The San Antonio Spurs beat the visiting Miami Heat 107-102 Sunday in a close 2 p.m. game at the AT&T Center. The gravity of game day, however, extended well beyond a tough match-up with a scrappy Heat team that currently sits at No. 2 in the NBA’s Eastern Conference, as the Spurs organization hosted its first Indigenous Night.

In a news release, the Spurs organization explained that Indigenous Night, intended to “pay homage to Indigenous cultures across the globe” – including San Antonio’s earliest settlers, members of the T?p P?lam Coahuiltecan Nation – was initiated by Spurs guard Patty Mills, an outspoken advocate for indigenous people and cultures around the world. 

The Australia-born Mills is of Torres Strait Islander and Australian Aboriginal descent, cultures and communities to which he retains strong connections and for which he has become a kind of de facto spokesperson. 

Festivities and commemorations around the special celebration included a Patty Mills bobblehead giveaway, courtesy of H-E-B, for the first 10,000 fans in attendance; pregame and in-game performances by members of the local T?p P?lam Coahuiltecan Nation; and the release of a limited-edition line of apparel, the result of a collaboration between Mills and the T?p P?lam, an affiliation of Native American bands and clans that inhabited South Texas and Northeastern Mexico for 12,000 years.

The bobblehead features Mills draped in the twin banners of his heritage: the Torres Strait Islander and Australian Aboriginal flags.

A bobblehead featuring Patty Mills draped in his two native flags was given out to the first 10,000 fans.

The apparel collection is bedecked with imagery that tells the creation story of the T?p P?lam and the Yanaguana – the San Antonio River.

Additionally, Spurs Sports & Entertainment marked the occasion with a $10,000 donation, presented during the first half of the game, to the American Indians in Texas at the Spanish Colonial Missions, an organization that exists to preserve the culture and traditions of the T?p P?lam and other indigenous groups through “education, research, community outreach, economic development projects and legislative initiatives at the federal, state and local levels.”

In a pregame media session, Mills said he first met with T?p P?lam leaders in 2018 and almost immediately felt a sense of kinship with them, stemming from the fact that he “could relate to them on so many levels.”

Mills expressed excitement at “the opportunity to use our voice and our platform to be able to shed light and to promote indigenous cultures not only here in San Antonio, where we all live, work, and play, but throughout the country … across the world, too.”

“These are different ways we can all help share and educate,” Mills said of the apparel line and Indigenous Night events.

“There’s always an educational piece to culture and traditions,” Mills said, “and for us here in San Antonio, [it’s about] acknowledging the T?p P?lam and their stories and their beliefs about how San Antonio came about and how we’re all here today living and playing on this land.”

Spurs guard Patty Mills stands for the national anthem.

Mills said his success story is closely tied to his relationship with his heritage and that success is ultimately “about understanding your identity and using that as a driving force to achieve things, whether it’s sport or education or whatever it may be.”

“That’s the connection that I hope a lot of people from all different cultures and backgrounds can relate to,” he said.

For Mills, all of the efforts surrounding his collaboration with the T?p P?lam and Indigenous Night come down to “building the meaning of being a Spur and being a part of the San Antonio community for so long.”

In the game itself, Mills bested his per-game scoring average (11.8 points) for this season by halfway through the second quarter, leading all first-half scorers with 14 points. He ended the game with 18 points, five rebounds, and three assists.

Patty Mills and Bryn Forbes collide in midair during the opening introductions of the starting lineup.

Before the game, Jordan Mandelkorn, associate director of marketing for Spurs Sports & Entertainment, said Indigenous Night presented itself as a good “opportunity to take a giveaway night and elevate it a little bit.”

Mandelkkorn described Mills’ first meeting with the T?p P?lam as “a really powerful thing,” explaining that it “didn’t end up being much about apparel” but that “it was really about him understanding their story and them understanding his.”

Ramon Vasquez, executive officer for the T?p P?lam Coahuiltecan Nation, praised the Spurs for their initiative, wishing that “we had more professional sports organizations that could take the lead where they’re from to provide the education that something like this can.”

He called it “a good example of how to do things the right way when it comes to American Indians and sports organizations.”

Members of the T?p P?lam Coahuiltecan Nation perform a ceremonial dance on the hardwood at the AT&T Center.

In Vasquez’s estimation, “people are starting to pay attention to the fact that we do have an indigenous history here in San Antonio.” He made reference to Alamo Plaza’s redevelopment and an ongoing dispute over indigenous remains there, stating that “when a $450 million project is threatened by the history of a 10,000-year-old people, that means that people are listening.”

“Today will be a good opportunity for people to ask more questions about the original people from this land,” he said, “especially the ones buried at the Alamo and the other missions of San Antonio. … It’s time for us to author our own story.”

James Courtney is a freelance arts and culture journalist in San Antonio. He also is a poet, a high school English teacher and debate coach, and a proud girl dad.