Patty Mills on bushfire relief efforts and the Spurs journey

On 10 January, Patty Mills sat down with ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski to discuss bushfire awareness, life in San Antonio and more. The veteran point guard has used his social media presence to great effect in the wake of this natural disaster, dedicating his Twitter and Instagram platforms to bushfire awareness.

An emphatic response to the devastation down under

Australia's nine NBA players partnered with the NBPA foundation and the NBA on January 8, pledging US$750,000 to the bushfire relief effort. Speaking on the Woj Pod, Mills explained how the group came together.

“I think that has always been who we are - this group anyway - that have been able to play for Australia. It has always been that Australian way of being united and coming together. We always haven’t been the most talented or athletic team throughout basketball, so for us to do things like this isn’t unusual. It’s almost like a lifestyle that we life. We enjoy each others’ company when we do come together. So, for us to do this, it was quick text message and we were all on it together.”

Mills also detailed his social media response to the raging fires in Australia. The Canberra native has made the most of his online presence, raising awareness about the devastation down under.

“It’s one thing to feel helpless on the other side of the world. [I'm] trying to find whatever I can to make a long-lasting effect. We can donate as much as we can to help out, but I think for me, I think [I would be more productive] using my voice and platform to create a long-lasting effect so that people can be educated on what’s going on,” Mills said.

Wojnarowski then questioned Mills as to whether the Australian bushfires would provide added motivation ahead of the Tokyo Olympics. The three-time Olympian agreed, adding that Aussie athletes always take great pride in wearing the green and gold.

“There is no question. Even before these catastrophic events that are happening, these are all the reasons that we play for Australia. We play for our country, and there is a deeper meaning to why we do that and why we do it together.

“You just feel that everyone is connected in this team on a far deeper level. When you see things like this happen to our country…they are all the reasons why we play for Australia. When we put on the green and gold mate, it’s arguably the best feeling you can have as a sports star. There will just be that added motivation come Tokyo.”

Early days in San Antonio

Patty Mills had an unassuming start to his Spurs career. The 6'0 point guard arrived in San Antonio towards the back end of the lockout-shortened 2011/12 season. Mills spoke of his teammates' reactions when he entered the locker room on day one.

“[My arrival was] unexpected. I remember walking into the locker room and shaking everyone’s hands. I think people were shocked. They didn’t know I was coming, and here I was in the locker room meeting everyone.”

The values of the Spurs' organisation really resonated with Mills. Today he is the longest-tenured Spur, after being based in San Antonio for eight years. Reflecting on his NBA journey, the 31 year old said:

“[I spent] those first few days, and probably even longer, pinching myself trying to work out where I am. As I got more comfortable and learnt more from teammates and coaching staff, I began to feel that connection. This organisation, and the values that it has, I can 1000% relate to it – with the way that I’ve been brought up, with my family and my culture.”

Heartbreak and triumph

The San Antonio Spurs were one rebound away from winning the 2013 NBA Finals. With victory in sight at the end of game six, Ray Allen hit an iconic three-pointer to bring Miami level with San Antonio. The Heat would eventually win in overtime, before clinching the championship in game seven. Mills recounted the Spurs' heartache in coming so close to victory, only to be denied in the dying seconds.

“I still feel as though it happened last week. I think that’s going to be it for a long time. I remember the game, I remember the free throw and I remember the offensive rebound. I remember the corner 3, the yellow rope coming out to block the fans coming onto the court and the security guards running into me on the sideline. That’s how much I remember about it. All of a sudden the Larry O’Brien [was] being rolled back off and yellow tape [was] being taken off again. It’s a lot of emotion – I remember the locker room there in Miami like it was yesterday.”

The Spurs ultimately bounced back to win a championship the following year. It didn't come easily, as coach Greg Poppovich demanded commitment and full effort. The playing group was happy to oblige however, as the near-miss of 2013 was unforgettable. Speaking on the Woj Pod, Mills outlined how the Spurs recovered from adversity to triumph one year later.

“The first day back, before anything, it was back in the film room after a tough summer of dwelling on it for so long. Before warmups, before anything, back in the film room, we watched and we felt that pain all over again – game 6, game 7 and the entire series. He wanted us to feel how we felt after those two games in the locker room. And we all walked out of that room - It was just radiating with this [feeling], which wasn’t necessarily a bad feeling, but we were ready to go.

“The driving force on what Pop had, every day, in that season, to get back to where we were, [is something] I will never forget. Not only him – it obviously trickles down to everyone else. Manu, Tony and Tim as well – the way they handle themselves as professional players, the way they talk and their mannerisms. They were on a mission, and we were all on a mission. We just had to find out how we were going to get back there when that was a great season of how we were able to claw back and find our way through. [There were] many hard times during that season to get back to the finals.”

Mills himself was a standout performer in the closeout game of the 2014 NBA finals. The sharpshooter contributed 17 points in the fifth and final match, as San Antonio dispatched Miami by a score of 4-1. Mills detailed the lead up to the finals with Wojnarowski, which included a narrow first round win over Dallas.

“That series was just an after-effect of everything that had gone on prior to that. Hitting your straps at the right time, I don’t know. Round 1 against Dallas, Vince Carter hits a crazy fadeaway three in the corner and we go to game 7. We had played average up until that point and Dallas had played really well. It wasn’t up until that game 7 where we felt like who we were meant to be – [in terms of] the way that we played defence and the way that we moved the ball on offense.

“I remember going into the Portland series as well. Tony Parker [was] going down, and I had a little bit of responsibility in filling his shoes while he was injured. I think for me, that kind of gave myself a lot of confidence – being able to fill that role for a certain number of games.”

A new era

Mills is now a senior statesman on a new-look San Antonio team. Gone are Spurs' big three of Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili that dominated NBA basketball for so long. Continuity is rare in the modern NBA - The Spurs' big three represent a bygone era where players were more likely to band together and build a long-term dynasty with one club. With over a decade of professional basketball experience, Mills has become a bridge between the old and new eras, and risen as the Spurs' spiritual leader.

“When you think about it, it was the connection that players had with the team, with the organisation and with the city that provided this environment again – of this playing for something deeper than just basketball. There was a genuine connection with each other on the team, with the city and with the families. Everyone was in it together. Maybe that has gone as well, I don’t know. It definitely has changed, and we’re going through those motions at the moment. That has become my role – trying and bridge that gap from what once was with those core values, meanings and those times that we did have – and bridge the gap to this new day of the NBA,” Mills said.

Mills also spoke of Tim Duncan's influence as an assistant coach. The Spurs legend has recently returned to the organisation as a member of Gregg Popovich's personnel.

“The one thing that you probably will find from a lot of people, is how much just his presence is effective. Without him making a noise, or saying a word, his presence in a gym is far more effective than a lot of people that I’ve met. It just makes you put your alerts up and your ears stand up. Whether it’s to behave or do the right thing, that’s the type of presence that he has. He had that even more so as a teammate – I needed to make sure that when he was around, I was doing what needed to be done to help the team.”

Looking ahead, the Spurs are currently enduring a challenging season. They are positioned outside the top eight in the Western Conference, and hence in danger of missing the playoffs. On an individual level however, Patty Mills is enjoying a productive year, and is averaging double digit scoring while shooting close to 40% from beyond the arc. Hopefully, for Australia's Olympic effort, he will carry this form to Tokyo.