong. The challenge for fans and teammates, then, is to enjoy Patty while they can.
For Bennett, it seems like only yesterday he was recruiting Mills, smitten with the quiet young man’s ability, confidence and character, and reporting back to the Gaels’ staff, “This guy’s the most underrated recruit in the world. It’s a joke.”
Since then Bennett has revised his opinion of Mills. Upward.
“You don’t understand how fast he is until you see him (in person),” Bennett says. “You know he’s quick, he’s fast, but you don’t really understand. Another thing you don’t know about him until you coach him is that he has an enthusiasm, a confidence, an exuberance that gives you confidence as a team, and as a coach. You’re like, ‘We’re going to be all right, Patty’s ready to go.’ ”
Mills’ secret, Bennett says, is simple.
“You listen to him. He’s a humble guy. He cares about others. Not that many (people) ‘get it.’ He gets it.”
Patty gets it from his parents, Benny and Yvonne Mills, government social workers in Canberra. Long before their only child was born, Benny and Yvonne, who are indigenous Australians, formed and financed a basketball club, the Shadows, to provide recreation for needy indigenous kids.
(Indigenous Australians, including Aborigines, are an underclass roughly equivalent to African-Americans and Native Americans, in terms of a history of discrimination and injustice.)
Patty joined the Shadows at age 4. Two uncles, Danny Morseu and Sammy Mills, are Aussie basketball legends. Morseu, a two-time Olympian, was the second indigenous Australian to play for the national team, the Boomers. Patty Mills is the third.
Little Patty learned the game from great teachers, but they taught him basketball as a secondary skill.
“What my mom and dad have taught me,” Mills says, “what my uncles and aunties really taught me, was how to be a man and how to treat people, how to respect people, and how to get respect … I just want to make sure I stay the way I was taught.”
So for Mills, trash-talk remains a foreign language. American team players LeBron James, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade all took verbal shots at Mills and got no response. Frustrated, they threw a few elbows. Mills was flattered by the attention.
After one encounter, Mills told himself, “Now I’ve got a bruise from LeBron James!”
Scott Ostler is a sports columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. The Beijing Olympics were the sixth Olympic Games he has covered.