When Blaise Mutware attended his first practice with the Variety Village Rebels back in 2015, veteran Nic Goncin had an immediate thought when he first set eyes on the six-foot-two recruit: “Oh, sh** — nice!”
Goncin had good reason to be excited for the new player’s future: He and Mutware are now playing for Canada on the national wheelchair basketball team, which opens its Paralympic tournament on Aug. 26 against Spain. It’ll be Goncin’s second appearance at the Games, and Mutware’s first.
The last time Canada competed on this stage, Goncin says, with a laugh: “We’re gonna pretend that didn’t happen.” Apologies for the reminder, but Canada finished 11th of 12 teams, with a 1-5 record. But the outlook is a lot better this time around, if you ask Goncin, and much of that has to do with the improved team chemistry, and the addition of players like the 27-year-old Mutware.
“The Blaise that I met five or six years ago and the Blaise that we see now, it’s not the same human,” says Goncin, who’s one of the team’s captains. “I don’t even have words for the amount that he has improved. I personally think that he’ll play a huge part in Tokyo, which, if you had asked me two years ago, it was still in question. Something clicked, and it really happened in the last year. He started improving at a significantly faster clip.
“On top of that, he’s tall and he’s strong and he put some weight on, he gets along with the guys, so there’s that chemistry piece. I mean, it’s incomparable.”
Mutware was on the team that won Parapan American silver in 2019, but he watched that gold medal game from the bench. He decided to quit his job as a cook and focus on school (he’s taking business at the University of Arizona) and basketball, in preparation for the Games. “It’s always been a goal, right from the start, to play at the highest level,” Mutware says. “This past year I wasn’t just going to clock in, ‘I’m here,’ and then leave. I was really working on my focus. I think that’s one step I was lacking for my whole playing career.”
Mutware’s career in basketball started late. He grew up in Rwanda at the height of the genocide, so he and his family moved around a fair bit, until they landed in Toronto when Mutware was 13. That’s when the soccer-obsessed kid discovered basketball. “It was an instant love,” he says, even if at first, Mutware wasn’t very good. “I didn’t even make my freshman or sophomore team in high school. I had a lot of work to do.”
Seven years after he moved to Toronto, Mutware was injured near his home in the west end of the city. He was robbed by two men, and when one pulled a gun and the other got a hold of his wallet, he chased the men down as they ran off. “At that time, I had a lot of pride,” he says. “I wasn’t going to give in too easy.” The next thing he knew he dropped to the ground: Mutware had been shot five times, including twice in the spine. “I was scared for my life, and I never thought I’d be in a situation like that,” he says. “I started to pray and I was coming to terms with what was happening.” Mutware, then 20 years old, thought he was going to die.
Thankfully, he woke up three days later in hospital. There, doctors told Mutware he was paralyzed from the waist down and wouldn’t be able to walk again. “They didn’t give me the possibility that I could walk, they were setting me up to accept the reality I didn’t want to accept,” he says. “It was good motivation for me.”
Two weeks after his injury, he was able to wiggle his toes. The progress continued, and Mutware graduated from a wheelchair to a rolling walker to a cane. After two years of rehab, he was able to walk unassisted, and today he has 90 percent of his mobility. He wears a brace on his left foot because he isn’t able to lift it fully, but he can walk and do what he calls “an awkward jog.”
Mutware is one of Canada’s bigs, and he’s a 3.5 classification player (a 4.5 classification player is the most mobile, and a team’s total on the court can’t exceed 14 classification points.) “He’s a very talented guy and his classification, he makes a big difference,” says Team Canada coach, Matteo Feriani. “He’s a big player with a lot of mobility.”
Mutware has a lot of mobility on the court now, but learning to play basketball well in a wheelchair took years. “At first I was finding it hard just to get to the offensive side from the defensive side, because a player would hold me in position,” he says of the sport he used to call “basketball with bumper cars.” He adds: “It was four or five years before I got to a comfort level where I felt confident playing with and against anybody. I think this year was another step up for me, too. My confidence has started to grow.”
So, too, has his confidence in this team, which is one of Canada’s most successful in Paralympic history, with three gold medals. But not since they won gold in 2012 have the men captured Paralympic hardware. “We come into this tournament as the underdogs,” Mutware says. “We’ve really improved over the last year as a team, we came together during the pandemic. We’ve been doing a lot of practices, a lot of training, studying other teams. A realistic goal I think would be top five — and I think a medal is not out of the question.”
Goncin agrees. “I think we’re in a very, very good spot. Realistically, for us, if we are fighting for a medal of any sort, that’s us succeeding. That’s us reaching our potential,” he says. “Our team is good enough to beat any team out there right now. It’s just, can we put eight games together?”
Only time will tell, because this team hasn’t played together on a big international stage in two years, since the Parapan American Games. But Goncin says the energy and motivation is high, and Mutware helps keep it that way. “He’s always wanting to compete, whether he’s tired or guys are tired or he’s getting his ass kicked, he wants to compete. He brings a spark to it, you know? He just brought a little bit of life back, especially when he started to get so much better and started to really contest some of the older guys and challenge them.”
Coach Feriani expects Mutware to play a much more significant role than the last time this team competed on a big stage. “He made a huge improvement,” Feriani says. “He is a strength to our team, a power. What he got in the Pan American Games was experience. Hopefully now in the Paralympics, it’s something more than just an experience.”
Mutware has been working hard to that end. “When my number’s called, I’m going to be ready,” he says. “I want to get out there and play the game I love and make an impact. I can’t wait.”