Basketball, family, and legacy: Leilani Mitchell's proud path to Indigenous Round

Basketball, family and connection have always intertwined for two-time Olympian Leilani Mitchell.

The only daughter, and one of seven children, to an Indigenous mother and American father was raised in the US but would later follow her roots to Australia, call it home and represent the Opals at international level.

Basketball is weaved throughout her mother's side of the family. The sport brought Eleanor and Dennis together, when he came to Australia in the late 1960s on a Mormon mission, the pair would marry and move to the US.

It was the game her maternal grandmother Seamah Majid played as part of the trailblazing first women's team to travel outside Thursday Island for a tournament in 1961.

The Wongai team reached the Grand Final in Cairns, losing by one point.

"The women's team made their own dresses, there were eight girls on the team and five had never flown on an airplane before, "Mitchell told ESPN ahead of the WNBL's Indigenous Round.

"To know my nana was one of those women is a really special story. It makes me proud and that's where we get our athletic abilities as well, my brothers are really quite athletic.

"My nana and grandad were always very sporty and part of the first basketball teams on Thursday Island so to be able to carry that traditional as well with sports and be connected in that way is also pretty special."

Growing up in Kennewick, Washington State, Mitchell and her siblings were surrounded by Indigenous culture.

"Times were different with customs then but we had a couple of kangaroo skins, spears and actual turtle shells from Thursday Island, my whole childhood they were hanging on the walls," she explained.

"She also had these portraits of Aboriginal women and they were topless. For us, we never thought anything of it because from the moment we were born we always saw them but we didn't realise it was weird to our friends until they would come over and be like "what the heck is that? There are pictures of topless girls in your house!

"My mum was always very proud and spoke about Australia. We'd always call my grandparents and they visited us a few times in the state. I didn't meet half of my cousins and aunties and uncles until I came to Australia."

When Mitchell's parents divorced, Eleanor returned to Australia. Chasing her basketball dream at college in Idaho and then Utah, Mitchell would travel to Darwin to visit her mother who later died of cancer in 2009.

"I always wanted to come to Australia in honour of her, she always wanted us kids to come over and study or go to uni here. I wish I had have come earlier but that's the way life goes," Mitchell said.

She felt a pull towards Australia and wanted to play professionally Down Under but her agent at the time believed there was better money to be made in Europe.

"Finally, I was going to take a season off between Europe and WNBA seasons and my agent called and Dandenong needed a point guard because Kathleen McLeod (2012 Olympian) was injured, the coach had watched the WNBA and asked specifically about me and said we can help her get her passport and try out for the national team," Mitchell said.

"I came out and just fell in love with Australia. I was a bit nervous at first because I thought everything was like Darwin, the outback, so it was a bit of a shock when I arrived in Melbourne."

Mitchell, while continuing to compile a strong career in the WNBA, would quickly assert herself as one of the WNBL's premier point guards. She earned selection for the Opals and, on national team debut, was part of the 2014 FIBA World Cup bronze-medal winning team.

Basketball was where Mitchell met and fell in love with partner Mikaela in Melbourne, the pair now have two children Kash, 5, and Elle, 1.

In 2016, she would reach the sporting pinnacle by competing at the Rio Olympics. Her mother and grandmother never far from her thoughts.

"Oh mum, gosh, she was proud when I was just a little girl playing in the local competition so I know that she'd be super proud now of all the things I've accomplished," Mitchell says.

"Nana (who died in 2018) watched the Olympics and would watch some WNBL games, she was always very, very proud.

"I like being here (in Australia) because it also gives me a sense of closeness to my mum and we try to make a trip to Darwin once a year and when I feel I want to go and visit her.

"Most of her family live there and they are so welcoming, from the moment I met all my cousins they were so loving and accepting of us even though we'd never met them before and we still don't see them as often as I'd like.

"They just treat us like we've always been a part of their lives and I think that goes back to my grandparents and the love they instilled in our family. It's so nice to be part of that, living here in Australia and now raising our own children here."

Mitchell gave birth to Elle in June 2022 and returned to the court at the end of the last WNBL season.

Now playing for Southside, where she won a championship and was awarded Grand Final MVP in 2020, Indigenous Round will have special significance for the veteran when the Flyers host the Boomers in opening-round action on Saturday night.

The Flyers will wear the artwork of Indigenous artist, Ngarrindjeri woman Emma Stenhouse with her design based on sisterhood.

"I knew about my culture and the history of my family but I was wasn't born or raised in Australia so I didn't really see what the times were like or what the relationship was like between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians," Mitchell said.

"Coming in, and living here for the last 10 years, you get more of a sense but it's definitely something that makes me proud because there's not many indigenous Australians in Australia to begin with and to be able to make it to the levels I have and represent my family and all the native people definitely makes me very proud."