‘We’ll go to the promised land’: how Patty Mills inspired Boomers bronze age


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Jul 16, 2023

‘We’ll go to the promised land’: how Patty Mills inspired Boomers bronze age

A moving new documentary tells how inspired leadership and vibrant team culture helped end the Australian men’s basketball team’s 65-year medal drought Since the Australian men’s basketball team made

A moving new documentary tells how inspired leadership and vibrant team culture helped end the Australian men’s basketball team’s 65-year medal drought

Since the Australian men’s basketball team made their Olympic debut in 1956, the Boomers had never won a medal. In Seoul 1988, Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000, they played for bronze – and came up short. At the Rio 2016 Olympics, the Boomers had the bronze medal snatched from their hands by Spain, and a questionable foul call, in a one-point defeat. Nor had the team ever won silverware at a basketball World Cup – in 2019 the Boomers reached the third-place play-off, and again went home empty-handed.

“It’s a lot of fourth,” says Luc Longley, a long-time Boomers member from the 1990s, in a new film in cinemas this week, Rose Gold. The feature-length documentary, by film-maker and former professional basketballer Matthew Adekponya, tells the story of the Boomers’ quest to go one better at the 2020 Olympics. Rose Gold is a moving tale of resilience, determination and a vibrant team culture that at long last ended the national team’s medal drought after 65 years.

Having slumped to a familiar semi-final loss to the United States at the Tokyo Olympics two years ago, the Boomers found themselves facing Slovenia for yet another bronze medal match. Only this time would be different. With the game in the balance in the third quarter, Boomers talisman Patty Mills delivered a rallying cry to the team during a time out.

Head coach Brian Goorjian recalls its effect in the film: “Your number one guy, who has been talking gold vibes, stands up and says: ‘I’m here, it’s the most important game, I’m here. I’ll deliver it. Put that thing in my hand – we’ll go to the promised land.’”

Vanquishing the heartbreak of Seoul, Atlanta, Sydney and Rio all at once, Mills put Australia on his shoulders and delivered his best-ever performance in national team colours: 42 points and nine assists. Following the final buzzer, celebrations erupted among the Boomers. A medal at last.

Mills and Ingles embraced, in what became an instantly-iconic image. “The greatest moment in my basketball career was that embrace with Joey after the game,” Mills recalls in the film. “It was like we had a whole conversation with each other, in one hug.” On the television broadcast, Australian basketball legend Andrew Gaze – who played in the bronze medal defeats in 1988, 1996 and 2000 – broke down in tears. “It’s all about getting on that podium and showing the friendship and love and the pride that comes with pulling on a green and gold jersey,” says Gaze.

The film’s release on Friday coincides with the Fiba men’s World Cup beginning in the Philippines, Japan and Indonesia. Having won bronze in Tokyo, the Boomers are hoping to do even better at the world championships. On Friday night, they began their campaign in style with a convincing win over Finland; Australia next face Germany on Sunday. Can rose gold become pure gold?

“It’s really cool to see them celebrate the bronze like a gold,” says Adekponya, who is presently in Japan with the team. “Now that’s the new benchmark – they want to keep building on the history they’ve created, and this is a great chance to do that. The focus is definitely on gold.”

Adekponya began filming with the Boomers in 2019, ahead of the last World Cup, to create video content for the players (he also works with the team’s talismanic player, Patty Mills). His own past as a basketballer, and the trust he earned within the team, gave him unprecedented, fly-on-the-wall access as the team built towards Tokyo. “These are people I’ve grown up with, played against,” he says.

Content initially created for the player’s social media channels provided a rich archive to draw from. “You shoot a whole campaign, 30 days straight, and then you shoot another one, and you end up with a lot of really interesting stuff really quickly,” the film-maker explains.

Adekponya, an Australian-born Ghanaian, grew up in Cairns and played basketball professionally in Australia and across Europe, before transitioning to film-making. “All of my work stems from my lived experience as a basketball player,” he says. “It’s definitely built on the trust of the coaches, the players, the stuff – to trust when I know when to have the camera up and when to have it down, when to sit there and just shut the hell up,” he continues. “You can’t learn that at film school.”

Rose Gold traces the early eras, when basketball garnered limited interest in Australia, to the emergence of a golden generation in the 1990s. But after the Boomers lost the bronze medal match at the home Olympics in 2000, many of that era’s stars stepped away. It left the team in disarray – they failed to qualify for the 2002 world championships. “You have not handled this the right way,” Gaze admits he told himself at the time.

But from the mid-2000s onwards, a new generation emerged – first Andrew Bogut, No 1 draft pick in the NBA in 2005, and later the likes of Mills, Joe Ingles, Matthew Dellavedova and Aron Baynes. Challenges remained – Bogut admits during the film that at one point the team were required to wash their own gear in their hotel rooms during training camps. “I don’t want caviar and private jets,” he says. “I just want bare minimum stuff.”

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With time, the influx of talent lifted Australian basketball to new heights – Mills, Baynes and Dellavedova all won NBA championships during the 2010s. But at national team level, the bronze medal remained elusive.

“Obviously all the heartbreak is a key part of the story – the resilience, the belief within the group,” says Adekponya. “When you unpack a little bit deeper, you realise it goes back 65 years, there’s been so many fourths. So it was almost more fitting to make a film about a bronze medal than a gold – because that’s been the consistent hurdle.”

Mills is a standout figure in the film, his leadership on and off the court quickly evident. A proud Muralag man from the Torres Strait and Ynunga man from South Australia, Mills has put Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture at the centre of the team – taking them on camps to Uluru and the Torres Strait. Mills was Australia’s co-flag bearer in Tokyo.

The team’s tight-knit culture is also palpable. “You’ve got to find something that they’re the best in the world at,” Goorjian says early in the film. The suggestion that comes throughout the 90-odd minute film is that the team’s culture is the answer; the X-factor that delivered them at last to the promised land of rose gold.

“There’s a belief that makes this team so special,” says Adekponya. “You can have maybe not one guy who would make the US team – but as a collective they think they can beat them.” (The Boomers twice beat the Americans on the road to Tokyo).

The challenge now for Goorjian and his team is transitioning from one generation to the next and avoiding the difficulties that came from the last mass-retirement post-2000, when an institutional culture vanished overnight. “The balance of a national team is you gotta make sure that you wanna win now, but you also gotta look for the next tournament, the tournament after, and making sure you have a core group that is staying together,” says Bogut. “That’s what went out in the window when 2000 happened – nine, 10 of our best players retired.”

Tokyo saw a blended team, with Dante Exum consolidating his role as a key figure and the emergence of Matisse Thybulle (an executive producer on the film), Josh Green and Jock Landale. The squad for the World Cup has seen more youth added: 20-year-old NBA sensation Josh Giddey and last year’s number eight draft pick Dyson Daniels, with veteran Dellavedova left at home.

Goorjian inherited the Boomers in late 2001, in his first stint at national team coach. He experienced the challenges of that era, and is trying to avoid a repeat. “For these guys, it’s culture [that they’re best at] – and you don’t get to keep being the best in the world at that if there are these big gaps,” says Adekponya. “It’s funny that the guy who walked into that the first-time is the head coach again now. So he was never going to allow that to happen on his watch.”

If Goorjian and his team can walk that tight-rope, retaining the team ethos while bringing in a new generation, gold at this World Cup or the Paris Olympics next year does not seem far-fetched. That would make a great sequel to this excellent documentary. Not Rose Gold. Just Gold.

Rose Gold is in cinemas now.

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