Australian NBA guard Patty Mills stood tall on basketball’s biggest stage on Monday, playing a starring role in the San Antonio Spurs’ NBA championship win.
Mills scored 17 points in 17 minutes as the Spurs came back from an early deficit to beat the Miami Heat 104-87 in San Antonio to claim the best of seven NBA finals series 4-1.
Mills and Australian teammate Aron Baynes joined Luc Longley (Chicago Bulls) and Andrew Gaze (San Antonio Spurs) as Australians who have won an NBA title.
"The support has been great all year," Mills said of the Spurs' supporters. "The community of San Antonio has been great, you know how important you guys are to us. You're a part of this win, as much as anyone.
''I can't tell you how nice and genuine the people of San Antonio are ... it reminds me a lot of Australia.''
Gaze praised Mills' and Baynes’ achievement and said they had shown ''dignity, class and skill'', with Mills playing a vital bench role and Baynes making an impact despite few minutes of court time.
Gaze said Mills had impressed with his performances during the finals and it could earn him a big payday as he enters free agency.
''I was one who thought he was an NBA player because of his offensive skills, his speed and all those things,'' Gaze said. ''I never doubted he would have an NBA career.
''But if you asked me 12 months ago if he would have this sort of impact on an NBA championship team, I would have said that was a bit far-fetched.''
After the Spurs lost the NBA finals to Miami in seven games last year, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich challenged Mills not to be a ''fat arse'' and to eat right and drop his body fat.
Mills hired a personal chef and had a career-best season, averaging 10.1 points a game.
''Full credit to him - the way he has changed his body shape and improved - he deserves every ounce of recognition he has received,'' Gaze said.
Baynes said winning the NBA championship was surreal. ''It hasn’t sunk in and it probably won’t for a while,'' he said.
''It’s so great to be part of this organisation and play with a great group of guys. Patty was amazing, but it didn’t surprise me at all; he is a special player and came up huge on the big stage.''
Not only did Mills hit five of eight three-point shots and drew two fouls on Heat players, but his work promoting the story of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders was spoken commented on by ESPN commentators during Mills’ stunning third quarter where he scored 14 of his 17 points.
Mills, whose father Benny is a Torres Strait Islander and his mother Yvonne a member of the Stolen Generation, has spent his career teaching teammates and friends about indigenous Australia, and it inspired ESPN’s Jeff Van Gundy, Mark Jackson and Mike Breen to speak of the stories Mills had told them during the NBA finals about indigenous Australia and his uncle, former Boomers player Danny Morseu.
Mills was draped in the Torres Strait Islands flag after the game, while Baynes wore the Australian flag.
Popovich spoke to his team about Mills’ background and Eddie Mabo’s story - Mabo Day fell on June 3 - in the lead-up to the Western conference finals.
''Full credit to the commentators for recognising that part of Patty’s story,'' Gaze said.