There was little wonder just how much winning the bronze medal match at Tokyo 2020 meant to the Australian basketball community, with history dating much further back than their fourth-place finish at Rio 2016.
It took 32 years after the Boomers made their Olympic debut at Melbourne 1956 to reach a medal match, where they went down to the USA 78-49 in the fight for bronze at Seoul 1988.
With NBA players allowed in Olympic squads from 1992, Australia still showed they were one of the best basketball nations in the world, going on to play bronze medal matches at Atlanta 1996, Sydney 2000 and Rio 2016 – all ending in agonising defeat.
Competing at Tokyo 2020 was the 15th time the Boomers had sent a team to the Olympics, tied with Brazil for the second-most appearances in the world behind the USA.
Prior to Tokyo 2020, China’s and Puerto Rico’s men’s national teams were the second-most starved for a medal, having played at nine Olympics. Neither competed at Tokyo 2020.
Dual basketball Olympian Danny Morseu knows just what the Tokyo result meant. A proud Torres Strait Islander from the Kemer Kemer Meriam Nation who competed at Moscow 1980 and Los Angeles 1984, Danny remembers the uphill battle the Boomers have faced over generations.
“At Moscow 1980 we were a semi-professional team. There were about 16 teams playing at the Moscow Games and we went so close,” Danny said.
“In our group we beat Italy, we beat Sweden by 20 and we were up on Cuba by nine and lost by seven.
“Italy had to beat Cuba by exactly seven points, otherwise we would have gone into the top six in the world to playoff for the medal rounds.”
Danny and the Boomers sat in the stands to watch Italy play Cuba, and you guessed it, Italy beat Cuba by exactly seven points.
“We’d only lost one game at the tournament and finished seventh. It was disappointing. Italy lost to Yugoslavia in the gold medal match. That could have been us.”
Danny’s nephew is fellow Olympian Patty Mills and both are deeply connected to their Torres Strait Island culture and heritage.
On the eve of the Boomers’ bronze medal match – where a tough matchup against Slovenia’s leader and opposing point guard Luka Doncic was impending – it was a significant period in Patty’s life for other reasons.
Only days prior Patty had the added requirement of needing to sort out his NBA future, as the free agency period had well and truly taken off with roster spots filling up at a blinding pace.
Business moves very fast in the NBA and the Olympics weren’t about to slow NBA teams down. It’s not uncommon for players to be offered a deal and to have an hour to accept a life-changing contract.
After 10 years with the San Antonio Spurs, Patty signed with the Brooklyn Nets – about 3,000 kilometres from where he was based in Texas and 11,000 kilometres from the Athletes’ Village in Tokyo.
As significant as basketball is, some things for Patty and Danny will always be bigger than basketball.
“I’ve seen Patrick was very close to his grandparents,” Danny said.
“Before he was going to play in the medal round, I went to their graveyard and took photos standing at their grave and sent it to Patrick and wished him all the best.
“I said ‘grandad, myself and the Torres Strait are spiritually with you’. It’s deeper than basketball and it connects with Patrick culturally and spiritually as a Torres Strait Islander.”
In June 2014 Patty had the thrill of playing in the NBA Finals with the Spurs against the Miami Heat, led by LeBron James.
Following game four of the series which carried enormous weight, Patty easily put everything into perspective.
“As far as I’m concerned, nothing that I do or nothing that gets in my way will even come close to my culture and my heritage. It doesn’t matter if it’s an Olympic Games or the NBA Finals, my family and my culture, where I come from, is by far first and foremost,” Patty said.
When things are good off the court, it shows on the court.
Patty, the Opening Ceremony Flag Bearer for Australia at Tokyo 2020, led the way from the outset against Slovenia – scoring 12 of the Boomers’ first 25 points to give them a four-point early second quarter lead.
He was only just getting started, as Patty scored or assisted on 20 second quarter-points to give Australia a 53-45 buffer at half-time.
“When you get to this game and this point, it was really the two guys next to me (Patty and Joe Ingles) who were the most invested in this, 12 years of work, to do something that our country has never ever done,” Boomers coach Brian Goorjian said.
“Basically, the gameplan and what took place was to put the ball in their hands to make the decisions in the half-court offence.”
Luka Doncic hit a three-pointer with 4:35 left to pull Slovenia within six points, then Australia put the foot down to score 10-straight for an unassailable 102-86 lead which became a 107-93 victory.
On the Boomers’ fifth time around in an Olympic medal match, they wouldn’t come home empty handed. The drought was over.
Patty finished with 42 points and nine assists, supported by 16 from Joe and 14 from Jock Landale. Doncic was held to 22 points (7-20 FG), eight rebounds, seven assists and eight turnovers. Matisse Thybulle and Nick Kay were swarming defensively to pick up seven steals.
“There was no doubt in my mind going into this that he (Patty) was going to bring it home for us,” Joe said when reflecting on the bronze medal match.
Danny meanwhile was on an emotional rollercoaster.
“I was on Thursday Island at the time and when we won the medal I was crying,” Danny said.
“We were just jumping for joy and we just couldn’t believe it. It was really, really special.
“We watched him go through the presentation and I was grateful Patrick acknowledged me in that first interview after the game, because I’ve been part of his journey all his life.
“We’ve been so proud of the team and Patrick’s leadership.”
Patty’s leadership with the Boomers extends beyond the ‘gold vibes only’ Olympic campaign.
Boomers big man Aron Baynes was going through a harrowing ordeal at a time when he should have been side-by-side with the team and then celebrating their medal success.
Stuck in a Japanese hospital watching the bronze medal match on TV, due to severe neck and back injuries sustained in warmups and in the locker room from earlier in the tournament, Patty and the Boomers made a special gesture for the big man on the podium.
“To the big man! Baynesy, get ‘em boys, Big Banger! Get ‘em, Bangers!”
It’s also been Patty’s actions behind the scenes that have gone a long way to connecting the history of the Boomers with the current squad.
When it came to finding a way to celebrate the Boomers’ success from Tokyo in a pandemic restricted world, like he did on the court at the Olympics, Patty found a way to get the group together.
“We went on a Brisbane river cruise, Patrick organised it all, and a tour of the city with all the Boomers who had been to the Olympics or the World Championships,” Danny said.
“We had a big celebration and spent some really good quality time together. Just yarning on about the experience, what it felt like winning a bronze for Australia and how proud he was as a Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal person.”
Former players such as Brian Kerle, Robert Sibley, Leroy Loggins and Nathan Jawai travelled from far and wide to meet up with the Tokyo 2020 rose gold medallists.
“Then we got presented with an Akubra hat with a number on it, a personalised number for each Boomers player. He’s created this Australian Boomers club now where he’s given Boomers numbers out to players who played in the past.”
While Patty has been a part of the Boomers since being named to the squad as a 17-year-old in 2006, the youngest ever for Australia, getting there didn’t come without obstacles.
“They thought he was too small. When I went to the AIS (Australian Institute of Sport) I watched Patrick, he was playing way above all the other kids. Joe Ingles, he was way up there too,” Danny said.
“Brian Goorjian was the one that opened the door for him, he gave him the opportunity. Patrick took a step forward, put his foot in the door and everything is history after that.”
Patty’s first taste of the Olympics at Beijing 2008 was before he played in a professional game, with his NBA debut not until 2009.
The proud Kokatha, Naghiralgal, Duaureb-Meriam man has led the Boomers in scoring during all four of his Olympic campaigns and had Joe Ingles by his side.
“We’ve been through a lot together, on the court, off the court,” Mills said on the night they won bronze. “It’s all paid off.”
Since London 2012 Patty has shown remarkable longevity, having averaged more than 21.2 points per game to be among the top three scorers at London, Rio and Tokyo.
Back home in the Torres Strait, basketball is the sport of choice in a lot of ways due to Patty Mills.
Kids have been inspired and are letting their imagination run wild with their own sporting dreams. With Queensland locked in to host the Brisbane 2032 Olympic and Paralympic Games, there’s an extra incentive for the youth of today who can aim to represent Australia at the Olympics in their own state.
Take Carmen for example, Patty Mills’ niece who wants to follow in his footsteps.
It’s Patty’s impact in sport and the community that this year led to him receive the nation’s highest accolade, the Member of the Order of Australia (AM).
As for the immediate future of Australian men’s basketball, and looking ahead to the next Olympic campaign at Paris 2024, there’s a young brigade who are on the path to carrying the Boomers forward.
19-year-old point guard Josh Giddey turned in an excellent NBA rookie season in 2021-22. This year another guard Dyson Daniels was a top 10 selection in the 2022 NBA draft. Then there’s Matisse Thybulle, Jock Landale and Josh Green from the Tokyo 2020 squad who are on NBA rosters and are set to hit their prime.
With under two years until the 2024 Olympics, bring on Paris.
Read Nore:Talking back Tokyo: Riding the Boomers to bronze from the Torres Strait