By Jonathan Hamelin
During a trip to Las Vegas in January, Nik Goncin hit the jackpot.
Goncin, 21, who was born in Sarajevo but grew up in Regina, was in Sin City from Jan. 2-8 to try out for the Canadian senior men’s wheelchair basketball team. Goncin was one of the 12 out of 22 male players in attendance to earn a roster spot and was the only one from Saskatchewan.
“It felt awesome. It’s a super great feeling, being the only guy on the team from Saskatchewan,” said Goncin, whose Canadian squad began a week-long training camp in Belgium on March 25, during which time it is to compete against Belgium, Great Britain and the Netherlands in the ninth Easter Wheelchair Basketball Tournament. “It’s been a long process to get here.”
In wheelchair basketball, players are evaluated on their functional abilities and given a ranking on a point scale of 1 to 4.5. Teams must have no more than 14 points on the court at any given time. Goncin is classified as a 4.5, meaning he takes up more than a quarter of the allowed points. Jerry Tonello, Team Canada head coach, said for a 4.5 player to make the team he needs to be an “impact player.”
“Nik is definitely an impact player. He brings speed and shooting to our game – that’s something that we need,” Tonello said. “He has the unique ability to be able to score and move fast.”
The fact that Goncin was able to develop the skills to earn a spot on the Canadian squad is because his hard work and a little push in the right direction finally paid off.
When Goncin was a Grade 11 student at Riffel High School, he was diagnosed with Osteosarcoma, the most common form of bone cancer. With the cancer quickly spreading, doctors had to amputate Goncin’s left leg at the knee to stop it. He was in and out of the hospital for more than a year.
Shortly after recovering, Goncin was approached by Regina Paratroopers Wheelchair Basketball Club coach Mike Brady about trying the sport. Goncin was hesitant, since he didn’t rely completely on a wheelchair. But, Brady countered, many athletes who can walk play wheelchair basketball – it’s a chance for those who can’t run to play sports competitively. Goncin went out for a practice and it was clear from his first time out he’d made the right choice.
“Nick struggled in the chair, but he was a natural athlete,” Brady said. “His athletic ability was unique.”
Indeed, despite initially struggling a bit with the speed of the game and shooting sitting down, Goncin was a natural and got hooked on the game from his first practice. Early on, he set a goal of making the national squad and started putting in the time on and off the court to reach this goal.
“[Nik] is relentless. He is fearless and he just doesn’t quit." - Mark Winter
Goncin made Team Saskatchewan’s roster in 2008 – his first year in the sport. He stuck with the team until 2011, helping it win a bronze medal at the Canada Games in his final year. Since 2009, Goncin has also been on the Canadian men’s under-23 wheelchair basketball squad, which aims at developing players for the next level. After the team finished eighth at the world championships in Paris in 2009, Quickie Wheelchairs signed Goncin on as an ambassador and paid for his athletic equipment.
In January of 2012, after spending two and a half years at the University of Regina, Goncin received a full scholarship to play at the University of Illinois.
Paratroopers coach Mark Winter credits Goncin’s rise in the sport to his drive to succeed.
“He’s relentless. He is fearless and he just doesn’t quit,” Winter said. “It doesn’t matter what the score is. It doesn’t matter what the stakes are. He’s going to give you everything that he’s got. If he’s playing a game of bump and it’s against a bunch of five-year-olds, he’s going to go hard.
“He’s that kid that is always going to surprise you with the way he comes up with solutions to problems that come up in a game. He’s very creative.”
When Goncin earned a spot on the senior men’s squad this year, he became the first Paratrooper to do so. Other Paratroopers currently playing for Canadian teams include Reid Richard (men’s under-23) and Gabby Roberts-Winter and Cory Harrower (women’s under-25). Mitch Bossaer of Saskatoon’s Club ’99 is also on the men’s under-23 team. Goncin feels his success is owed in part to the time he spent with the Paratroopers.
Now, he hopes to represent his former club positively by being the best player he can be, helping Canada qualify for the Paralympics and take home gold.
Tonello feels that Goncin has great potential. He is the youngest member of the squad and will have some developing to do, but Tonello thinks that based on where Goncin’s career is at now he has the chance to achieve greatness.
“I look forward to his development in becoming a superstar,” Tonello said.
Jonathan Hamelin is a fourth-year journalism student at the University of Regina. To view more of his work, visit his website.