'I felt helpless': Patty Mills on bushfires, Olympics and coronavirus isolation

Patty Mills visited the south coast earlier this year to visit fire-affected regions. Picture: Luke Currie-Richardson
Patty Mills visited the south coast earlier this year to visit fire-affected regions. Picture: Luke Currie-Richardson

Patty Mills still remembers the strange looks he got when walking into the Cobargo pub. NBA players aren't exactly regulars in the town of fewer than 800.

Some didn't know who he was. Others wondered why he was using his rare days off to fly across the world to visit the NSW south coast.

But the awkwardness soon lifted when a half-naked local walked out with two beers, handed one to Mills and started a bond that brought together the glitzy world of the NBA and a town coming to grips with heartbreak.

"I'll never forget that," Mills says from his home in San Antonio, where he is in coronavirus lockdown.

"We were outsiders, so people were a bit wary and we understood that. But we wanted to help in anyway we could. It took about 30 minutes for them to really open up.

"One of the guys was wearing a Cobargo shirt and I said to him: "mate, do you think we can swap?" He hesitated because it was the only sample he had for shirts he was trying to sell to raise money.

"But he gave it to me and I wore it for the rest of the night. I've still got it here with me now and we still text, as well.

"We delivered a trailer to one of their friends who was trying to support other families. He brought a beer out and the bond and camaraderie started to form ... I had him half naked with his shirt off."

Mills wears many hats these days. That night in Cobargo in February he was the humanitarian, determined to help anyone in need after bushfires ravaged regions close to where he grew up in Canberra.

Two weeks ago he was an NBA player. Last week he was an Olympic leader. This week he's a muscian. Mills spoke to The Canberra Times this week about his bushfire trip, his Olympic vision for 2021 and life in isolation.


Mills and wife Alyssa found it hard to watch the vision of fires ripping through towns across Australia while they were in the United States living their dream.

The tipping point came when Mills trudged back into the San Antonio Spurs' change rooms, glanced at his phone and saw a message from a childhood friend. "She wrote, 'this isn't good, we're struggling. We need some help'," Mills said.

Patty Mills and wife Alyssa helped rebuild wildlife sanctuaries. Picture: Luke Currie-Richardson

Patty Mills and wife Alyssa helped rebuild wildlife sanctuaries. Picture: Luke Currie-Richardson

So while most NBA players spent time on luxury yachts or on island getaways during the brief All Star break, Mills and Alyssa flew to Australia for a whirlwind visit.

"I couldn't find an impactful way to help from back here, I felt helpless. So we thought about how we could help and educate, it was always going to be long-term recovery," Mills said. "We wanted to do something that was genuine. We looked at each other and said we had to jump on a plane."

So Mills landed and went straight to work. He helped rebuild wildlife centres, visited small businesses and donated trailers, equipment and gift vouchers in towns from Lake Conjola to Cobargo.

"Team Mills" is still helping to rebuild the Wombat and Bird Enclosure in East Lynne.

"I understand where my roots are and my connection to Australia," Mills said. "That's a big part of the reason we wanted to come back - the connection to the land, the wildlife, totems and communities.

"We knew coming back was the right thing and we were reminded of that every day. Whether it was the people who told us their stories, or how we had helped. There were a lot of tears from both ends."


Mills' visit was more than a fly-in, fly-out mission. He is still in regular contact with families he met and is helping from afar, including the wombat refuge run by volunteers.

The nine Australian NBA players and the NBA players association donated $1.1 million towards the relief effort after fire destroyed communities and livelihoods.

Mills met with Firesticks, an indigenous-led network that promotes cultural burning and learning about fire and land management. Their knowledge struck a chord with Mills, who is a proud indigenous ambassador and wants to help regions avoid more fire disasters in the future.

Cultural burning involves small-scale burning at specific times during the year, and minimises the risks to wildlife.

"Mother Earth was telling us she wasn't happy with the Australia, or the world, was looking after her," Mills said.

"Hearing about what Firesticks do was really eye-opening for us. They talk about teaching how to properly look after the land ... we want to see what we can do with them in the future because we need to protect our land, our animals.

"This is a major thing I'm going to pushing moving forward to get people to jump on board because at the end of the of day everyone can participate and I think it's important to look after the land."


Mills said he sent a message to all Australian Olympic athletes last week to remind them "we're in this together" after the Tokyo Games were postponed until 2021.

The three-time Olympian has been tipped to be the opening ceremony flag-bearer because of the respect he has built on and off the court.

"But I haven't thought about that. I understand the enormity and prestige, but it doesn't affect what I do or who I am," Mills said.

"It was the right decision to postpone the Olympics. The message I wanted to get out there was just to stay positive, don't get discouraged.

"When you think about the Olympics you think about the different individuals and teams. We are one team and we have the whole country that supports this team. That's the greatest thing about the Olympics, athletes from all different sports coming together to compete and play under the one flag."


Mills has been at home since the NBA season was suspended on March 12. Fifteen players and staff have tested positive to coronavirus.

But Mills has made the most of his time, showing the world his musical talents and inviting fans to sing to his tunes on the guitar via his "Thrill with Mills" campaign on social media.

"I think those outside hobbies have saved me," Mills said. "It takes your mind off things and we grab the guitar every night after dinner anyway.

"The message is to stay at home because even if you don't have the virus, you need to behave in a way that you do to help others. But I also wanted to bring some positivity and help people smile."

He adds with a grin: "There's been some good singers, and some not so good ones who are just giving it a crack."


Mills says he has set new goals in during the lockdown and has working out around the house to stay fit for when, or if, the NBA season resumes.

"It's just like another mini pre-season," MIlls said. "You adjust your mindset and stay on track. I've been through some injuries and this is no different, you just attack a new plan. The message I want to get out there is to just stay positive."

This story 'I felt helpless': Patty Mills on bushfires, Olympics and coronavirus isolation first appeared on The Canberra Times.