There was a time when the numbers weren’t so kind to Patty Mills. Over his first four seasons in the statistics-mad NBA, the personable kid from Canberra averaged 11 minutes, five points and 1.5 assists a game. Journeyman numbers. In business terms, he was the likeable, reliable employee who punched the clock but didn’t add much value to the bottom line.
Then there was his soft-drink-fuelled body fat percentage, sitting at around 13 per cent – not what you’d expect from your all-action back-court general. Certainly not what his straight-shooting coach at the San Antonio Spurs, Gregg Popovich, expected. Fatty Patty was one of the kinder monikers “Pop” bestowed on his third- or fourth-string guard.
Granted, Mills had speed, a consistent outside shot and sure ball-handling. The NBA had numbers that showed that too. But when Pop added everything up, he didn’t have enough reasons to look along his bench and regularly point to the guy wearing Number 8.
And so, when the time came for Mills to justify his pay cheque in 2013, the Spurs having made it to the finals against LeBron James’ Miami Heat, well, he sat. And sat. By the end of Game 3, with Spurs leading the series 2-1, he had played just 14 junk-time minutes. And then, right in the middle of the finals, an abscess on his right foot developed into a frightening staph infection that meant urgent surgery and a month-long recovery. Mills was a downcast spectator as San Antonio ultimately lost 4-3.
Asked later to explain his reluctance to employ Mills, Popovich didn’t miss. “In the playoffs you have to trust a guy completely.” Ouch. In other words, when the stakes were high and the big deals were on the table, Mills wasn’t even invited into the room. If he didn’t hear that from his coach at the time, Mills could still hear the drumbeats. And read the reports where, commended for his demonstrative support from courtside, he was often described as an “expert towel-waver”. Expert towel-waver? It hardly shouted “long and successful career”.
With his foot healed, Mills made a decision. He didn’t want to play anywhere other than San Antonio, with its tradition of success and rich Australian links dating back to Andrew Gaze and Shane Heal.
And so he went to work. He made a bet with teammate Boris Diaw that he’d be the first of the two to cut his body fat to seven per cent. He overhauled his workouts, his diet. He ran hills from Texas to Thursday Island. And then he turned up for the new season, collected his bet, and showed off Patty Mills v2. Nine months later, in the series-clinching Game 5 of the NBA finals against the same opponents, Mills completed his turnaround when he scored 17 points off the bench – more than all but one of Spurs’ starters – to earn his first championship ring.
The lesson for you? Let your career drift and you too can be flirting with irrelevance and, ultimately, the exit door. Conversely, identify your shortcomings, change up your game, and good things can come your way.
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“Andrew Bogut told me to make every game, every practice, every workout count”
Just ask the 27-year-old now averaging 20 minutes, nine points and three assists on a championship-contending team. The guy with the security of a three-year, US $12million contract. The guy who’ll head to the Rio Olympics in August as the chief string-puller and offensive weapon in an exciting Australian team tipped for a medal.
It’s a tribute to Mills’ fierce will to succeed. To his preparedness to suffer short-term pain – that body fat didn’t just drop off – for long-term gain.
And to his good sense in listening to his mum.nRewind Patty Mills’ story and they appear at critical junctures; wise heads who supply the spark for his next surge forward. Mills’ talent as a good listener – and it is a talent – goes back to his childhood in Canberra where, as the son of an Aboriginal mother, Yvonne, and Torres Strait Islander father, Benny, he was the target of slurs in playgrounds and sporting arenas. When, teary-eyed, he carried the burn home, his mother sat him down. The same mother who had been taken from her family as one of the Stolen Generation.
“She’d ask me why I was crying, why I was sulking,” recalls Mills. “She’d say, ‘Sulking isn’t going to get you anywhere Pat’ – I was always Pat when I was in trouble.” Instead, Mills was taught “to take the high road” when every fibre in his body told him to lash out. He concedes it wasn’t easy. But you know what? Inciters eventually lose interest if there’s no sign their barbs have penetrated.
That thick skin served Mills especially well on the basketball court, his second home after his parents formed an indigenous team called The Shadows. In time, he learnt to weather the taunts to concentrate on winning games. Just as importantly, if a bad game saw him benched, “my mum and dad taught me that you don’t sulk when you don’t get court time”.
In years to come, that particular lesson grew in significance. Think of it in terms of your own career. The times you’ve been overlooked for promotions you think you deserve or projects you think you’d smash? How did you react? Did you intensify your effort, hone or add to your skills, offer to help out where possible, rally round those under pressure? Or did you . . . sulk?
Well before his minutes started to grow in 2013/14, Mills, the “expert towel-waver”, left no one in any doubt as to how he responded to being used sparingly. At both his first NBA team, Portland, and the Spurs, he was the guy on the bench who smiled and high-fived and waved his towel. He oozed positive energy. Yeah, you’re thinking, but he was still getting splinters in his arse. True. But that doesn’t recognise that the people who held his future in their hands saw that what he lacked in raw numbers he helped make up for in team dynamics and culture. It’s a small tick, sure, but one that counts in your favour, especially when recruiting decisions are made.
And there’s another thing. Most workplaces are a hornet’s nest of competing ambitions and agendas. When you find a colleague who genuinely celebrates your successes – You nailed that sale! – despite being peripheral to them, you can’t help but want that person to succeed as well. Hell, you might even give them a leg-up.
As it happens, Mills’ turn as an “expert towel-waver” was a critical component in being picked up by San Antonio, a franchise that may well be responsible for the original “no dickheads” policy. That, and the influence of another mentor. But we’ll come to that.
When Mills accepted a basketball scholarship at the Australian Institute of Sport aged 16, it closed the door on a potential AFL career but brought him under the influence of head coach Marty Clarke. A tough-nut Tasmanian who’d been in the back court of the 1989 NBL championship-winning North Melbourne Giants, Clarke quickly set about adding polish to Mills’ natural athleticism. “He saw the potential in me and I don’t know if I could have progressed otherwise,” says Mills, lighting up at the mention of his old coach’s name “There was a lot of detail with Marty.Week to week he helped me grow from a small, hustling player by developing my shooting and making my work ethic stronger. For him, it was about discipline and not being left behind.”
Within a year, Mills was invited to train with the Australian senior team preparing for the 2006 World Championships. He didn’t go in passively. Up close to the best basketball players in the land, he wasn’t about to let the opportunity pass. “I learnt a lot from the experienced guys like Jason Smith, Chris Anstey and Sam Mackinnon,” he says. “I saw them as my mentors and I strived to develop similar characteristics, to be a leader.”
Seeing senior teammates as mentors, whether they’d apply the tag to themselves or not, has been a hallmark of Mills’ career. Years later, when he was grinding through tryout after tryout ahead of the 2009 NBA draft, his Boomers teammate Andrew Bogut – the 2005 draft’s No.1 pick – offered some timely advice.
“He told me to make every game, every practice, every workout count,” recalled Mills afterwards. “Don’t take anything for granted and understand that there’s always someone watching, so don’t let up for one second.”
Fast-forward another few years and Mills had found more teammate-mentors in the shape of Spurs and NBA legends Tony Parker and Tim Duncan, whose locker by chance was next to the talkative Australian’s. As he told The Oregonian newspaper shortly after joining San Antonio, “I’ve kind of been annoying in picking their brains and trying to get better”.
Let’s flip that around. Ever had a colleague ask you to share insights or tips from your hard-won experience? Annoying? No, more like flattering. So take a look around your workplace. See all that knowledge floating about? Don’t let it go untapped.
Back in 2009, Mills found another ally in his constant quest for improvement when Brett Brown took over as head coach of the Boomers. A thoughtful American who’d made a new life for himself as one of Australia’s leading coaches, Brown took great pride in developing young players. After giving Mills the room to be Australia’s best player at the 2010 World Championships, it was Brown who helped throw him a lifeline early in 2012 when he was at risk of being spun out of the NBA loop by the Portland Trailblazers, who’d taken him at No.66 in the 2009 draft but used him little since.
As an assistant coach at San Antonio – job-sharing is not uncommon in international basketball – Brown recommended the club add Mills to its roster when injury opened up a spot. Once he’d unpacked his bags, Mills resumed his apprenticeship under Brown.
“It was a great transition for me coming to San Antonio – here’s Brett Brown to help take me to the elite NBA level,” says Mills of the man who has since progressed to be head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers. “He did a great job with me. He helped me believe in myself. He’d tell me, ‘Remember, you’re an NBA point guard, Patty, you can do that’. He’d just say, ‘Do what you do, be who you are, don’t try to be Steve Nash or Mark Jackson, be Patty Mills, be yourself’.”
There’s the rub. Because, ultimately, you can have all the mentors in the world, but unless Project Me involves building on what you perceive as your unique talents, you’re never going to have the confidence to take your own advice. That’s what Mills was able to do when he engineered his makeover in 2013.
Don’t think that means Mills no longer needs or seeks mentors. Chances are he’ll gravitate towards them through every stage of his basketball career and beyond. Having profited so handsomely from the wisdom they dispense, he’s too smart to do otherwise.
Besides, it takes a brave man to ignore his mother.