If you should chance upon Variety Village at 7 o’clock one morning, you might find Ibrahim Odza on a basketball court in the fieldhouse.
Alone, as the city awakes around him, the 13-year-old runs free throw and layup drills, spin after spin, shot after shot, getting better and better.
Two years ago, Ibrahim was a nimble soccer kid who dreamed of being Messi, the great Argentine captain.
Then a tumour in his spine exploded.
Now, Ibrahim still chases a dream — but in wheelchair basketball.
“I’ve never asked, ‘Why me?’” he says.
“I mean, if I can’t walk, I can’t walk. There’s no point pouting because I’m in this wheelchair. It’s a waste of time. Why would I do that, when I can play basketball?”
Which brings us back to the gym, hours after Ibrahim’s dawn workout. The Variety Village Rolling Rebels are practising. They have ruled wheelchair basketball in Toronto and beyond for some three decades. They are preparing to resume full competition post-COVID.
Over the decades of the Sun Christmas for Variety Village I have introduced you to Rebels of renown, including: Adam Lancia, a two-time Paralympics gold medalist. Abdi Dini, the kid who survived a gunshot wound in war-torn Somalia and grew up to be an icon on our national team. Shayne Smith, who later switched sports and made Canada’s Paralympic wheelchair rugby team — and there’s a sport not for the faint of heart.
Ibrahim Odza seems destined to reach similar heights. His climb has been especially steep and swift.
When COVID arrived, the Odza family was visiting kin in Macedonia. Ibrahim, a speedy soccer star in a Scarborough house league, had temporarily joined a team in the ancient (4th century) city of Bitola.
Pandemic travel bans extended the Odzas’ stay, but otherwise all seemed well.
Then, Ibrahim’s back hurt. Soccer injury, they thought. Next, he started limping. Finally, his bladder quit. An MRI revealed a tumour smaller than a dime had hemorrhaged halfway down his spine.
Macedonian surgeons saved him, but as a paraplegic. His soccer dream was done.
Ibrahim tried, he really tried. Back home, he plunged into rehab at Holland Bloorview hospital. Still, the wheelchair remains.
“He never put his head down, he never complained,” says Faton Odza, his dad. “The amazing thing is you don’t have to. You can continue your life and good things will still happen for you.”
Which they did for Ibrahim.
Holland Bloorview put him in a sports wheelchair and he whipped his dad in a race.
“I could see in his face at that moment how happy he was,” says Faton. “He loves to win.”
Says his son: “I am very competitive.”
They sent him to Variety Village, where he met Steve Bialowas, legendary skipper of the Rolling Rebels, and a longtime national team coach.
“Let’s see you dribble,” said Bialowas.
“He’s never touched a basketball,” said Ibrahim’s dad.
“Doesn’t matter,” said Steve. “Let him play.”
That was just 10 months ago.
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In February, Ibrahim will be with Team Ontario at the Canada Games in Prince Edward Island, likely the youngest player there.
“Unbelievable kid,” says Jesse McNalley, who is filling in as Rebels coach for an ailing Bialowas. “I can’t believe how smart he is on the court.
“I mean, he’s 13. His drive to get better is the strongest I’ve ever seen. I can picture him at the Paralympics one day.”
I would not bet against this kid. Those early morning extra reps have rapidly raised his game. His dark eyes shine with the will to win. You can see it, even at a practice.
That attitude already has brought him far from the operating room in Macedonia.
“What do I miss?” he says. “Not much, really. Sure, it was hard at times and, sure, I miss soccer, but I’ve just transitioned to another sport and I like it better. Things are good.”
“That’s life,” he tells me, in a break from practice. “It was just something to overcome.
“So, I overcame it.”
HOW YOU CAN HELP
Every kid at Variety Village has dreams and goals. Ibrahim Odza’s are of wheelchair basketball glory.
For other kids, they are of black belts in taekwondo, or of best times in the swimming pool, or of just walking from A to B, or of standing unaided.
Indeed, Variety has as many dreams as it has kids. You can help make them come true.
The 2022 edition of the Sun Christmas Fund for Variety Village starts today.
Over the coming weeks, I’ll introduce you to more Variety stars — of all ages — and their dreams.
Last year, we raised a record $117, 124 for the iconic and inclusive sports centre in Scarborough that caters to kids with disabilities.
That is a huge sum to match in glum economic times, yet you have stepped up through thick and thin over the decades.
The Christmas Fund’s tally to date is nearly $1.7 million.
See Page 3 of the Sunday Sun. Or, you can donate direct at sunchristmasfund.ca.
Let’s keep helping Variety’s kids live their dreams.