In a parallel universe American import Jordan Rawls may not be near the Icehouse, but he has become the unexpected hero of the Castec Rural Pioneers’ brilliant 2022 NBL1 South season so far.
Mount Gambier currently sits at the pointy end of the ladder having taken the competition by storm playing attractive basketball.
Rawls has been one of the focal points behind it, playing big minutes in every game, taking tip off responsibilities and averaging 15 points every night in a depleted team.
The 23-year-old is fresh from the college system in America and is loving every aspect of life as a Pioneer.
“I am really happy to be here and love playing for the Pioneers,” he said.
“I am just so grateful to be here and sometimes I wake up thinking ‘wow, I cannot believe I am in Australia and playing the sport I love professionally’ it just blows me away.
“I love my teammates and we have an outstanding coach and we have proved we can overcome adversity and run with anybody, home or away.
“I am very excited for what the rest of the season has in store and it is always the goal to go as far as possible.”
Rawls took an unfamiliar path to the Pioneers’ list and was not on the team’s radar initially.
He was playing at Division 3 level for Allegheny College which put him on the back foot early compared to others playing at higher levels in the bigger states, but the forward had hopes of playing in the NBL1, so organised his own VISA, flight and accommodation down under.
Through conversations between Mount Gambier coach Richard Hill and Rawls’ agent, a door was opened for the American to attend the Pioneers’ training camp where they would “point him in the right direction towards a team”.
But after two weeks of working “really hard”, it soon became clear where Rawls’ future might be and he found himself wearing a Pioneers’ jumper for the first time at the annual pre-season challenge in Millicent.
Even though the international player did not believe he played his best at Peter Seebohm Stadium, his drive and determination were on full show.
At one stage all the Pioneers went straight for the bench to cool down after a tough quarter except for Rawls, who took the opportunity to practice shooting more hoops.
But Rawls’ dream of playing full time in the NBL1 was not achieved just yet after he was rewarded with only a partial contract to help fill the holes left in Mount Gambier’s squad as it struggled with injury, COVID-19 and unavailability during the early stages of the season.
It meant Rawls would complete the preseason and possibly play the first two games, but this was more than enough for the youngster from Pennsylvania , who was brought to tears by the opportunity.
“After two weeks at the training camp Richard told me I would get a partial contract and that moved me to tears,” he said.
“Then we went to the Blitz in Melbourne and they said they are happy to have me for the whole season, which definitely moved me.
“I was really excited and immediately left my room and told the teammates.
“I then called my family and friends, so it was a real nostalgic moment.”
Not only was it an emotional time for Rawls because he moved halfway around the world to play in the NBL1 competition, but also because he had just spent those weeks giving it everything to make an impression to the coaching staff.
Even with a partial contract, he said he always felt pressure on his shoulders until his fate for the remainder of the 2022 season was locked in.
“It was not easy because every time I was at practice I felt like I had to prove myself as the hardest worker and the one who made the least mistakes,” Rawls said.
“That pressure forced myself to feel like I was standing out and doing something a little bit different to make sure the coach would notice me and thankfully he did.
“I did not feel like I performed the greatest in the first couple of scrimmages, but by the time we went to Melbourne I got a feel for what was going on and that might have been when they thought this guy should stick around and here I am.”
Rawls hails from Pittsburgh and despite playing in the college system for Allegheny Gators, he said life on the court as a Pioneer had been a bigger challenge.
“There was not much known about me because I came from a smaller school, but my coach actually said I had the potential to play overseas,” he said.
“He said it was never going to be an easy thing to do and the level down here is definitely a step up because the people are stronger and the play is faster.”
Not only has Rawls been forced to lift his game on the court, he has had to adjust to a new life off it.
He said many things including driving on the left-hand side of the road had been tricky, but he really enjoys life in the Blue Lake city and is one of the few enjoying the “warm” weather.
“I really like Mount Gambier and think it’s extremely interesting it is built on a bunch of sinkholes,” Rawls said.
“I had to learn driving on the left-hand side of the road, understand what a roundabout is and pay close attention to the arrows.
“I also did not expect to see so many kangaroos and emus everywhere and it is surprising how they jump straight in front of you.
“The weather is warm compared to Pittsburgh where it snows a lot, so that is very tolerable.
“It is nice it’s a basketball town with a close-knit community, so it is a great place to start and I am just really thankful.”
Rawls and the Pioneers men and women are back on the road this weekend where they will meet Frankston and Nunawading on Saturday and Sunday respectively.