From prejudice to pride

Patty Mills is happy-go-lucky but it’s not a family trait

By Matt Calkins, Columbian Sports Reporter

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Patty Mills is the perpetually perky point guard with the no-frown clause in his contract who leaps off the bench, or lunges toward teammates, or fist bumps reporters at every opportunity.

Except now, in one of the more anomalous moments you’ll see in the Northwest, the second-year Blazer is pulling away.

“Unless someone asks me, it’s not a subject I talk about much,” Mills said.

The subject pertains to his Indigenous Australian heritage, more specifically his Aboriginal mother, Yvonne, who as a 2-year-old was taken from her mother along with her older brother and three older sisters. The abduction was part of a national effort led by the Australian government and church missions to remove Indigenous Australian children from their homes and assimilate them into white culture.

It is now classified as “The Stolen Generation,” and Yvonne was a textbook victim.

“That’s the chip I carry on my shoulder,” Mills continued. “Not just being an Indigenous Australian, but knowing that my mom’s side of my family never got to see me play.”

Seeing how she went to a family that fed, sheltered and schooled her, Yvonne didn’t initially feel wronged. Later, however, she found herself in and out of hospitals because she couldn’t adapt to her new diet — an adjustment that nearly killed her sister.

In grade school, the principal would pull Yvonne out of class whenever a welfare officer visited campus, ushering her to his office to check for lice and ensure that her underwear was clean.

It was humiliating, frightening, and incessantly unpleasant, but it wasn’t until Yvonne approached adolescence that the water burst through the dam.

Told that her mother didn’t want her, she couldn’t elude constant feelings of abandonment.

She remembers having to take a series of intelligence tests when she was 11, each time thinking that if she got a question wrong she’d again be removed from her home.

“I always had this feeling of not being wanted. Thinking ‘are these people going to give me up, too?’ ” Yvonne said. “You grow up with that in mind. You begin not to trust people. You begin to think that you’re the problem. There’s a feeling that you’re less of a person.”

What she didn’t know was that the government was intercepting a deluge of letters from her mother; letters fervently explaining that she never wanted to give her children up, letters to the welfare department at Christmas begging for her baby daughter back, letters chronicling a mother’s pain that Yvonne would not discover until the national inquiry of the Stolen Generation began in 1995.

Like Patty, this is not a topic she discusses often, and speaking about it earlier this month from her home in Canberra, Yvonne couldn’t help but weep.

“I’m sorry, I’m having a little bit of a moment here,” she said. “I just feel so bad for my mother. It was a terrible life. A life of being judged by other people because her skin was dark.”

Yvonne eventually reunited with her mom and siblings but their two-decade-plus separation rarely came up in conversation. And why would it? You’d need Sherlock Holmes to find a positive from their situation … and yet, somehow Yvonne pulled it off.

The experience propelled her to seek a career in government focusing on improving conditions for Indigenous Australians. Now a senior policy officer in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Unit, Yvonne has directly impacted funding toward Indigenous health and youth programs, and was part of a collective movement responsible for getting the Australian government to issue an apology for the Stolen Generation.

It’s also how she met Benny Mills — her husband, Patty’s father, and fellow Indigenous Australian.

Benny, more specifically a Torres Strait Islander, was never snatched away from his home. But his dad, Sammy, did have to make his living as a pearl diver — a profession not short on work-related deaths.

He also raised his family on the Australian equivalent of an Indian reservation, where residents’ finances were government-controlled.

In time, Sammy moved his family off the island and worked five jobs to support his children. He wasn’t, however, allowed in hotels or bars for a post-labor beverage.

Needless to say, after enduring and witnessing a lifetime of discrimination, Benny was inspired to work for the government as well — and has since played an integral role in improving education and an array of other conditions for Indigenous families.

“There were a lot of rough patches,” Benny said. “But I think we’ve seen quite a bit of change.”

The phrase “everything happens for a reason” is one of the more abused axioms in the English language. There is no inevitable good that comes out of a natural disaster killing tens of thousands or a nationally-devastating famine.

But for Benny and Yvonne, years of anger, sadness and frustration did lead to the birth of little Patty Mills — who, as anyone who’s met him can attest, is the antithesis of everything just described.

“When Patrick was a young child, he would always come to me and say ‘mom, give me a cuddle,’ or ‘mom, come sit with me,’ or ‘mom, I love you,’ and then he’d kiss me,” said Yvonne, choking up once more. “It didn’t matter where it was or what time it was, he always wanted to be loved. Those sort of things were not in my life when I was growing up.”

Mills always was an ambitious young hoopster. His parents ran a program called Shadows Basketball for more than a quarter century, and during games, a 4-year-old Patty would plead just to run up and down the court for a minute and a half.

His talent and work ethic quickly became evident, but for him to end up in the world’s premiere basketball league? That’s something neither of his folks envisioned.

“Coming to the States and getting into the NBA for some kids over here would be like going into space,” Benny said. “We used to watch tapes of Michael Jordan and we’d enjoy it, but it was just a video. To actually go over there and play was basically like going to the moon.”

Two years since liftoff, Mills said he views himself as a role model for all Australians but feels a particular kinship with the Indigenous.

He labeled his mom “a soldier” and calls her his hero. He revealed how he, too, grew up enduring racial slurs and mistreatment due to his skin tone — even on the basketball court.

So no, he doesn’t discuss his background much, but when he does it’s with pride and conviction.

“Right now it’s about moving on and representing,” Mills said. “It’s about doing whatever we can so something like that doesn’t happen again.”

Matt Calkins is the Trail Blazers beat writer for The Columbian. He can be contacted at 360-735-4528 or e-mailmatt.calkins@columbian.com. Follow him on Twitter attwitter.com/blazerbanter