The first time Patty Mills ever dished out an assist on the basketball court, the Spurs point guard was just a 4-year-old at a hoops camp his parents set up for indigenous boys and girls in his native Australia.
A quarter-century later, the longtime advocate for Australia’s indigenous people is making it a point to honor the native people of the other place he calls home, San Antonio.
Mills and the Spurs have teamed up with the San Antonio-based Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan Nation for a limited line of streetwear that combines part of the Spurs logo with a dynamic American Indian-inspired representation of the birth of San Antonio — or Yanaguana, as the Payaya Indians called their village, the original site of the city — more than 300 years ago.
The collection of shirts, hats and hoodies officially debuts at the AT&T Center on Jan. 19, when the Spurs host the Miami Heat for the franchise’s first ever Indigenous Night.
“It’s probably a lot more important and gratifying than it might seem from the outside,” Mills said. “Knowing that you’re using your platform to be able to acknowledge and recognize indigenous people of the land that we play and practice and go to work on. So in that sense, I think it’s far bigger than basketball.”
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Indigenous Night will recognize indigenous cultures around the world, from as near as San Antonio to as far as Australia, where Mills was born of Torres Strait and aboriginal descent. The first 10,000 fans at the game will get a free bobblehead of Mills holding the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags.
Spurs Sports & Entertainment and retail operator Aramark also will give a $10,000 joint donation to American Indians in Texas at the Spanish Colonial Missions, the nonprofit founded by the Tap Pilam. The nonprofit also will benefit from an in-game and online auction hosted by Mills and the SS&E nonprofit partner Silver & Black Give Back.
Mills joked that his first bobblehead likely would be his one and only. But he was serious about the relationship he started last year with the Tap Pilam, an affiliation of American Indian bands and clans that date back 12,000 years and stretch from South Texas to northeast Mexico.
“Probably other than the Spurs, the strongest bond that I think I’ve had here,” he said.
Mills said it was important to celebrate the Tap Pilam because they’re such a huge part of the core identity of San Antonio. Despite the city’s deep Mexican-American roots, the Payaya and other Coahuiltecan tribes that make up the Tap Pilam populated the vicinity long before and well into 1718, when San Antonio was founded with the establishment of Mission San Antonio de Valero, better known as the Alamo.
That history comes to life with a bold fashion design that fuses ancient Indian imagery with contemporary street art.
The collection’s core design features a cave art-like pictograph of a long-necked water bird facing the spirit of a roaring panther with a fish over the source spring of the San Antonio River.
According to the Payaya creation story, the hungry water bird dove deep into a blue hole desperate for food in what was then a lifeless region. A blue panther spirit at the bottom of the hole gave the bird a fish, and the bird soared out with its wings spread wide, raining down droplets that pierced the earth to create the San Antonio River and bring life to the area.
The Spurs x Mills x Tap Pilam collection also incorporates art of the team’s logo alongside a water bird that bears the Tap Pilam name and a panther that bears Mills’ name and jersey number. Long-sleeve garments in the collection bear the words “People of the Earth.”
Tap Pilam executive officer Ramon Vasquez said the organization was surprised when Mills and the Spurs first reached out to it about the fashion line but quickly warmed up to the team’s attentiveness and support of its work, which Vasquez calls reversing the extinction of the American Indian.
“I have no concerns about cultural appropriation,” Vasquez said. “This is a good example of a good partnership and how to be culturally sensitive. I think more teams should consider the acknowledgment of the aboriginal people of the lands that they are on.”
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The Tap Pilam provided the Spurs’ graphics team with images of rock art from Coahuiltecan tribes of South Texas and northeast Mexico, then went back and forth with sketches before signing off on the final design.
Along the way, Mills worked with Tap Pilam tribal elders and members, touring several of San Antonio’s missions with them and soaking in their stories any chance he could get, which included a smoke ceremony and a barbecue that favored traditional American Indian foods over shrimp on the barbie.
“I loved it,” Mills said. “It’s almost spine-tingling similar to what we do in Australia. And I think that’s why the oneness was so tight. I could relate to all the stories, the lifestyle and the fights and everything they go through now and have been.”
For Mills, that goes back to his parents in Australia. Benny and Yvonne Mills met and married while working in Indigenous Affairs in Australia’s capital city of Canberra, then later founded the basketball club for indigenous boys and girls that would include their son on the roster.
Mills has remained connected to his home country since becoming a professional basketball player a decade ago. Early in his NBA career, he started the Assist Australia charity for Queensland flood relief. And just last July, the newlywed skipped his honeymoon with his wife, Alyssa, to provide emergency water relief to the drought-stricken Australian town of Walgett.
As for supporting indigenous cultures through fashion, that also hits close to home for Mills.
Several years ago, Alyssa launched StraitSwim, a swimwear line inspired by the Torres Strait Islands so close to Mills’ heart.
The full Spurs x Mills x Tap Pilam collection will roll out Jan. 19 at the Spurs Fan Shop at the AT&T Center. Remaining pieces will then be sold online at spursfanshop.com and at the Spurs store at the Shops at La Cantera.
It’s a follow-up to the La Cultura line the team released in October, which featured the Silver & Black’s classic Fiesta colors from the ’90s when the team logo fronted a swatch of turquoise, fuchsia and orange.
Vasquez said he hopes the new fashion line helps educate San Antonio locals and visitors alike on the American Indian contribution to the city. Cultural equity, he added, needs be the foundation of tourism in the city.
Meanwhile, Mills said he sees himself as a bridge for all cultures in San Antonio. He considers the new fashion line a fun way to bring the community together through basketball and, he hopes, continue to educate and enlighten residents about all the people who make San Antonio unique and strong.
And what better way to make that point than with a stylish shout-out to the city’s original home team.
René Guzman is a features reporter in the San Antonio and Bexar County area. Read him on our free site, mySA.com, and on our subscriber site, ExpressNews.com. | email@example.com | Twitter: @reneguz
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