Patty Mills remembers asking the question. Vividly, despite it happening more than 25 years ago.
“Mum, does that mean that they’re going to come and take me away too?”
He was “five or six” years old, and Mills was hearing his mother’s story. She was a member of the Stolen Generations.
Last month, as the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum, Mills, an NBA star and a proud Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander man, gave an emotional account of growing up black in Australia.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” he said in a video for the San Antonio Spurs website.
“She said, ‘No, darl’, Dad’s going to stand on that big rock over there, with a big stick, and make sure no-one comes near here.”
With the unwavering support of his parents, the now 32-year-old went on to become one of Australia’s most successful sportspeople.
An NBA champion and three-time Olympian, Mills has achieved heights others can only dream of.
But it has not been an easy journey for him and his family.
‘It was a constant for me’
Canberra prides itself as being a diverse and welcoming city.
But growing up in the national capital was at times traumatising for Mills, whose mother is Aboriginal and whose father is a Torres Strait Islander.
“I’ve been called black … everything under the sun,” he told the Spurs website.
“As well as abo, darky, blackie, petrol sniffer, n*****, monkey, chimp.
“But for whatever reason, the worst one out of the lot for me was being called a black c***.
“Unfortunately it was a constant for me and I just had to get used to it.”
Speaking to ABC Grandstand from San Antonio, Mills said it was his mother’s advice — to walk away from the abuse and never let it become violent — that taught him how to cope.
“It was just me walking away from it all, no matter how brutal it was to hear or to face, or who said it,” he said.
“They could have been my age, they could have been younger. Many times it was adults, it was teachers, it was all of the above.
“It was all of those experiences, combined with other things, that really helped me build this shield.
“So, in a way, it turned me into who I am today.”
‘I’ve found a way to live a life with impact and with purpose’
The Patty Mills of today is one of Australian sports’ most important Indigenous and community leaders.
“We are a product of where we come from, and I’m standing here today having this chat with you because of all of the things I’ve been through, both good and bad,” he said.
“And I’ve used that to achieve some pretty unimaginable things.”
While Mills has had a glittering career on the court, off the court he says he is just getting started.
With the rest of the NBA going into a COVID-19 lockdown during the latter part of the regular season, Mills got to work.
“Having to stay at home for so long, finding the silver lining, it was like one temporary door closed on basketball, and it just opened up many other doors for us to really dive in deep on these things,” he said.
Last month he launched Indigenous Basketball Australia, to provide pathways and skill development for young Indigenous basketballers aiming to play at the top level.
Mills is also involved in the We Got You initiative, which aims to wipe out racism and other discrimination in sport and promote diversity.
He also has his own foundation, Team Mills, which campaigns on social justice issues, environmental conservation, multiculturalism, and supports women’s and children’s shelters.
“I’ve found a way to live a life of impact and purpose, and I play basketball that exact same way,” Mills said.
With Mills lacing up for a 12th season in the NBA with the Spurs in 2021, it is an impact likely to be felt for years to come.
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