The native Australian is a quality player, but at a lean six-foot, he’s physically less-imposing than most players getting around in the NBA, and many who will never make a living at the game of basketball either. But what he lacks in size, he makes up in personality.
There’s a quality of person that is endearing in Mills and made the former Saint Mary’s point guard an attractive candidate to the Trail Blazers’ scouting staff.
“His coaches raved about him,” says Chad Buchanan, Portland’s director of college scouting. “In practice, he had an infectious energy and vibe, a positive aura that rubs off on people, whether it’s coaches, teammates or as he walks through the office. He was always in a good mood — very personable, had a good attitude about things. No wonder he’s one of the guys you gravitate to because of the positive energy he brings.”
Almost two years into his run with the Blazers, Mills hasn’t done anything to dissuade his supporters. Motto: “Turn that frown upside down.”
Already a popular addition to the Portland community — approaching cult hero status, if you will — Mills has also been a welcome addition to the Blazer locker room. He is the first guy up slapping butts during timeouts, rooting his teammates on. And there seems to be nothing phony about it.
“He’s a character guy,” veteran point guard Andre Miller says of his understudy. “He brings a lot of energy on the court, and he keeps the bench involved when he’s not in the game. Sometimes you have to tell guys to do that, but it’s just his personality. He’s doing it on and off the court. He has brought some character to this team.”
Mills is a whirling dervish on Twitter, with 17,500 followers. (He’s so active in the social media pursuit, it’s amazing he has time to do anything else.) On the day the Blazers traded Joel Przybilla, Dante Cunningham and Sean Marks to Charlotte in the Gerald Wallace deal, Mills tweeted, “Not a fan of seeing three of my close friends leave.”
“It was heart-wrenching,” Mills says. “Not just for me, but for all of us. If you didn’t know how close (the Blazer players) were before that, you’d know now, to see how everyone felt. You know this is a business, but that showed how close all of us are.”
Mills, 22, played two seasons at Saint Mary’s and with the Australian national and Olympic teams, and he feels that team spirit here in Portland.
“For whatever reason, the guys on the team just came together like you wouldn’t believe,” he says. “Even the veterans like Dre and (Marcus) Camby, hanging out with us — it’s a great thing to be a part of.
“There are a million examples of what we’re doing through the season. Everyone does well in bringing the team together, whether it’s making jokes or paying for dinner for everyone or organizing a bowling night. Everyone enjoys each other’s company. When we had that tough stretch at the beginning of the season and lost a few on the road, everyone had kind of ruled us out, We knew as long as we had that camaraderie, it was going to help us down the end of the track. And it has.”
Mills also finds the city of Portland a comfortable fit.
“I love living in Portland,” he says. “Great people here. I compare them to people back home. The people in Oregon are similar — very laid-back, easygoing.”
Relaxing on a recent off day at his rented Lake Oswego condo, Mills offers insight as to his makeup as a person.
Part of it, he says, “is my Australian culture.” He’s an Indigenous Aussie, the original inhabitants of Australia who make up about 2.7 percent of the continent’s population.
Patty (christened “Patrick”) is the only child of Benny and Yvonne Mills, both employed by the Australian government in community service with Indigenous Affairs.
“They’re like me,” he says. “Mom and Dad, the way they brought me up, the way I was taught to act … it’s to make the most out of everything, and not let too much get to you.”
Benny Mills — who played guitar in a band when he was younger — passed on a love of music to his son. Patty plays the keyboards and guitar, though not seriously.
“I can’t even read music,” he says with a laugh, strumming his acoustic guitar. “Dad bought me this one, which is my favorite, right before the Beijing Olympics. It’s just a hobby to waste time with.”
Mills says he loves all music but has a special affinity for ’60s and ’70s rhythm and blues and soul, and “rock stuff.” He loves all sports — he was a tennis player growing up, counting the great Evonne Goolagong Cawley as a family friend — and excelled at Australian Rules Football in high school at the “ruck rover” position.
“If I weren’t playing basketball,” he says, “I’d be playing ‘Footie.’ ”
As a junior in high school, Mills made what he considers a very difficult choice of basketball over football, accepting a scholarship to the Australian Institute of Sport, where such players as Andrew Gaze and Andrew Bogut had apprenticed.
That led to a spot on the Australian junior national team and a scholarship at Saint Mary’s in Moraga, Calif. Family friend David Patrick — who had played professionally in Australia — was an assistant coach for the Gaels, which helped seal the deal. If Mills wanted to play in the U.S., though, there weren’t other options. Saint Mary’s offered the only ride.
“Utah was the only other school interested,” he says. “I was headed to Salt Lake City for an official visit, but they signed another point guard and took back the offer.”
His two seasons at Saint Mary’s were “unbelievable,” says Mills, a first-team all-West Coast Conference choice both seasons. “You’d need to experience it for yourself to get the full grasp of it.”
By Kerry Eggers, Portland Tribune