Own Your Story: How a Zoom call started Patty Mills on his plan to revolutionise Indigenous basketball

Mills, together with Tyson Demos and the IBA are empowering Indigenous youth in Australia work towards successful futures, both on and off the court.

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It was 2020.

Amidst a global pandemic, a group of friends sat in on a Zoom call from opposite sides of the world and set in motion a life changing plan for the next generation of young Indigenous basketball players in Australia.

Patty and Alyssa Mills shared their dream, which began while sitting together on the floor of their living room during quarantine. The dream: To eliminate barriers and create pathways in basketball, at the grassroots level for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth. Their collective enthusiasm instantly transferred through the computer screens to the rest of the group.

“The first Zoom call was with myself [Tyson Demos], Joel Khalu, Patty and Alyssa Mills, and Matthew Adekponya. Patty shared his plans of what he wanted to do and everyone in that call was totally locked in. You could feel the passion and energy with what Patty and Alyssa wanted to achieve.  The last six months have been really extraordinary.”

Demos laughs, as he recently shared with The Pick and Roll the unique situation of building a national competition from his garage over Zoom.

This was the birth of Indigenous Basketball Australia (IBA). IBA is the first of its kind, a revolutionary program, not only providing development camps for young Indigenous basketball players in rural areas but also providing a large focus on culture, health, and wellbeing.

“Basketball as a sport has inspired me to be an exceptional athlete. It’s allowed me to dream big and continually find ways to learn and grow. But my love of basketball has come from the fact that it has brought me happiness, joy, health, education and knowledge with greater appreciation and perspective on life. At the end of the day, a platform was created for me to carry and be seen as my true identity as an Australian, an Indigneous man of the land,” Mills shared upon IBA’s launch last year. “When I combine those experiences, I become aware of the positive influence I can have on my own people in Australia who are continuously oppressed. It makes me want to work harder at finding ways to provide better opportunities to make a real impact on the lives of my people. “

“The two things he’s so passionate about are obviously basketball, and his community,” Demos said. “Now he’s in the position where he can give back, I think it’s awesome and it’s a testament to him and his wife. From that first Zoom meeting that we had, I was all in.”

With the aim of bringing this program to another level, they also launched a foundation basketball competition hosted by IBA - the Indigenous Community Basketball League (ICBL). ICBL, which commenced February 7, 2021, is running across eight locations throughout mainland Australia and the Torres Strait Islands: Perth, Darwin, Alice Springs, Woodville (NT), Thursday Island, Dubbo, and Cairns. They selected areas based on participation numbers and community support in regions that young talent has otherwise been overlooked.

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In Australia’s highest level basketball competition, the National Basketball League (NBL), there are currently only three Indigenous players.

“One of our key outcomes is to promote and engage more participation in the Indigenous community. But it’s not just for the NBL, we want to promote girls and women in the sport too - there’s only five Indigenous players in the WNBL and we want to increase the women’s participation as much as we can.”

IBA’s use of the tagline “Own Your Story” across social media, is a reminder of this project’s significance. This is more than numbers on a scoreboard, this is empowering Indigenous youth to own their journey both past and present while working towards a successful future.

IBA merging with Australian Indigenous Basketball (AIB) was the next clear step, combining forces to see the success of this venture.  Tyson Demos was the former president of AIB and he’s eagerly taken on the role to facilitate the delivery of IBA activities, competitions, and events.

Through his own personal experiences and fatherhood, Demos developed a strong determination to guide vulnerable youth and provide his support in numerous basketball and health programs.  With over 350 NBL games under his belt, he established himself as a sporting role model for many Indigenous children. Demos has been delivering basketball programs to remote communities long before IBA’s inception. 

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Attending the opening ceremony in Dubbo, New South Wales, he was in awe of every aspect of the experience earlier this month. Watching all the planning and meticulous work from IBA unfold before his eyes were what he described to be a momentous occasion, not only in his life but also to everyone in attendance.

“From the opening ceremony with the Welcome to Country by the traditional owners of the area, to their welcome dance, to hearing the regional coordinator speak of what this means to them and the kids.  There’s so much untapped talent out there that constantly keeps surprising me and I think that’s what’s really special, that’s a big reason why Patty started this.”

The program is currently focusing on the under-14 age group, with plans to expand in the future.

“They’re at an important stage in their life, growing from children into adolescents and tying basketball with the inspirational and motivational sessions we are running, I think it’s a critical time in these kids’ lives for them to benefit from this.  If we can put programs in place that can assist and support them in their life, their journey, their cultural identity, that’s one of the huge positives and one of the key outcomes of IBA.”

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Partnering up with local health organisations and role models at each of the locations, IBA will run Inspirational and Motivational sessions prior to each game.  They provide them with a healthy lunch and conduct sessions that have a different theme each week ranging from leadership, culture, safety, and wellbeing. 

Demos, a proud Indigenous Australian, says growing up in Wollongong meant he had the opportunity to easily access organised sport. However, he was still able to identify the obstacles that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth faced in the junior levels of mainstream basketball.  Not having the logistical barriers meant he did have the opportunity to play his way to the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) and eventually play and coach for 10 years in the NBL.

The light IBA will shine on these issues raise an important question: how many talented players over the years have slipped through the cracks simply due to their location, social and economic conditions, discrimination, or exclusion?

“I was lucky in a way because I didn’t have to face some of these barriers that these kids out in those rural communities have to face. Some of these kids have to drive two or three hours just to play a single game in an organised competition and that’s another one of our key focuses of why we wanted to take the ICBL to rural communities.”

Not only is travel a major barrier for many kids, but the cost of sport is another significant element to consider in whether they can participate. Mills is in good standing to help, and he has wholeheartedly helped to eliminate the cost hurdle.

“These kids that are participating in the ICBL don’t have to pay for anything. One of the barriers in small communities is the cost of playing sport so we have eliminated that barrier, this is a free competition to be a part of. Uniforms, equipment, coaching, and meals, even the National Indigenous Basketball Tournament at the Gold Coast is all fully covered by IBA, its sponsors, and Patty Mills.”

Getting large sponsors on board was another huge win for IBA in delivering these programs and competitions.  Under Armour, Coles, Spalding, Ref Warehouse, and ARCHER Officials have signed on as key partners, with a common goal to help young Indigenous athletes achieve their potential.

“This whole process I’ve enjoyed right from that first Zoom call, the early stages of planning, to celebrating the wins of sponsors coming on board, and the Jr. NBA collaboration, all of it has been such a tremendous experience.”

On February 5th, 2021, IBA announced that the National Basketball Association (NBA) would be supporting them in their inaugural year by offering up to 48 positions for boys and girls selected from the ICBL to attend their Jr. NBA camp that is held at the Gold Coast, Queensland, in April. The camp, running over two days, will be held prior to the National Indigenous Basketball Tournament. This camp also involves the opportunity to be selected to head overseas and attend the Jr. NBA Global Championship Asia-Pacific athlete selection pathway camp later in the year.

“There’s an opportunity for a kid from somewhere like Gilgandra in Central West New South Wales to play in the ICBL competition, then head to the National Indigenous Basketball Tournament to a Jr. NBA camp, then maybe overseas. It’s so awesome, it’s giving these kids a different pathway without those barriers we spoke about and also putting supports in place for them to be successful.”

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“Patty has an unbelievable relationship with the NBA. They have supported him with a number of Team Mills projects that he’s done in Australia.  From the bushfire relief on the South Coast of New South Wales to the water project that he carried out where he delivered water to remote communities that were overcome with drought, they’ve been very supportive of everything Patty’s done not just in Australia but in the San Antonio community as well. When they reached out to Patty and had the conversation, the collaboration was an easy decision for them to make.”

Moving forward, there are plans to expand both the locations and age group, eventually stream games to get more eyes on the league, and continue to guide the journeys of young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth both on and off the court.

“We want to roll out as many locations as possible and reach as many kids’ lives as we can.  It’s still in the early stages now but we wanted to make sure we were rolling out a program that was perfect.  We wanted to make sure everything was in place and that we could deliver on everything we promised.” Demos concludes with pride in his voice for all they have achieved.

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Patty Mills, an NBA champion and three-time Olympian continues to reach new heights with his immeasurable generosity for his people, his country, and his culture.  His determined drive towards philanthropy makes it exciting to see what’s next on the agenda for Team Mills and IBA. For now, the spotlight is on ICBL as they undoubtedly are taking the biggest steps forward in promoting Indigenous basketball.

“Indigenous youth are being detained at a rate 23 times that of non-Indigenous young people. Currently, of the 10-13 year olds incarcerated, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children make up approximately 70% of this younger age group. Disturbing stats and we should feel responsible to take urgent and innovative actions to address this gross negligence occurring in the lives of young Indigenous people,” Mills shared in July last year.

“Basketball will be the vehicle, and IBA will drive this vehicle to one day see more Indigenous Australians pulling on the Green and Gold for the Boomers or Opals. But if IBA can create the positive environment that allows my people to enjoy a healthy and safe life, to be accepted and participate in a society free from discrimination, then that’s the real win for my people in this life.”

History is being made, right now.