By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Basketballer Patty Mills will don the green and gold of Australia at the Rio de Janeiro Games but gained inspiration for his third Olympics in the red dust of his country’s vast, empty heartland.
The first indigenous Australian to win an NBA title, the San Antonio Spurs point guard will hope to blaze a new trail in Rio by becoming the first to win an Olympic medal in the sport.
But for 27-year-old Mills, last week’s trip out to Uluru, the massive red rock that rises improbably out of the central Australian desert, was all about the team.
Mills took the Olympic squad on a tour of the rock which is sacred to local Aboriginals and was the first Australian stop of the torch relay for the 2000 Sydney Games.
The ‘Boomers’ players helped open a basketball court at Mutitjulu, a remote community in the shadow of the 348-metre monolith.
The idea for the team bonding trip was born out of a team ceremony last year where Sydney track champion Cathy Freeman and Lydia Lassila, a Winter Olympic skiing gold medalist, gave rousing speeches.
A hero to Mills, Freeman lit the cauldron at the Games’ opening ceremony and became the first Aboriginal to win a track gold medal with her emotional victory in the 400 meters.
“Once they were done with their speeches, the whole room was so inspired and motivated that we all wanted to jump on a plane right then and start playing,” Mills told Reuters in an interview on Monday after he was named in the final 12-man squad for Rio.
“We really wanted to capture that feeling and sense that we had at that time a lot closer to the Olympic Games because we’re all scattered across the world, obviously, so it would be hard to capture that again.
“What better way to start this campaign, as a team, as a group starting in the heart of Australia? It was a heartfelt trip and one that was appreciated by all the guys.”
Mills is one of five NBA-playing Australians in a tight-knit squad who have high hopes of ending the nation’s Olympic medal drought after a number of agonizing near-misses.
Four have NBA title-winning experience, with Mills and former Spurs team mate Aron Baynes celebrating theirs in 2014, and center Andrew Bogut clinching his with the Golden State Warriors last year.
Guard Matthew Dellavedova toasted his championship with the Cleveland Cavaliers last month.
Australia lost Olympic bronze medal deciders at Seoul (1988), Atlanta (1996) and Sydney and the almighty United States have played the villain in many of their campaigns.
But drawn in the same Group A at Rio, the Boomers can avoid the U.S. until at least the semi-finals.
“There’s no question that the goal (of a medal) that we’ve set for ourselves is one that will take a lot of hard work but it’s one that we really all believe that we can get done,” said Mills.
“But for us to get there we need to beat great teams and that’s what the Olympics is about, achieving greatness by beating great teams.”
A diverse squad of players, the Boomers are a cross-section of modern, multi-cultural Australia, but only Mills will be competing under the nation’s three officially recognized flags.
His Aboriginal mother, born in the rural western edge of South Australia state, is a member of the Stolen Generations, the indigenous children who were forcibly removed from their families to be raised by white families as part of a government-sanctioned program.
His father is a Torres Strait Islander, from the tropical archipelago between the country’s northwestern Cape York and Papua New Guinea.
Both his parents are active in supporting indigenous programs, with his father helping to establish a basketball team for disadvantaged youth.
In a country where the indigenous population lags behind the mainstream in human development indicators including infant mortality and life expectancy, Mills’s ascent to the NBA made him a powerful role model.
Indigenous athletes play starring roles in rugby and the home-grown football code Australian Rules, but elite basketballers are rare. Mills is one of only a handful to represent Australia at the Olympics.
The second to do so was his uncle Danny Morseu, a Torres Strait Islander who played at the 1980 Moscow Olympics and again at Los Angeles in 1984.
Mills said he hoped to inspire more indigenous players to take up the game after his playing career winds down.
“I definitely feel (the indigenous community) is an untapped place,” he said.
“Obviously between me, as the third indigenous player to play basketball for Australia, and my uncle Danny, there’s a 30-odd year gap or so, and that’s embarrassingly too long.
“Hopefully we can shrink that down.”
(Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)