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Happy XRM Wouldn't Want to be Anywhere but Illawarra Hawks

Written for nbl.com.au by Chris Pike

Don’t believe everything you hear, Xavier Rathan-Mayes hasn’t been limited to taking two dribbles by Illawarra Hawks coach Brian Goorjian, in fact he is loving life in Wollongong and playing for him and would love to spend the rest of career in both situations.

Goorjian himself has likened the change in the Hawks' offence during their current six-game winning streak as being contributed strongly by the ball moving a lot better to get more players involved.

While it has been taken and run with that Rathan-Mayes had been told he can't dribble more than twice or it's a turnover, that's not quite the case but what the 27-year-old Ontario native does agree with is how well the changes they've made is now paying off.

Not only is Rathan-Mayes finding his groove at the Hawks playing as that playmaker to either relieve pressure on Tyler Harvey or to work hand in hand with him, but everything about his situation at Illawarra is the best he's found in his professional career.

After coming out of Florida State in 2017, Rathan-Mayes has played in the G-League and in Greece, Israel, Romania and back in his home country of Canada, but he has never found a situation like he has right now.

Firstly, there's the bonus of having a local girlfriend Rachelle, but in terms of basketball, Rathan-Mayes has never had such a relationship with a coach like he does with Goorjian, and whether it's 'grandpa' Tim Coenraad or his 'blood brother' Antonius Cleveland, he loves his teammates.

While in no means is Rathan-Mayes thinking further ahead than Thursday night's massive home game for the Hawks with the Sydney Kings, but in the big picture, he can't imagine a better situation than what he's found right now.

"I think this is an amazing place to play basketball. What the Hawks have here is absolutely beautiful and they have a terrific ownership group, and they are led by Goorj," Rathan-Mayes said.

"Personally if I could be under Goorj for a long period of time I would love that. He has become a mentor for me, he's become somebody that I confide in consistently and almost every day we have conversations about basketball, about life or about the future. 

"He has been so amazing in my development and if I could be with Goorj until he's done coaching, I would love that. If the possibility to remain here with Goorj and this group of guys would be amazing. 

"Tyler is locked in, I'm really close with Sammy and Isaac and a lot of the guys, AC is like my blood brother so if I could be in a position to be around these guys for an extended period of time and create that stability for this team as well as myself and my family, I think that could be something that's really special. 

"I'm definitely open to the idea of coming back here, I'd love to be here and I love everything about the city, the team and the people around. They have done beautiful things for myself and I would definitely love to be here."

While Rathan-Mayes gets a bit of a laugh out of just how the so-called 'Xavier Two-Dribble Rule' has taken off, the fact that the Hawks have been able to move the ball better has been a big factor in their current six-game winning streak.

It's not so much about stopping the point guard dribbling the ball, but just making sure the ball is moving and everyone out on the floor is getting involved. Rathan-Mayes is delighted with the result of Illawarra averaging 96.2 points a game in this winning streak.

"That thing about me not dribbling more than twice in practice, I think the media took that and ran with it, which is totally fine. That was not an Xavier rule, you know what I mean, that was put in place for our whole team to move the basketball consistently from side to side," he said.

"Goorj is one of the best to ever do it and his demeanour, his calmness and his ability to never get rattled has set the standard for us. 

"When we went through our tough times, of course we had tough conversations within our group and with each other, but there was never a sense of doubt and never anything negative amongst the guys. 

"We knew exactly what we needed to fix in order to be special and we knew it would all start clicking for us. That two dribble rule wasn’t something Goorj ever came to me about, he never told me I couldn’t dribble more than two times, that never happened. 

"But it was a great thing for our group to get us to play the kind of basketball we wanted to play by passing the ball from side to side, and getting to the second and third sides of the court. That's how we can be the most effective and best basketball team that we can be."

Perhaps the biggest reason for the Hawks wanting to add a second import guard for this season was to take some of the pressure off Tyler Harvey. He had a brilliant season last year with the Hawks getting to within one game of a Grand Final, but everything just about also fell onto his shoulders. 

Bringing in a second playmaker of Rathan-Mayes' calibre was with in mind to lessen his burden and while there were some growing pains, it's turned out tremendously. Rathan-Mayes pays tribute to Harvey for being willing to sacrifice to make it work.

"That’s a big tribute to Tyler, man. He was an MVP candidate last year right up there with Bryce Cotton and we're in a situation this year where we have a unique amount of talent," Rathan-Mayes said.

"It can come at you in so many different ways and Tyler has gone from shooting 15 to 20 times a game, and now this year he doesn’t have to do that same exact thing. At the beginning there it was a learning process and a thing you have to figure out, but he has been so great with it. 

"We've had so many conversations together about me being here to help Tyler and I'm here to do my best to help make things easier for him, and for him to get easier shots so he doesn't have to exert so much energy. 

"You've seen it translate it into games and Tyler is able to come off the ball, and we can put him in actions where he doesn’t have to carry the ball 94 feet and then go score. Tyler has accepted me with open arms and has done such a great job of allowing me to be myself within this process, and to show that I can score, run a team and get guys involved."

There were high expectations for the Hawks coming into #NBL22 on the back of what they did in Goorjian's first season in charge and then bringing in Rathan-Mayes, Antonius Cleveland and Duop Reath.

There were some growing pains in the first half of the season. Rathan-Mayes heard a lot of the talk surrounding the Hawks, but he actually feels going through those rough periods has helped them get to where they are right now two weeks from the playoffs.

"We heard all the talk about how Illawarra is not this and not that, we heard it all, but I think we did the best at staying together as a unit and as brothers, and as a team as we could. We were able to really figure this thing out and that's a tribute to the men that we have in our locker room and the great coaching staff that we have behind us," Rathan-Mayes said.

"Going back to the start of the season we had our little dip there in the road and we knew we would have some early challenges. We battled the COVID thing and basically had no pre-season and myself I came in super late just three weeks before our first. 

"And you know, that's tough especially with the role that Goorj put me in as one of our main guys that is going to have the ball in his hands and operating our offence. It took us a while to figure it out and we had to go through that rough patch to really figure out our roles, to figure out one another as teammates and as brothers, and as an organisation. 

"We were able to kind of weather that storm and figure it out, and how you're seeing the fruits of that labour and we're playing great basketball. The one thing that I said in conversations at the beginning of the year is that you want to be playing your best basketball going into the playoffs towards the end of the year, and we're peaking at the right time. Everything has kind of come full circle."

Rathan-Mayes continues to be thankful that Harvey has accepted him so well as someone here to help him at the Hawks and not to take his spot as the point guard on the team. 

He feels their growing chemistry has helped everything else flow so well on the team and get everyone involved combined with the leadership of AJ Ogilvy and Tim Coenraad.

"We have some great leadership starting at the top with AJ and Timmy. I call Tim Coenraad grandpa because he has been around the block, he knows what he's doing, he's very level-headed, he never gets rattled and we've had some great leadership starting with him and AJ," he said.

"I want to make sure I'm getting Tyler, JJ, Duop, AC and Sammy the touches they need to be successful, and play at the highest level they can. Ty has been amazing, man, honestly he has accepted me and allowed me to take the ball out of his hands a little bit, and not many guys around the world are very accepting of that. 

"He's been so great and our relationship has really developed. I still think that we have the unique ability to be really special together. It's been 25 games and we're only getting better so I'm excited with that. We have a unique relationship and for us, that was a huge piece of the team for us to figure out that relationship. 

"I was already very close with AC and our chemistry has been there from when we were together in Dallas so that relationship with Tyler has been amazing and that's all attributed to him and his ability to be open-minded to allow me to be myself, and to help him get easier shot and take a little bit of the pressure off him."

The Hawks have won their past six matches including beating the league-leading United twice in Melbourne in recent weeks, but they've also played the out of contention Brisbane Bullets twice recently and won by a combined 48 points.

There are no more free hits for the Hawks now with two rounds to go starting with Thursday's clash in Wollongong with the Sydney Kings. 

Illawarra then finishes with road games to Perth and Sydney in the final round so in many ways, the playoffs start now for Rathan-Mayes and the Hawks, and he can't wait.

"What we have on our side is that we are playing our best basketball of the season and going into this final stretch leading into playoffs, we play two of the other top teams in Sydney and Perth," Rathan-Mayes said.

"They will be playoff-like games and atmospheres for us and at this point of the season you want to be playing those teams right now and not one of the teams not in the playoffs. These teams in the playoffs are ramping up to win a championship and we're excited for these challenges. 

"We're playing great basketball and we're excited to play Sydney and to match up against them. They are like our identical in the way that they get out and run, and they are so great in transition. They've got Jarell Martin and Xavier Cooks who get the ball off the rim and push it, they have who I think is probably the MVP of the league right now Jaylen Adams. 

"Then we are going to see Bryce Cotton and the Wildcats in Perth. Obviously I haven’t been there yet but watching the games that I have, they don’t miss a call out there for Bryce. It's going to be great environments and ones that will really test us and get us ready to go out and win a championship. 

"Because those are our aspirations and we're excited for these challenges, and for what it looks like for us. I think we're at a place where we are battle tested too so we are extremely excited and looking forward to these three tests to finish out the season."

Rathan-Mayes has made it clear how happy he is with the basketball situation he's found for himself with the Illawarra Hawks. However, a big part in his happiness on the court is being happy with the lifestyle he's found and being so close to girlfriend Rachelle's home and family is a major factor.

"The lifestyle here in Australia alone is beautiful. For imports in general, what doesn’t get enough attention is the fact that we're away from our families for such long periods of time. But in my case this year, I have the unique ability to be around family with my lady living in Sydney," Rathan-Mayes said.

"Her family is in Strathfield so when we land in Sydney from the road I go back to the house and that's my little getaway. I have that ability so it's been absolutely beautiful in terms of being able to get that aspect that I've never really had as an import around the world. 

"You usually go back to your apartment and the only family you have is the team, but your significant others and family are on the other side of the world. That's definitely helped my play and it's given me the ability to be happy and free, and understanding of where I am and where I'm going."

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