By Jason King, Yahoo! Sports
December 21, 2007
MORAGA, Calif. – Here in the gymnasium at McKeon Pavilion, an Australian flag hangs from a wall behind the backboard.
A reporter from Sydney sits on press row and, as the St. Mary's basketball team warms up for its game against Seton Hall, fans sing along to the Men at Work tune being piped through the sound system.
"I come from a land Down Under," they croon. "You better run, you better take cover."
Watching it all, Patrick Mills can't help but grin. Just nine games into his college career, the freshman from Australia has already helped St. Mary's to its first Top 25 ranking in 18 years. The Gaels are 8-1, the stands are nearly filled, and administrators say the school has received more media exposure in the past six weeks than it has in its history.
For that, St. Mary's can thank Mills, who has even been honored with his own chant.
"Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!" the fans yell after each Mills basket. "Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!"
Folks in Moraga have plenty of reason to be juiced about Mills, a kangaroo-quick point guard who averages 16.3 points a game. Mills' 23-point effort in Thursday's win over Tulane helped the Gaels advance in the Outrigger Rainbow Classic in Honolulu – but that performance was nothing compared to his 37-point outing in last month's upset of Oregon.
"Our staff knew he was capable of doing some special things," head coach Randy Bennett said. "But even we were caught off guard by that."
Perhaps they shouldn't have been. Mills, after all, has all but locked up a roster spot on his country's 2008 Olympic team. In 2006 he was named Australia's Basketball Player of the Year. So popular there is Mills that television stations are actually broadcasting select St. Mary's games in their entirety.
Mills couldn't be more appreciative of all the attention – especially since he knows he's lucky to even be getting a chance.
"I know there are certain people back home that are watching me closely and hoping I do well," Mills said. "I'm going to do everything I can to make them proud."
Mills was referring to Australia's indigenous population, almost all of which is black. Statistics show that indigenous people have greater health problems, spend more time in prison and are less-educated than non-indigenous people – partly because many of them still live in rural areas, where they lead primitive lifestyles.
"The indigenous people in the rural areas have not adapted to life as it is today," Mills said. "They live in the outback. Some people don't live in houses. When it comes to food, they don't have access to the things we do, like stoves. They're still hunting their own food. There aren't a lot of opportunities for education.
"Basically, they're still living like people did in the olden days."
Mills could've easily faced the same set of circumstances during his childhood. Instead, his father, Benny (a Torres Strait Islander) and mother, Yvonne (an Aboriginal), left Australia's rural, island life behind and moved to the capital city of Canberra shortly before Patrick's birth.
Aside from dealing with a few bouts of racism, Mills' upbringing included all of the positive influences and opportunities that other indigenous Australians are rarely afforded: structured school systems, a strong family life, nutrition and safety from crime.
"He's not a guy that forgets where he came from," Bennett said. "He knows how few doors are open for that group of people. I'm sure he has a lot of people back home who really look up to him and admire him."
Indeed, even though he was living under different circumstances, it wasn't as if Mills was isolated from Australia's indigenous population. About 20 years ago he said his father founded Shadows Basketball Club, which attempts to help at-risk indigenous youths by introducing them to basketball, much in the same ways the Boys and Girls Club does in the United States.
Because of that Mills was constantly around basketball during his childhood in Australia, where indigenous people have traditionally focused on sports such as track, rugby or Aussie Rules football instead of hoops.
His uncle, Danny Morseu, is an NBL Hall of Famer who represented Australia in the 1980 and 1984 Olympics. For Mills, the talk about following in Morseu's footsteps began at age 16, when he was invited to attend the Australian Institute of Sports – an uncommon opportunity for an indigenous athlete.
Within two years Mills had played his way onto the Australian national team. His 17-point effort against New Zealand last summer helped the Aussies qualify for the 2008 Olympics. Mills will have to try out for the squad once again, but coaches said they fully expect Mills to be competing – if not starting – in Beijing next summer.
"Obviously, it would be a very big deal for me to represent my country," Mills said. "I'm looking at every one of our practices (at St. Mary's) as a developmental stage of me getting there."
Still, before he starts thinking too much about medal ceremonies, Mills know his focus must be on helping the Gaels win their first-ever West Coast Conference title under Bennett, who has a history of signing Australian players.
Mills is one of four Aussies on St. Mary's 2007-08 roster. The common theme is that all of them went through a junior Olympic program in Canberra run by Marty Clarke, who has also worked with college standouts such as Aleks Maric (Nebraska), Andrew Ogilvy (Vanderbilt), Aron Baynes (Washington State) and Aaron Bruce (Baylor).
"It's not like I came here with some grand scheme to recruit Australian players," said Bennett, now in his seventh season. "But it ended up happening, and now we've developed a pipeline.
"The main thing I like about them is that, because of Marty Clarke, they're pretty-well developed once they get here. For us, they've been ready-to-play guys from the first day."
Although he realized the 6-foot Mills had loads of potential, Bennett bottled up his excitement after signing Mills to a letter of intent. He didn't brag about him to friends and students on campus or call him "the next big thing" when talking with members of the media.
"We were very careful," Bennett said. "We did a good job of keeping it low-key. I didn't want him to have to live up to some hype that he couldn't live up to.
"That's why this season has worked out great. People like Patty for the right reasons. Any attention he's getting, he deserves it, because he's earned it."
Along with Yahoo! Sports, reporters from ESPN, Sports Illustrated and USA Today have all written features about Mills this season. A reporter and a film crew flew from Australia to California to do a piece on him a few weeks ago, and Comcast cable is getting requests from overseas for footage from St. Mary's games.
Gaels teammate and fellow Aussie Carlin Hughes kept a straight face when he said that Mills was currently one of the biggest stories in Australian sports.
"He's definitely started out with a big bang," Hughes said. "He's showing people what he can do. He's very similar to Tony Parker. He's very fast with the ball – as fast as anyone I've ever seen. Sometimes you have to just give him the ball and let him do his thing."
Mills appreciates those kinds of remarks, but they also embarrass him. According to teammates, Mills sometimes pulls his hood over his head and looks at the ground when people start to praise him.
"That's the neat thing about him," said junior forward Ian O'Leary, one of Mills' closest friends. "He's getting a lot of hype, a lot of articles. He's very grateful for it, but he's never going to be a guy that pops off or brags. They have a lot of respect for him because of the way he handles it."
Bennett said Mills' team-oriented style has been infectious. He referenced a Dec. 8 game against San Diego State when Mills came up with a loose ball and began driving toward the basket for an uncontested layup.
"There was no one within 20 feet of him," Bennett said. "But instead of getting the points for himself, he turned around and passed it to Omar (Samhan) for a dunk. Now Omar's pumped, the team's pumped – all because of Patty being unselfish.
"The players that are really special are the guys that everyone is pulling for. That's how he is. He's a mature, caring kid. You can't fake that. Our team sees it. There's no jealousy toward him, no animosity because of the attention he's getting. They like him and want him to do well."
As fun as he's having on the court, Mills' transition to American life hasn't always been easy. He's a big fan of the $1 menu at Wendy's, but he also misses the Vegemite sandwiches he eats in Australia. Mills likes Chris Brown's album and knows the words to almost every song but, every now and then, he'll listen to one of his Aussie CDs.
"It's been about four months now," Mills said of his time in the United States. "I was feeling fine and then I got into that stage where you get homesick a little bit."
Mills has a video camera on his computer that allows them to engage in live, face-to-face chats with his parents. As much as that helped, sometimes it wasn't enough.
"My teammates saw that I was struggling a little bit," he said. "They took me under their wing and got me through the tough times. I'd be in my room and they'd come over and say, 'C'mon. Let's get out of here. Let's go do something.'
"It wasn't long until I was having fun again."
Perhaps more than any Gael, O'Leary and his family have become particularly close with Mills. The O'Learys live in nearby Woodland, which makes it easy for Ian and Patty to meet them for church on Sunday.
Mills also spent Thanksgiving Day at the O'Leary household, where he played the guitar and sang songs for hours with O'Leary's uncle, Rick.
"Before we ate we went around the table, and each person said what they were thankful for," O'Leary said. "Patty went last, and he ended up giving a little speech. He thanked us for having him and said how he'll always remember celebrating his first Thanksgiving here.
"He said this year was something he'll always remember."
Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated on Friday, Dec 21, 2007 4:19 pm, EST
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