RIO DE JANEIRO – When David Eng made his Paralympic debut 12 years ago in Athens, coach Mike Frogley would jot down a word each day and pin that word on the wall.
They were words like “leadership” and “commitment,” character traits Frogley wanted his players to embody.
They were words, Eng decided then and there, to live by.
“I started focusing on that,” Eng said. “That was what I wanted to become, was that type of person.”
The 39-year-old veteran of Canada’s wheelchair basketball team has been chosen to carry the Maple Leaf into the opening ceremony of the Paralympic Games on Wednesday.
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Frogley, now the high performance director for Wheelchair Basketball Canada, said there was no better choice. Every player and every team, he said, “starts with great character.”
“And that’s what David is: great character that allows us the opportunity to be great,” Frogley said. “And he’s a great representation of Canada, (he) embodies all the things that Canadians hold in the highest regard, his work ethic, his discipline, his commitment to the team … those are things all Canadians share in, so they share in him marching out holding our flag.”
The two-time Paralympic gold medallist, who was cheered on by both the men’s and women’s wheelchair teams at his news conference Tuesday morning, will be competing at his fourth Games. Canada won gold in Eng’s debut in 2004, took the silver at the 2008 Beijing Games and won gold four years ago in London.
The Canadian co-captain, who was born with one leg shorter than the other, took up the sport when he was just 12 through the encouragement of his uncle Gerald Brule, a former national team player.
His first team was a senior men’s squad, where the “hoops were pretty high” for a 12-year-old, and the chairs were “almost hospital chairs.” He went on to play college wheelchair ball at the University of Texas in Arlington, and now suits up for two club teams: Gladiateurs de Laval and the New York Rollin Knicks.
Eng is a big NBA fan, and rode the emotional roller-coaster of the Toronto Raptors’ historic playoff run last spring.
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“I love the Raptors. I think Drake should be our ambassador for wheelchair basketball,” Eng said with a chuckle. “He played a guy in a wheelchair on ‘Degrassi: (The Next Generation.)’ He’s a big Raptor guy.
“If Drake (reads) this: tweet me, we need to talk.”
The Toronto rapper, who’s also the Raptors’ global ambassador, played Jimmy Brooks on the popular television series. His character on the show suffered a spinal cord injury in a shooting.
Eng is also a huge Kobe Bryant fan, and named his husky dog “Kobe” after the retired Los Angeles Lakers superstar.
He models his career, he said, on a variety of players and people.
“Michael Jordan, I liked his dedication and heart for the game, love for the game,” Eng said. “Magic Johnson, I liked his team bonding approach, making your team better. Michael Jackson (the late singer), he was a perfectionist who paid attention to all the little details.
“So I take little pieces of everybody and try to emulate and replicate it in my own career.”
Michael Jackson also happens to be his go-to pre-game music.
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“‘Man in the Mirror’ is one of my favourites, ‘Billie Jean’ … I like more of the old Michael Jackson.”
Eng wore a Superman t-shirt for his pre-game warm-up from the time he was 12 until 21, but replaced it with the Superman diamond-shaped logo he had tattooed on his left shoulder.
He’s fiercely passionate about the Paralympic movement.
“There’s nothing more human than the Paralympics,” Eng said. “You have diversity, you have disability … and you go out there and you maximize what you’ve got and you perform, and it’s really inspiring.
“If I were to compare the Olympics and the Paralympics, we’ve got the back stories of the athletes and what they went through. They already succeeded in something before they started competing. The true value of sport, we’re really embracing it right now at the Paralympics.”
Canada has long been a leader in wheelchair basketball. In Rio, however, Eng will guide a team that features six rookies after half of Canada’s core of players retired post-London.
“We want to still be a leader, it’s another motivation,” Eng said. “We have new athletes coming in and we want to show that it wasn’t just the individuals on the team, but it was the concept, the program behind it that made us so successful.”
Canada opens the Paralympics on Thursday against Spain, and will also meet Algeria and Great Britain in preliminary-round action.
The Canadians captured silver at last summer’s Parapan Am Games in Toronto, losing the final to the United States.
The Canadian women, silver medallists at last summer’s Parapan Am Games, also open the Paralympics on Thursday when they face Great Britain.