TORONTO — When Canada’s men’s wheelchair basketball team breaks from a huddle, the players touch arms in their version of hands-in.
The reigning Paralympic gold medallists will tell you they are as close as any family, their teammates like brothers. And for Abdi Dini, that means just a little bit more.
The 34-year-old hasn’t seen his parents since he was 12, when his dad Mahamoud and mom Anab sought better health care and a brighter future for their son, putting him on a plane from Somalia to live with an uncle in Toronto.
Almost two years earlier, in a country embroiled in civil war, Dini was struck by a stray bullet during school recess and became a paraplegic.
"First with his disability, that’s tough enough," said Canada’s coach Steve Bialowas, who has coached Dini since he was 16. "He has his uncle, but it’s tough especially as a teenager, he hasn’t seen his parents since. I think his club team and now with Team Canada, you become his family."
Canada has a strong tradition in wheelchair basketball and will be looking to defend gold at the next summer’s Paralympics in Rio.
The men are 3-0 in the eight-team Parapan Am tournament, which is a qualifier for Rio. They opened with a 102-27 rout of Venezuela before cruising to a 74-55 victory over Mexico. They had their most difficult challenge on Tuesday night, but came away with a 68-62 victory against previously undefeated Argentina.
Canada’s women’s team improved to 3 -0 record on Tuesday afternoon with an 82-51 win over Brazil.
Dini grew up a fan of the game. He lists Kobe Bryant as the person he’d "most like to have lunch with" on his Canadian team bio. He admires the Los Angeles Lakers star’s "competitive nature," he said.
But Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson, he said, is his all-time favourite player and the person he’d want to model his game after.
Dini was helping out with his high school team when a teacher suggested he look into the wheelchair program at Variety Village in Toronto’s east end. Longtime Canadian teammate Adam Lancia likes to tell the story of arriving at the gym that first day to see Dini, sitting in a chair that was several sizes too big for him, nonchalantly draining shots from beyond the free-throw line.
"He just had a natural sense for this game," Lancia said.
Dini was featured in a Sportchek "My North" commercial. His friends would tell him they’d seen it on the Jumbotron during Toronto Raptors games. His parents have watched it online and "think it’s pretty cool."
He couldn’t have imagined the hard road from Somalia would lead him to where he is now: the star of a commercial, a Paralympic gold medallist and a key member of the Canadian team playing in front of noisy, packed crowds at the Parapan American Games.
"You never really think this might happen," Dini said. "But you do think about your dreams, things you want to accomplish in life."
Wheelchair basketball features a point system from one to 4.5, based on a player’s functional ability. The lower the number, the more severe a player’s disability is.
Dini is a one-point player, meaning he has less functional ability than virtually every one of his teammates. But you’d never know it by the fluidity with which he moves and the ease with which he can knock down shots.
And for anything he lacks in physical strength, he makes up for in pure game sense.
"It’s more mental than physical," Dini said. "I already had a grasp of the sport, so things came naturally for me."
Bialowas called Dini a "quiet leader."
"He’s very passionate, a man of very few words but he’s very passionate, and the guys love him," the coach said.
He’s also the last person they’ll hear complain.
"If you ask him what he thinks about having his disability, the first thing he says is ‘There are people who have it so much worse than I do,"’ Lancia said. "You just think about it… ‘So when they don’t have the fresh lettuce in the grocery, and I’m upset about that, what you just said kind of puts that in perspective.’
"He’s just that kind of guy."
Wheelchair basketball was originally developed by Second World War veterans in the U.S. The rules are nearly identical to the able-bodied version with the dimensions of the court and the height of the hoop the same.
The clang of metal on metal replaces the squeal of sneakers and hard, chair-tipping hits are routine.
Travelling is called when a player fails to pass or dribble after taking two pushes of the wheel.