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  • Writer's pictureBen Dickson

Blaise Mutware - Arizona's Blaze

Athletes arrive at wheelchair basketball in a plethora of different ways. Each deals with their own adversity, and their specific journeys to the sport are unique stories that deserve to be told. While all athletes must deal with a range of challenges, elite wheelchair athletes cope with obstacles that often impact every aspect of their lives. Nonetheless, wheelchair basketball gives people a platform on which to achieve new sporting heights and to express the countless joys of basketball.

For Arizona’s Blaise Mutware, a high level of wheelchair basketball – let alone the word wheelchair – was never something that remotely crossed his mind.

That was until Mutware reached the age of 20 when something completely unforeseen, horrifying and, ultimately, life-changing occurred. Two robbers confronted and shot Mutware in the leg. Initially, Mutware did not think the situation was going to be permanent and he would be out of the hospital in a couple of days. However, doctors diagnosed him with incomplete paraplegia, telling him he would never walk again.

“When they first told me that initially, I think I was kind of under a lot of medication and I don’t think it registered to me what he said,” Mutware said. “Because I thought I was getting out of the hospital in like two days and just going to be walking out of there. But, I guess, as reality kind of set in, realizing that I was much more impacted than I thought I was.”

Just like that, Mutware’s life changed forever. While he admitted he was sulking and depressed at the time of the injury, how he adapted to it only made him better. Life as Mutware knew it would never be the same, but with so much life left to live, he quickly resolved to take his new challenge head-on.

“I don’t know,” Mutware said. “I just had a determination to overcome whatever obstacle was presented before me, and I think that was just one of the first obstacles that I saw and wanted to conquer.”

[Photos by Kaylah Newman.]

Understanding an Upbringing

Legally spelled Blaise, Mutware also accepts the spelling Blaze (he uses the latter as his official spelling at the University of Arizona). Either way, Mutware’s life is dynamic and intense, making the reference to a blazing fire wholly appropriate.

Born in Rwanda, it took a while before Mutware eventually found his permanent home. Mutware moved from his native country to South Africa and then to Zimbabwe, before eventually settling in Toronto at age 13. As one can imagine, the transition was far from seamless for someone who spent his life in three different African countries before landing in North America.

“I was fresh off the boat when I came to Canada,” Mutware said. “I was the obvious outcast in a way.”

Mutware always had to start making new friends as the new kid in school. This was certainly a challenge, but this practice in adapting to new circumstances helped him become the 27-year-old man he is today. He sees his interpersonal skills are a major strength, having interacted with so many different peoples and different cultures from such a young age.

His youth, according to Mutware, forced him to learn how to pick up new things quickly, one of those being basketball. Stand-up basketball. Soccer was the main sport for him growing up in Africa, but it is a lot harder to get involved with the beautiful game in the frigid weather of Toronto.

“[It snowed] in the wintertime, so there weren’t many places to play soccer as much,” Mutware said. “I picked up basketball and fell in love with it right away.”

As any basketball player does growing up, Mutware had “hoop dreams” of getting to the NBA one day. He realized those dreams were probably well behind him by his senior year of high school, as he went on to play the typical recreational games with friends. At that point, he did not even know about wheelchair basketball before his injury.

Following his injury, a small opportunity to get involved with wheelchair basketball led to several more doors opening for Mutware.

The Start of a New Career

Michael Beardsley’s first moment recruiting Mutware came before he was the head coach of Arizona men’s wheelchair basketball.

Beardsley, an assistant for the Wildcats at the time, first crossed paths with Mutware at the national championships. Mutware, who said he could not exactly remember the year, was coming off the bench for the Toronto Rollin’ Raptors, a team of potential Canadian national team members that was formed to get real game experience. Beardsley saw Mutware in warmups and was enamored immediately.

“[We] kind of just looked at him and was like ‘man, this dude has a frame and all that,’” Beardsley recalls. “So we automatically gravitated towards him.”

Mutware got his start in wheelchair basketball in 2015. He first began playing for the Variety Village Rebels, a local club team in Toronto. It was more of a recreational experience, as Mutware learned to enjoy the game in his first experience with it.

It was not before long, though, that Mutware was invited to the Canadian National Training Centre in the same year. Steve Bialowas, the head coach of the Canadian national team at the time, was also the coach of the Variety Village team. This provided Mutware the opportunity to train five days a week with some of the best players in Canada, including Paralympic medalists.

“I was way out of my league at the time,” Mutware said. “I think in hindsight, it kind of stunted my development a little bit because I wasn’t learning the basics.”

While that may be true, the opportunities undeniably grew from there for Mutware. In addition to starting to rise through the Canadian ranks, Mutware was fortunate to have the opportunity to make the jump to college basketball.

Following their first meeting, Beardsley and Mutware stayed in touch for three or four years before Mutware was ready to make the jump to collegiate basketball. Getting international students to Arizona is tough, Beardsley confessed, since they are one of the few places that do not offer scholarships through its program. Fortunately for both of them, a scholarship opportunity opened that allowed the marriage to be possible.

The Neilsen Scholarship Program – named after Craig Neilsen, the famous American gaming industry executive who suffered a life-altering spinal cord injury of his own – provides scholarships to students with spinal cord injuries across the country. The program led Mutware to Arizona, and while Mutware’s college basketball tale is still being written, it may not have been possible without it.

“Poverty, I think that was kind of one of the main things that I struggle with, trying to be an international student coming to a U.S. college,” Mutware said. “The tuition is not something that I can really afford, so having the Craig Neilsen [scholarship] helped me with pretty much the majority of my expenses.”

Mutware is currently listed as a sophomore at Arizona. His supposed-to-be freshman season did not happen because of the COVID-19 pandemic, so he spent it at home in Toronto, taking classes and training for the Tokyo Paralympics. While Mutware is a sophomore and older than the average college student, he’s still pretty new to the sport and is a first-timer in the college game.

Beardsley knew Mutware was a “big get,” a phrase that he mentioned multiple times, saying that Mutware would not be in Arizona without the Craig Neilsen scholarship. Pairing Mutware’s 3.5 classification with his great size and speed makes him an incredible force at the college level. But, it is the gracious and high-character person that makes Mutware an even stronger piece to the puzzle at Arizona.

“He’s a great kid,” Beardsley said. “I definitely felt he fit our culture to a tee. He’s so nice. He’s a workaholic. He’ll beat you up on the court and then be your best friend off the court, and that’s a great asset to have.”

A Canadian Superstar?

Although it may not have been the path that Mutware dreamed of when he was growing up, wheelchair basketball has taken him quite a long way. Emerging from the shadow of a group of veteran star players, his official arrival to the big stage was a silver medal in Lima’s Parapan Am Games in 2019, an event that played a major part in Canada qualifying for the Tokyo Paralympics.

“I always kind of get fascinated with how far the sport can take you and how big the community is,” Mutware said. “...I kinda always try to take a step back whenever I can, but I think at the time, I was kind of focused on a goal at hand to qualify for Tokyo, which we accomplished.”

Current Canadian wheelchair basketball head coach Matteo Feriani has been all over the globe, coaching with Brazil, Australia, Italy, and now Canada. A “different challenge” moved the multilingual coach to Canada in 2017, and Mutware was one of the young prospects that he would eventually coach.

“He’s an athlete that I care about because he’s still pretty young and he has such great potential,” Feriani said of Mutware. “And hopefully he could become a top player, he has all the qualities to become a top player.”

Mutware is one of the more experienced players in college, but a rookie internationally. He may be one of the biggest guys in Canada, but he is small on the international scale. Feriani knows this, but he also foresees an incredibly bright future for Mutware. He says he has the understanding of the game, the enthusiasm, and the physical qualities to be not only one of Canada’s main weapons but also one of the world’s best players.

“And why not? He should become one of the top players in the world, why not?” Feriani said. “He has all the qualities. Honestly, he is a good guy, he is a good person. He has all the qualities to make it. Just need to keep going, staying focused and motivated, hungry, wanting to step up.”

From NBA goals to a past passion for cooking, Mutware’s long-term aspirations have led him to an abundance of different opportunities. Now, due to an unexpected accident, wheelchair basketball is his life.

Mutware wants to become one of the sports’ top players, and he knows he still has to be a “sponge” and a “student of the game” to make that happen. Around four years from now, he hopes he can take a look back and see at least a couple of collegiate championships, an impact at the Paris 2024 Paralympic Games, and a path to a successful career in Europe.

What happened to Mutware when he was 20 years old would send some into a freefall. For Mutware, however, there was a silver lining to be found in wheelchair basketball. He did not let the accident ruin him but instead defined himself through his ability to embrace its challenge.

“I think in a way it turned out to be a blessing in disguise,” Mutware said. “Because I think at the time when I was 20, I didn’t really have my life fully together, and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life. After my injury, I got introduced to wheelchair basketball and found a new passion in life. For me to be able to enjoy life and also kind of forget the disability part of me…it gave me a different outlook on life in general.”

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