Like Mike: The story of the first Indigenous Australian athlete to compete at the Olympics

After winning bronze, Patty Mills mentioned a number of former Boomers, including Michael Ah Matt, the first Indigenous athlete to compete at the Olympics for Australia.

Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples should be aware that this article contains the images/names of people who have passed away.

Just moments after winning a historic bronze medal for the Australian Boomers, Patty Mills spoke about some of the legends of the past that have been involved in the program.

“They have been a big part of this Boomers program for a long time and they’ve been through just as much as we have,” Mills said.

“So it’s guys like Andrew Gaze and Andrew Bogut and Uncle Danny Morseu and the great Ah Matt from day one.”

We all know Gaze, Bogut and Morseu, however the name Ah Matt may not be as familiar. But it should be.

Michael Ah Matt was a true trailblazer for the game of basketball in Australia and in 1964 became the first Indigenous Australian to compete in the Olympics Games. Those ‘64 Games were played in Tokyo, so it’s poetic that the Boomers, playing behind the country’s first Indigenous Olympics opening ceremony flagbearer, claimed their first major international tournament medal in Tokyo.

It’s the full-circle nature of the recently completed Tokyo Games that has sparked a push from Ah Matt’s family for his story to be told. That push comes through the documentary ‘Point Forward’ which is being directed by Marcus McKenzie and Daniel Principe, and produced by Danielle Tinker in close collaboration with the Ah Matt family. Former AFL player Danyle Pearce has also joined the project as a co-producer.

I was lucky enough to speak to Kirsty Ah Matt, Michael’s daughter, about her dad, his legacy, and their project.

The Player

Michael Ah Matt was born in Townsville in 1942 but grew up in Darwin. Throughout his younger years he was an incredible athlete, breaking records in athletics, and of course, featuring on the basketball court.

Photo: Supplied

While attending a national competition, the president of South Adelaide Basketball Club at the time, Ash Koch, asked him to come and play. The move for Ah Matt proved live changing as he went on to carve out his legacy at Souths, playing a then-record of 588 games for the club over 20 seasons.

“I only got to see the last bit of his career just before he retired, but even then he was awesome to watch,” Kirsty Ah Matt explained. “They likened him to Magic Johnson with his passing. He was a real entertainer and the crowds loved him and they loved to watch him play.”

In fact, he was such an elite entertainer on the floor that he was approached by arguably the most famous team of all!

“I was also told that he was asked to join the Harlem Globetrotters, that's how good his ball-handling skills were,” said Kirsty.

During his incredible career, Ah Matt played in numerous state squads, before eventually working his way up to the pinnacle of Australian men’s basketball, the Olympic team.

He was selected as part of the 1964 Boomers side that went to Tokyo and included the likes of Lindsay Gaze and Ken Cole. Remarkably, Ah Matt’s inclusion on the team came just two years after the Commonwealth Electoral Act was amended to give Indigenous Australians the right to enrol and vote in Federal elections. However, it wasn’t until 1965 that Queensland became the final state to allow Indigenous Australians to vote in state elections, and it took until 1967 for Indigenous Australians to be counted in the Commonwealth Census.

Ah Matt had been selected to represent his country at time in which Australia was still titering on the foundation of institutional racism which had dated back over 100 years. The fact he was given such an honour proves that he was the true embodiment of the term ‘trail blazer’.

The Boomers would go on to finish 9th at the 1964 Tokyo Games, which was an improvement on their 12th position at the 1956 Olympics. Ah Matt’s best game of the tournament came against the eventual gold medal winner, Team USA, which featured the likes of legendary player and coach Larry Brown. Ah Matt was the only Boomer to reach double digits (11 points) in that game and was also the only player in the green and gold to shoot the ball at over 50% from the field (4/7).

Above: The 1964 Olympic Team. Ah Matt is wearing No. 8.

The South Adelaide basketball legend was part of the Mexico City 1968 pre-Olympic qualifying tournament team, however, sadly they couldn’t make it through to the Games.

The Man

Such an entertainer on the floor, Michael Ah Matt was the same off it.

“I can just remember him being a big clown at home,” Kirsty Ah Matt said.

“Mum always used to say that she had four children even though she only had three, but he made the fourth because he was just so fun.”

His reach also went further than just entertaining the masses at home and at the local court, he proved to be a strong pillar for his own community others around the country.

“He worked for the South Australian Housing Trust in the Aboriginal section,” Kirsty Ah Matt explained.

“And he was the founding member of The National Aboriginal Sports Foundation which also featured the likes of Evonne Goolagong and Lionel Rose.

“He also used to coach special needs teams and used to do things with the hearing impaired and wheelchair basketball.”

In fact, a clinic at Thursday Island that Ah Matt coached at proved quite crucial to the state of the game at the moment.

“Dad went and did a coaching clinic at TI, Thursday Island, and Patty Mills’ uncle Danny Morseu was there and that's how he got started into basketball,” said Kirsty.

Mills isn’t the only modern-day Boomers with links to Ah Matt. Brad Newley wears No. 8 in honour of the South Australian basketball legend, who was good friends with his father, Arthur Newley.

Sadly Ah Matt passed away in 1983 at just 40 years of age. In 2010 he was inducted into the Australian Basketball Hall of Fame alongside fellow 1964 Olympian Bill Wyatt and a number of other well-known Australian basketball names.

The Documentary

When Kirsty Ah Matt was in primary school she was the target of horrific racist bullying. It got so bad that she used to tell people she wasn’t Indigenous to try and avoid being a target. However, after her dad’s passing, she came to a realisation.

“I sort of didn't want to be Aboriginal and I would say it I wasn’t Aboriginal because people would say don't touch me because you could get the chocolate germs,” she explained.

“It wasn't until he passed away that I thought if I don't say I'm Aboriginal then I'm saying I'm not his daughter.”

It’s this idea of legacy that is the driving force behind the Michael Ah Matt documentary, ‘Point Forward’.

Ah Matt played such a pivotal role in the history of Australian basketball and sport in general and it’s unjust that more people don’t know about him and his story. It’s why his family jumped on the opportunity of a documentary when approached by filmmaker Marcus McKenzie.

“Marcus McKenzie was a junior basketball player at South Adelaide and he came to us and said he would like to do a documentary on dad,” Kirsty Ah Matt said.

“I always wanted to write a book or have his story told in some way because not enough people know about him.”

The fundraising target for ‘Point Forward’ is $120,000, with the majority of that covering archival footage which is expensive to access. At the time of writing the project had raised over $13,000, a strong start but still in need of plenty of support.

This is clearly so important to the Ah Matt family, but it should be something the wider Australian basketball community gets behind. Over the last few years, we have seen the reach of ‘The Last Dance’ and more recently Luc Longley’s Australian Story. Those were already stories we knew, but that didn’t mean we weren’t glued to the screen while watching. Ah Matt’s story is an incredible one that doesn’t get the recognition it deserves but should be told, especially considering what a trailblazer he was for Indigenous communities around the country.

With much of her dad’s legacy forged in Tokyo, I asked Kirsty Ah Matt about how she felt when watching Patty Mills carry the flag at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Her answer was one of positivity, but not satisfaction.

“To see Patty carrying the flag was just like ‘oh my gosh look how far we've come’, but we've still got a long way to go to,” she said.

Here’s hoping that ‘Point Forward’ will be another step that will help us move along in that journey.