Patty Mills has been making Australians proud since he picked up a basketball. No-one seems to embody the traits of being both a talented athlete and a revered public icon who is loved by everyone. He’s been a beacon of hope to the indigenous community. He stood up and made his voice heard during the BLM movement. And now he’s a finalist for the prestigious Australian of The Year honour. The Canberra-born NBA champion transcends basketball and revolutionized the way we think about Australian sports heroes.

If you’ve ever watched Patty Mills, the first thing that catches your eye is his chest thump. It’s already playing out in your head right now.

Hopping around at halfcourt gracefully moving toward his defensive end. Banging his fist across his heart. Grimacing, clutching his jaw tight, his face frozen in a scowl. The chest thump usually comes at a time when he’s hit a clutch three from the top of the arc, or when he darts and weaves his way through the key for an aggressive drive at the rim. It comes at a time when the game is on the line and he’s starting to unleash. What’s clear: Mills feels every part of basketball and his gladiator-like expressions let us peer into soul.

The 33-year-old has had a lot to celebrate in the last 12 months. What reads like a bucket list of distinctions and intimate triumphs, Mills became the first Indigenous Australian to be appointed Australia’s flag bearer at the Tokyo Olympics in July. He led the Boomers to an historic Bronze medal, dropping 42 points against Slovenia in the deciding game. He was recognized with the Don Award – Australia’s highest sports accolade. And, he’s having a career year with the Brooklyn Nets, averaging 13.2 points per game in 30.8 minutes, and is one of the key cogs playing alongside basketball royalty in Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving, working towards another NBA Championship.  

Add this to this rich list of achievements: next week Mills is one of five finalists for Australian Of The Year. It would be a fitting kudos for a person that sees himself as more a humanitarian than basketball player, but is equally adept at both. In Mills, Australia has a loved and respected figure and what he stands for transcends basketball. It inspires minorities. It appeals to the masses. He’s revolutionized the way we think about Australian sports heroes.

“It’s beyond sport,” Mills said of the Don Award when he was presented with it in December. “This is about unity and the impact I think that this can have on the rest of the country. They can see it as evidence [of] something that can be achievable and they can start dreaming.”

Everyone loves Patty Mills. We’ve all got up early to watch him play on TV either in the NBA or on the global circuit. We’ve all screamed “yes! Patty!” when he comes up clutch in big games. We’ve all given him our own nicknames like “Patty Thrills” and tried to emulate him by thumping our own chests when we win. Andrew Gaze once said “he’s not out there on an ego trip. He plays a role and that’s why he survives. His ability is to make those around him better.” What we see in him others do too.

During the early anxiety-inducing stages of the pandemic, in July 2020, Mills generously comped $1.5 million toward campaigns and groups in need, including Black Lives Matter Australia, Black Deaths in Custody and We Got You, a movement dedicated to ending racism in Australian sport. This wasn’t just pandemic-motivated. Mills has long toiled for social reforms like clean water access in Australia and he’s also founded an Indigenous youth hoops league, inspiring the next generation of basketballers. When he’s not putting in work on the court, he’s working for the community.

Amid the lockdowns and social distancing he became a voice for the voiceless and a beacon of hope – something he developed when he joined the Spurs in 2012.  In San Antonio he dressed up in a Santa suit as part of the Elf Louise Project and delivered gifts to underprivileged youth.  So it’s easy to understand, when the Black Lives Matter protests rang out after the death of George Floyd, why Mills used his NBA status and platform to fire back at Prime Minister Scott Morrison who claimed there was no slavery in Australia. It’s in his DNA. He took to Twitter:

“Leaders of Australia – We can do better,” he wrote. “We can learn from what’s happening in the United States and apply to the actions taken regarding ‘black deaths in custody’ in Australia. This behaviour has already existed in our own backyard for decades.”

Long Island Nets head coach and Boomers assistant coach, Adam Caporn, told the New York Post last year that Mills has evolved into someone that anyone could be inspired by.

“What sticks out to me most is what he means to people across all levels of society, sport, community, families, young people. He’s an outstanding human, citizen, competitor,” he told the Post. “It was great to be a part of the team with him, feel his leadership and his charisma and his friendship. And we’re just a really lucky country to have a role model like that to look up to.”