Commentary

Aborigine hoops star putting face on St. Mary's

Originally Published: December 12, 2007
By Andy Glockner | ESPN.com

Having just landed in St. Louis, a quintessential Middle American city, and before a quick team meal at McDonald's, the quintessential American fast-food restuarant, Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett was asked about freshman Patty Mills.

Bennett paused for a good while before finally finding the right way to describe Mills, a quintessential up-tempo point guard but definitively not American. In just a month, Mills has reshaped national opinion of the Gaels and, perhaps, expectations for this season's West Coast Conference race.

[+] EnlargePatrick Mills
Bradley Kanaris/Getty ImagesPatrick Mills' 37-point outburst against Oregon signaled his arrival to the American college hoops scene.

"I don't worry about the moment being too big for him," Bennett said. "He's been in some big situations. He's had success, and he's had to handle success. So those things you have to worry about with a first-year guy, or even a guy who hasn't had as much success at this level -- I don't have to worry about those kinds of things with him."

That's because it would be almost impossible to find a moment in a college game that would be too big for Mills. A dynamic playmaker, the 19-year-old Australian already is the youngest-ever member of his country's senior national team. This past summer, he helped the "Boomers" qualify for the 2008 Olympics. Also, as the product of a marriage of indigenous Australians, he represents a minority population that continues to struggle to find a foothold in its own land.

Add all of that up and, according to current teammate and countryman Carlin Hughes, Mills is "probably the biggest deal going on in youth sport [in Australia] at the moment." Saint Mary's games have been shown live on Australian national TV. Nightly newscasts, typically bereft of any basketball highlights, now regularly show Mills' work. The magnitude of the attention Mills is getting won't take away the sting of Tuesday night's disappointing 71-56 loss at Southern Illinois -- Saint Mary's first defeat of the season -- but it does provide some sense of perspective.

For his part, Mills, who is averaging 15.5 points and 4.1 assists per game this season, welcomes all of the expectations. He understands why his exploits have become a big deal back home, but he tries not to let that pressure consume him.

"You just go out on the court and play for your school, your country and where you come from," he said. "It's something I don't really look deeply into. I just try to go out and have fun."

The Gaels certainly have enjoyed the season thus far, the Saluki shutdown aside. Their 7-0 start propelled them into the top 25 for the first time in 18 years, and Mills' 37-point explosion in their 99-87 upset win over then-No. 13 Oregon provided one of the season's signature moments. Games at McKeon Pavilion have become raucous, international-style events, with Australian flags waving and the singing of a traditional chant (which Hughes taught the crowd at Midnight Madness) whenever Mills or one of the team's other Aussies scores.

If it sounds like Mills and his mates are fitting right in at the small Moraga, Calif., school, you're right. Bennett started cultivating a pipeline from Down Under in 2001, when, after he took over a 2-27 team and was desperate to add a point guard, he lured Australian Institute of Sport product Adam Caporn to the United States. Caporn's presence then helped the Gaels land talented forward Daniel Kickert, one of Caporn's former teammates at the elite development academy. Kickert helped lead the Gaels to the 2005 NCAA Tournament. And now, along with Mills, there are two other Australians playing for the Gaels.

Mills' own recruitment started when he was 16 years old and the Kickert-led Gaels played AIS during a tour of Australia. Saint Mary's handily won the exhibition, but according to fifth-year senior Todd Golden, who was the point guard that day, he had his hands full with the precocious Mills, who scored 17 points and caused Golden to catch some grief from his coaches.

"I didn't feel as bad [about that game] when he put 37 on Oregon," Golden said with a laugh.

[Mills] really realizes that he has a great opportunity. He's one of very few people over there that has this opportunity to help that group of people.

--Randy Bennett

Mills said Saint Mary's was able to close the deal when Bennett personally made a trip to Canberra to meet with Mills' family. The presence of assistant coach David Patrick, a native Bahamian who had a long career in Australia's professional league and is a friend of the Mills family, also helped.

"For my mom and dad, I think the trust and the friendship that they have created with [Bennett] and coach Patrick was the key," Mills said. "My dad, especially, believed and trusted [Bennett] that I would get the development I needed to meet my goals in the future."

For Mills, the near future appears to hold a good chance of trips to the NCAA Tournament next spring and Beijing next summer. It also includes ever-growing acceptance that his background and his playing ability make him a role model.

The son of an Aborigine mom (a native of the mainland and adjacent islands) and a Torres Strait Islander dad (a native of a string of islands between the mainland and New Guinea), Mills is one of the country's approximately 500,000 indigenous people, a group that once was hindered by historical segregation practices. Today, indigenous Australians often still live in rural areas, and they have a life expectancy that is 20 years fewer than that of non-indigenous residents, according to a 2001 study by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Historically, indigenous Australians have made their athletic mark in Australian Rules Football and rugby, the country's two favorite sports, so few play basketball. As such, Mills' success stands out that much more.

"That's one of the things that motivates me to do well in basketball, knowing that not many indigenous people have gone through and succeeded," Mills said.

Indigenous Australian track star Cathy Freeman excelled at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, and her success in the international spotlight did wonders in lifting overall acceptance.

"[Mills] understands what's at stake here," Bennett said. "He embraces that. He has such poise and a confidence about it. It's not, 'Gosh, I can't let everyone down.' He really realizes that he has a great opportunity. He's one of very few people over there that has this opportunity to help that group of people."

Mills said his dad -- a former basketball player who, with his wife, runs a hoops program for indigenous children -- was a big reason he eschewed the more typical athletic paths in Australia. Mills' uncle, Danny Morseu, also had an influence. Morseu was the second indigenous player on Australia's national team when he played in the 1980 and 1984 Olympics. This past summer, Mills became the third.

Mills followed Morseu's pro career in Australia when he was a kid, and he grew closer to his uncle over the past four years as he himself developed as a prospect.

Randy Bennett
David Gonzales/Icon SMISt. Mary's coach Randy Bennett has three Australians playing on his 24th-ranked Gaels.

"He's someone who's been through that path and put a lot of hard work in to get there, so it goes without saying that he's taught me a lot," Mills said.

Now, Mills is the one doing the teaching. He shares the wisdom gleaned from international play with his more callow American teammates, and his teammates admire the way he carries himself with a maturity and poise well beyond his years.

"I think all the other players appreciate how he handles things and how unselfish he is in every other aspect of life, whether it be on the court or off the court," Bennett said.

Bennett understands the value of that kind of leadership and believes all of the Australians -- a group that also includes Hughes, Lucas Walker and Ben Allen, who is sitting out this season -- have given his program an added level of toughness.

"This team has a better work ethic than a lot of our other teams," he said. "I think it does have to do with these guys. They've been away from home. There's a reason they're here: That's to get an education and play basketball. They left all their friends, left all their family, so there's a commitment as soon as they get on that plane to come over here."

Of course, skill helps, too. This Saint Mary's squad is much more than just Mills. Forward Diamon Simpson is an all-league performer, and he teams with much-improved center Omar Samhan to provide a combined 25.8 points and 16.3 rebounds a game. That said, when you have a great point guard, it usually makes everyone better.

Golden noted that Mills' arrival meant "more open looks this season than I had in my first three seasons [combined]," and the Gaels' improvement across the board supports that. Saint Mary's is way up in shooting percentage and way down in turnovers while playing at a much faster pace. Add that up, and it means a much better offense -- and to this point, a much better record. If that continues, it also will mean even more focus on Mills, but Bennett expects his freshman to continue to handle himself with aplomb.

"Some guys who get this much attention as a freshman, people sometimes don't root for them," Bennett said. "They don't handle it well, and people become envious. This kid, everyone roots for him."

Andy Glockner is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's college basketball coverage and is the host of the ESPNU College Basketball Insider podcast. He can be reached at bubblewatch@gmail.com.