My first coaching trip to India is a wrap. Before making this journey, knowing it would only be six days long with so many new athletes, coaches and places packed into such a short time (not to mention a 12 ½ hour time difference to deal with), I assumed the trip would be over before I was aware it had even begun. The reality couldn’t have been farther from the truth; I had such wonderful interactions with the groups of players, coaches, and administrators in each city – and they were all so eager and grateful to learn – that nearly every hour felt like a singular fulfilling experience unto itself.

After leaving Delhi, I flew to the western city of Pune, where a rehabilitation center for Indian army soldiers with spinal cord injuries has had a “team” of wheelchair basketball players for a couple years. Heading into the two-day training camp, I didn’t have any idea what to expect – the Pune court was the only one that, due to tight security protocols, hadn’t been visited by any of my colleagues who are working to set up a pan-Indian league. I was interested in seeing how advanced the Pune players would be, given that they are the only group in the country that’s been playing for more than six months at this point, and curious about the collective personality of a group of paraplegic ex-soldier basketball players.

As has been the case with every new team with which I’ve worked in every country to which I’ve traveled over the last five years, the Pune group was absolutely delightful personally and pretty rough from a technical basketball perspective. While I assumed the main vestige of their military service would be gruff, formal personalities, the only real difference from other groups I’ve trained was their ability to focus and learn new, foreign concepts and drills extremely quickly. With only two days to train 22 players (and no other foreign coaches with whom to divide teaching responsibilities), I knew I’d have to move quickly in order to give them any level of improved knowledge and facility. Luckily for me, they were probably the most astute first-time students I’ve seen yet. From individual skills to team defensive and offensive concepts, they followed directions precisely and showed a ton of progress over the short clinic.

The team was so gracious as well, thanking me profusely throughout the two days for making the journey to teach them. They even gave me with a model-sized metal tank (their colonel said when presenting it to me, “This is a token of our love and appreciation… It is a tank because we are army.”) – definitely the most adorably aggressive (aggressively adorable?) thank you gift I’ve ever received.

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Thank you tank

A major advantage the Pune team will have moving forward is a fantastic core of coaches, led by two former national-level able-bodied basketball players, Sharad and Suwana. They are still learning the wheelchair-specific aspects of the game, but are fantastic motivators and highly knowledgeable about basketball in general. Having high-level players from outside the disabled community so involved will be a huge boon to promoting and developing the game in the future.

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The Pune coaching staff along with Roberto Ciccone (right) of ICRC India

I was joined in Pune by the president of the new Wheelchair Basketball Federation of India, Madhavi Latha. Madhavi is an amazing person who has taken up the cause of building this game into both a country-wide league available to all disabled athletes and an international-level competitive program that will eventually represent India in competitions with other countries. She is a truly inspiring person who, having suffered as a child from severe polio and nearly losing her life to complications from the disease and a sedentary lifestyle, took up swimming in her late 30s to improve her condition without resorting to high-risk surgery. She has since become a national-level competitive swimmer and is now leading the wheelchair basketball charge by convening a huge group of stakeholders throughout the country to spread, fund, and grow the sport as quickly as possible throughout India. She is a truly impressive personality that, I have no doubt, will use her perseverance and ingenuity to lead Indian wheelchair basketball to great heights.

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Madhavi Latha, President of the WBFI

10 days from now, the few existing teams from around India will gather in Chennai for the country’s first national championship tournament. While previous commitments meant I had to leave India before the tournament, I know it will be a fantastic experience for all involved. Best of luck to the players, their coaches, and everyone who has helped to make this first major step in Indian wheelchair basketball a reality!

I arrived in India three days ago on my first trip to the second most populous country in the world. The three days I’ve spent so far feel like they’ve been packed with several weeks’ worth of teaching wonderful new players, meeting and working with fantastic, dedicated people, and seeing all the potential of a highly successful national wheelchair basketball program in its relative infancy. I will only be in India for six days, but in that time I’ll work with players in three cities in three different states located in three different corners of the country – Delhi in the north, Pune in the southwest, and Chennai in the southeast.

I just finished my first clinic in the capital city of Delhi and things are off to a great start. I had the pleasure of coaching two groups of players, all brand new to the game – 18 men and women at the Indian Spinal Injuries Center, and eight boys and girls at the Amar Jyoti Research & Rehabilitation Centre – and they were all fantastic, enthusiastic students. Seeing the excitement of the young kids was particularly powerful; even though they’re barely strong enough to get a ball up to the basket at this point, they still attacked the game (and their opponents!) with gusto. One girl in particular, Reika, had a competitive fire unlike any I’ve seen in a kid that young (I believe she’s 10) playing sports for the first time. I can already see that she has the potential to be a top player for her country and can tell from her intensity that she’ll work as hard as she needs to in order to make that happen!

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Teaching the kids at the Amar Jyoti Research Center, including future star, Reika (sitting to my right)

This has also been my first coaching trip on which I’ve had the opportunity to work with other international coaches – Mark Walker from Australia, Aram Voerman from the Netherlands, Mike Rosenkrantz from the U.S. (via Nepal) all joined me for the two days of training in Delhi – and with Manoj Soma, the president of Choice International (a UK-based nonprofit focused on sport development) and the organizer of all the wheelchair basketball activities happening at a series of different events over the next two weeks. Working with all these highly-dedicated, talented people was a ton of fun and allowed the new players to move more much quickly than they would have with a single coach trying to teach all of them.

On the second day of the Delhi clinics, we concluded the training with two highly entertaining scrimmage games. The first had with the kids break up into two teams and join Mark, Aram, Manoj and me for a game in front of all the adult players and volunteers from the Spinal Injury Center. I very rarely get the chance play with any of my students when I’m working as a coach, and I’m so glad I had the opportunity to do so with those kids. They were SO excited to be playing on the court with us and loved performing in front of the crowd of spectators. I didn’t stop smiling the entire game.

The second game was between two teams made up of the best players from the adult training sessions, and was attended by members of the media, representatives from the ICRC (which has helped to fund and organize these events), and others. Mark and I each coached one of the teams, and the energy was fantastic.

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Competition! (photo courtesy of ICRC)

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Post-training photo opp with a few of the Delhi players and volunteers

We followed the training sessions by holding a symposium-style meeting with a couple dozen stakeholders from organizations all over India, including the Indian Paralympic Committee, the Wheelchair Basketball Federation of India, and the ICRC, along with many other organizations and individuals dedicated to expanding adaptive sports here. I was very encouraged by the seriousness and pragmatism with which the meeting participants approached developing wheelchair basketball in India, and can envision the sport expanding rapidly given the commitment of the people involved.

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Speaking to the gathered symposium attendees about the potential of wheelchair basketball in India

Today I fly to Pune to conduct another two-day training session, this one for disabled members of the Indian military, and look forward to meeting and working with another group of new students!

The epic four-day Afghanistan Men’s National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament for Fall 2014 just concluded. While all the tournaments we’ve held here since the first one in 2012 have been unbelievable, inspiring, memorable experiences, this one may have topped them all. Between a massive across-the-board improvement in the level of play since the spring tournament just six months ago, rapidly increasing parity among the teams, and a some unbelievable underdog storylines playing out as if scripted in a movie, the drama of this tournament will be hard to top. I’ll set the stage with a brief background on each of the six teams to give some context to the incredible way the tournament unfolded.

Kabul
The first wheelchair basketball tournament in Afghanistan was a 3-on-3 competition in 2012 that featured eight teams from four provinces – one from Maimana, one from Herat, two from Mazar, and four from Kabul. The Kabul teams, which were the newest at the time, combined to go winless during the tournament. The following year, in our first 5-on-5 tournament, they improved enough to take second place to Mazar. In May 2014 they completed their evolution by winning their first national championship in front of a raucous home crowd. Six players from that Kabul team went on to play for the men’s national team that played its first international competition in Italy in June. The experiences they had there had a profound impact on Kabul’s level of play, as the players who went to Italy brought back many new techniques and strategies to their team which, coming off its championship run in the spring, looked even more unstoppable on the first day of this tournament, winning its first three games in convincing fashion.

Kandahar
The team from Kandahar is physically the biggest (seriously, these guys are huge) in Afghanistan, but also the least polished. They have finished fifth out of six teams in each of the two tournaments since the team was formed two years ago, getting by primarily on strength, confidence, and sheer size. This year they made a definite leap forward in their grasp of the intellectual side of basketball, improving their teamwork and defense. They also have a new coach who grew up in Toronto and has a solid grasp of basketball fundamentals – that’s been a great influence for all of them, even though the coach is new to the wheelchair version of the game.

Herat
The Herat team was the third formed in Afghanistan and has always been solid, but has never won a championship or made it to the finals of a national tournament. Last year they took third place and, like Kabul, built on the experiences three of their players had in Italy to make major improvements since the spring of this year. Herat also has several young players that are starting to come into their own and have the team positioned to do great things in the coming years.

Mazar-i-Sharif
Mazar is in the most difficult position of all the teams. Four players managed to escape during our trip to Italy and defect to other European countries. Three of those players were from Mazar, leaving only one national team member to return to the country’s original wheelchair basketball team to commence with an unforeseen rebuilding process. That player, Basir, was a starter for the national team, but is a class 1.0, meaning he had to take over the primary scoring role for the team despite having the least physical function (speed, quickness, balance, etc.) due to his disability. He is a good leader and a natural on the court, but it was clear that Mazar had been set back a long way by the loss of three of its four best players. Luckily it too has a few young athletes with a lot of promise – they just need a bit more work to hone their games and become the on-court leaders the team needs to return to the form that won it a national championship in 2013.

Maimana
The first team I coached in Afghanistan, the Maimana team won the country’s first national championship (the aforementioned 3-on-3 tournament) despite being from the smallest city, having the least funding, and pulling its players from a relatively tiny talent pool. The team’s top players all started playing together in their mid-to-late teens when I first came to Afghanistan in 2009. Despite developing into some of the country’s best athletes over the past few years, and featuring Afghanistan’s best player in its captain, Shahpoor, Maimana was unable to duplicate its early success. It finished fourth in 2013 and second in the Spring 2014 tournament. In a crushing blow to the team’s hopes of returning to the top of Afghan wheelchair basketball, Shahpoor was the fourth national team player to defect, leaving the team from the little northern town to pick up the pieces and try to carry on without its leader.

Jalalabad
Since its first foray into wheelchair basketball in 2013, the team from Jalalabad has struggled mightily to keep up with the rest of the league. Coming into this tournament, Jalalabad had never won or tied a game against any of the other provincial teams, leading to them finishing last in both tournaments in which they’d previously competed. Along with Kandahar, they were the team with which I spent three days of focused time to help them step forward in their development in advance of the tournament. While our brief training camp was good, there were still major holes in the team’s game that I worried may prevent them from improving on their previous finishing positions. Despite this nagging doubt, I really hoped they would find a way to get their first win, as I knew it would mean the world to them to finally taste even a small degree of success.

The Tournament – Day 1
The first day of the tournament went generally as expected, with only minor surprises. Kabul, as previously mentioned, looked a step or two ahead of everyone in winning its first three games behind a coordinated team effort led by Belal, a young player who got his athletic start by becoming the first star disabled skateboarder at the famous Skateistan, and has now taken over as the primary scorer for the Kabul team.

Jalalabad played better than it had in the past, but still lost its first two games to Maimana and Herat. Mazar also lost its first two games and looked a bit lost without its departed star players.
Herat looked surprisingly strong behind the noticeable improvement of one of its oldest players – Sayed Habib, who was the driving force behind the team adopting the techniques and strategies he’d learned in Italy – and one of its youngest – Nazir, a tall single leg amputee who went from being promising at the tournament six months ago (only a few months after he’d started playing) to offensively dominant in the team’s first few games of this competition.

The big revelation from the first day, however, was the team from Maimana. They won their first three games easily, behind the kind of coordinated team effort that had eluded them when Shahpoor was on the team and serving as the focal point of both the offense and the defense. I hoped they would find a way to combine their respective skills to fill the hole left by his absence, but didn’t expect it to happen so soon or so convincingly. They looked like the second best team behind Kabul after day one, with Herat closely behind.

The Tournament – Day 2
If the first day of games contained a few pleasant surprises, the second was a complete shock to the system for one reason. Jalalabad not only won its first game ever – defeating Kandahar in a closely contested battle that saw one of the team’s youngest players, Wasim, emerge as a force that the entire team could rally behind – but tied its other two! Jalalabad’s second tie, and the last game of the day, was against the previously invincible-looking team from Kabul. In a single day, the Jalalabad team went from losing every game it had ever played to tying the previous two national champions (Mazar being the other) AND winning its first game in the same day.

Kabul stumbled in the second day, losing handily to Maimana – which would finish the first round undefeated – before tying Jalalabad. It was clear that, while the Kabul team was the deepest and most polished, it had a difficult time responding to momentum shifts in its opponents’ favor and tended to play its lineup choices very safe – leading to the same five players playing entire games despite having a wealth of talent on its bench.

The Tournament – Day 3
The third day of the tournament saw the teams play quarterfinal and semifinal games to determine the matchups for the 3rd place and championship showdowns the following morning. Maimana and Kabul, as the top two teams in the first round, received automatic byes to the semifinals, while Jalalabad/Kandahar and Herat/Mazar faced off for the right to challenge them.

Herat proved too much for the weakened Mazar team and won its quarterfinal easily, scoring over 50 points for the first time in any Afghanistan tournament game and setting up a semifinal matchup with Kabul. Jalalabad and Kandahar, on the other hand, was much more competitive. Kandahar had dominated this matchup in past years, but Jalalabad built on its victory the previous day and, behind several clutch plays at the end of the game, willed itself to another win. For the first time in its brief history, Jalalabad would go to the semifinals and play for a medal!

In the first semifinal game, Kabul and Herat played each other closely well into the second half, but Kabul managed to put together just enough plays to eke out a close victory and a trip to the championship game. In the second game – which everyone watching fully expected the to-that-point unstoppable Maimana team to win with relative ease – Jalalabad came out with unbelievable confidence and a vise-like defense to nearly steal the victory. However, after several phenomenal last-minute lead changes – including an amazing three point play (a scored basket during a foul, followed by a free throw) by Wasim with under 30 seconds to go – Maimana’s Sakhi knocked down a long range two point shot with just five seconds to play that sealed Maimana’s trip to a championship rematch with Kabul. Jalalabad would finish its remarkable tournament run by playing Herat for the third place trophy.

The Tournament – Day 4
The Jalalabad/Herat game to decide the third place finisher was the best-played, closest game we’ve ever had in Afghanistan. It was back-and-forth the entire way, with no team holding a lead of more than five points and constant momentum shifts. It was the kind of game I was honored to be officiating, but also wishing I could just watch and enjoy from the sidelines. Herat played as well as it had all tournament, but Jalalabad simply wouldn’t allow itself to be beaten. Wasim was again the fulcrum on which the team balanced, and made every key play the Jalalabad team needed to stay in the game until the end. Clutch play after clutch play on both sides ended with Sayed Habib coming off the bench to give Herat a one point lead on a long perimeter shot with 20 seconds to go, followed by Wasim fighting his way to the rim and scoring with just seconds to play, securing an unbelievable victory for Jalalabad. The scene that followed was pandemonium. Players from all the other teams rushed the court to congratulate the delirious Jalalabad team, while players, coaches, fans (including my longtime colleague and friend, Verbena from Italy, their number one supporter since the team’s first tournament), and even their American coach, shed tears all over the court. It was a moment none of us will never forget.

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Wasim of Jalalabad hits a pressure-packed shot to give his team the one point win over Herat (All Photos by Enrique of the ICRC)

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Jalalabad players (in black) celebrate their victory with the team from Kabul

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Jalalabad’s number one fan, Verbena, sheds tears of joy following their 3rd place finish

It was impossible to imagine that the championship game could live up to the drama and exultation of Jalalabad’s triumph, but I should know by now that if there is one thing I can count on with Afghan wheelchair basketball players, it’s that they will always find a way to shock me. With a huge crowd watching and multiple TV networks filming the action, Maimana shot out to an early lead, shutting down Kabul’s offense and scoring seemingly at will in the opening minutes. A small-but-extremely-vocal contingent of fans from their home province of Faryab banged drums and screamed non-stop in support of their team, drowning out the hundreds of spectators that had gathered to root for Kabul. However, the home team fought off the early onslaught and worked its way back behind stellar a stellar performance by Saber, another national team starter who shook off a slump from the previous two games to carry his team back into the game. The two teams fought wire-to-wire during the second half, with the offenses gathering momentum as the game went along and leading to a furious finish with each team scoring and the other countering as the final minutes ticked down. Maimana rode a series of clutch free throws, including the game-tying and winning shots by its youngest player – Haroon – to a shocking upset of the defending champions. This time, instead of tears, the court was covered with fans and players (including those from other teams!) joining in a circle to dance to the beat of the Faryab drum. The atmosphere was pure jubilation, and I found myself fighting through the crowd to hug each player in turn and congratulate them on what they’d just accomplished.

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Ramazan from Maimana, the tournament’s Most Valuable Player, drives through a crowd of Kabul defenders

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Maimana’s musical cheering section

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Sakhi prepares Haroon for the biggest free throws of his life

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Haroon hits the game winner

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Players and fans storm the court to rejoice in Maimana’s championship win

It’s hard to say which was more improbable – Jalalabad going from winless to 3rd place in a single tournament or Maimana overcoming the loss of its (and the country’s) best player to win a national title a mere six months after his departure – but those two things happening simultaneously made this the best, most exciting wheelchair basketball tournament in Afghanistan’s history… so far, anyway.

Following the women’s national tournament, I partnered with the Afghanistan Paralympic Committee to finalize the selection of the country’s first national women’s wheelchair basketball team, which I then spent the next few days coaching as part of their first training camp. We had named the initial 10 members of the team in May of this year, and chose the final two, plus three alternates, on October 31st. The naming of the team is a major landmark for women with disabilities in Afghanistan – it was something difficult to even imagine being a cultural possibility just two years ago – and was a thrill for all involved. However, as the person charged with selecting the team, it meant I had to make some very difficult choices.

The teams from each province – women’s and men’s – are represented by 10 players when we hold national championship tournaments in Kabul (there are far more players in most provinces, but only the top 10 make the teams that travel for tournaments). This means that, with womens’ teams in only three provinces, the national team is composed of half of the total tournament participants. On one hand, it’s great to be able to convey such an honor on a large percentage of the players. On the other, it means those not selected feel a very acute sense of disappointment upon hearing the names of the team members announced.

Both with the women and the men, I have a close personal tie to every player that competes in the national tournaments. I’m their teacher, their coach, their referee, and their friend. I’ve been working with many of them for years, since some were barely more than children, and in almost every case, introduced them to the first and only sport they’ve ever played. So when I select the national teams, the excitement of acknowledging the success of those make it is tempered a bit by sadness for those who just miss the cut.

Given how far these players have come in such a short time, it’s often easy to forget that they didn’t have the formative athletic experiences that inform our reactions to the regular ups and downs of sports. Not winning a game or not being selected for a team is hard for any competitor; I’ve experienced both many times in my life and it is always painful, even as an adult. But for players for whom wheelchair basketball has become their identity – the first thing for which many of them have ever received real positive recognition – it can feel much bigger than those of us who grew up learning how to win and lose from an early age can possibly understand. Most of the Kabul players were in tears following their loss to Mazar in the women’s championship game. One of the players who wasn’t selected for the national team came to me and, with her eyes downcast, asked why I thought she was a bad player. It’s hard to know what to say in these situations. I try to be as patient and compassionate as possible when dealing with their disappointment, but ultimately I understand that this is a painful-but-necessary part of the learning process for all of them… and for me.

All the above-mentioned evolutionary challenges aside, I had a wonderful time conducting the national team training camp for the women. They made amazing progress in just four practices, their attitudes were great, and I am so excited for the chance to see them travel abroad to experience international competition for the first time (hopefully sometime in 2015!).

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Afghanistan’s first women’s national wheelchair basketball team

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Running the national team through a speed and endurance workout

Following the women’s national team training camp, I’ve spent the last three days training the teams from Jalalabad and Kandahar (the two newest men’s teams in the country) in advance of the national tournament this week. It’s been a pleasure – and a laugh riot – to coach these guys, as always. I wish them both the best of luck!

Mohammad Shah from Kandahar
Following a grueling three hour training session, Mohammad Shah from Kandahar – one of the strongest (and sweetest!) guys I’ve ever met – decided to climb the ladder to the gymnasium balcony… while strapped into his basketball wheelchair… then hung by one arm for almost a minute to pose for photos. Wow.

Yesterday, October 29th, was the five year anniversary of my first day in Afghanistan. I remember landing here in 2009 with nothing but a rough hand-drawn map to get me through the airport and out to the parking lot several hundred yards away where I’d be meeting my contact, Chris Drew. The first thing Chris told me once I found him was that the UN compound near the guesthouse where we’d be staying that night was attacked by the Taliban a few hours before and multiple foreigners were killed. That night, just moments after going to bed in Afghanistan for the first time while wondering if I had gotten myself in over my head, an earthquake shook Kabul, ensuring beyond a doubt that I wouldn’t sleep a minute that night. After the inauspicious arrival, I boarded a military flight the following morning before dawn along with a mixed detachment of European soldiers (and an all-girl Norwegian rock band that was doing a tour of Afghan military bases – seriously!) and flew north to the town of Maimana to begin what has since become a life-consuming wheelchair basketball coaching adventure.

The 29th was also the final of the first women’s wheelchair basketball tournament in Afghanistan to feature more than two teams (sort of the bare minimum for calling a competition a “tournament,” not that we’ve let that stop us in the past). The team from Herat – only two and a half months old at this point – joined the existing squads from Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif to play in front of crowds that swelled to over 200 people and included at least a half dozen local and international news crews. It’s hard to believe that a mere two years ago, the female players wouldn’t allow themselves to be seen practicing by non-family members. Now they present themselves with confidence and poise in front of television cameras and screaming crowds alike.
Unfortunately for Herat, no amount of grace under pressure can make up for the experience deficiency they were working against when playing Mazar and Kabul. The lost both their games by wide margins, but made progress and got their first taste of high level competition. They’ll be in much better shape in the spring with a few more months of practice under their belts.

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Mazar and Herat battle in the tournament’s opening round (AFP Photo/Shah Marai)

The first game of the tournament, a back-and-forth affair between Kabul and Mazar, ended in a nail-biting one point victory by Mazar. The final between the two teams the following day shaped up to be another barn burner. Kabul came out strong, taking an early lead and looking ready to avenge their earlier loss while recapturing the national title Mazar had taken from them in May. However, Mazar made a series of hustle plays that resulted in tough scores and, before anyone could blink, the momentum of the game had shifted dramatically in its favor.

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Nuria of team Mazar chases down a loose ball in the final against Kabul (AFP Photo/Shah Marai)

The game between two very equally-matched teams ultimately came down to a test of wills. Mazar refused to be cowed by Kabul’s early dominance, and when it took the lead back, Kabul’s players looked confused and rattled. While playing in front of a raucous home crowd can be a definite competitive advantage, it can also add pressure, particularly to players relatively new to competitive sports. I could see the fear on the faces of the Kabul players as Mazar widened its lead in the second half, not wanting to disappoint their local fans. Mazar built upon its comeback and, by the second half, was scoring at will. Kabul’s players never recovered, and Mazar took home its second consecutive championship trophy, winning by over 20 points.

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Mazar players celebrate their victory. (AFP Photo/Shah Marai)

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Post championship photo opp with tournament Most Valuable Player, Ferishta, and Mazar coach, Basir

Kabul’s team was taller, more polished, and just as fast as its opponent, but Mazar simply wouldn’t accept defeat. I know the Kabul players (as well as those from Herat) will learn from Mazar’s example and bring a deeper resolve to their next competition.

Among the many media outlets to cover the tournament, the Associated Foreign Press published an article that has appeared in dozens of publications worldwide, and also posted a brief video on the tournament. Congratulations to all the players – the world is starting to hear your story!!

Hello from Kabul! Things are off to a fast start here at the beginning of my first fall trip to Afghanistan since my first visit back in November 2009. After arriving the evening of Thursday October 23rd, we kicked right into a two-practices-per-day training camp with the brand new Herat women’s wheelchair basketball team the following morning. I was so excited to finally get the chance to coach a new women’s team here – the first to have been formed in almost three years – and the players were every bit as enthusiastic, focused, and wonderful to work with as I could have hoped.

The Herat team was just formed in early August, so they’ve only been playing basketball for a little over two months. However, their coaches, Said Habib and Said Eqbal of the Afghanistan men’s national team, have done a tremendous job instructing them in the fundamentals of the game. The women showed up to our training camp with the beginnings of what I can tell will be strong skills in the very near future. I was able to work in skill development and drills that I normally would reserve for players with much more experience, which is a testament to both their natural talent and drive and their coaches’ focus on getting them started playing the game the right way.

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Teaching the Herat women with the help of Coach Said Habib (center), and trusty Kabul team mechanic, Mirza – photo by Kabir Khoshbin

The Herat team is eagerly looking forward to playing in their first national tournament, starting tomorrow morning, and I can’t wait to see them put their newly-learned skills to work on a public stage with real competition. It’s going to be a big challenge for them to face the much more experienced teams from Kabul and Mazar, but they have no fear and I know they’ll make their coaches, families and city proud!
It’s amazing for me to see the organized spread of wheelchair basketball expertise really starting to take shape here. Now that we have over 300 men’s and women’s players in Afghanistan, the structure of developing Afghan coaches, referees, administrators, and experts – all part of the plan from the beginning to build a local knowledge base that can grow the league from within the country – is becoming increasingly necessary, as the sport’s expansion has reached a point that I can only work with a relatively small subsection of the player population each time I come.

While I do feel a slight twinge of nostalgia for the early days when I could coach each player in Afghanistan directly, it is so gratifying to see the fantastic, dedicated teachers so many of the early players have become, and how fast the next generation is progressing as a result of their forebears’ tutelage. I had the chance to observe a Kabul men’s team practice two nights ago as they prepared for their upcoming national tournament, and was blown away both by how much the players have grown – even those members of the national team I just coached in Italy less than six months ago – and by how well-structured and creative the coaching was. Seeing my teaching handed down and expanded upon with enthusiasm and confidence was the best kind of pride I can imagine feeling.

There are so many people who have played a part in all the success wheelchair basketball is having in Afghanistan, but I have to specifically acknowledge Alberto Cairo for all the time, dedication, structure and love he has put into this game every day since we started working together back in 2011. None of this amazing progress would have been possible without his guiding hand moving things forward here in the country day in and day out. I am eternally grateful that our paths crossed when they did, and that we’ve been able to work together to make our mutual dream – one we now share with so many here – a reality.

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From left: Alberto, Shir Pashah (who braved a torrential rain storm to meet me at the airport for the third year in a row – thanks, Shir!), Kabul men’s head coach Fayaz, and Kabul men’s team and national team player Safi – Photo by Kabir Khoshbin

I just returned home from my first training camp in Palestine. What a tremendous way to finish an epic two months. It was a fantastic experience, and I felt an instant bond with the people there. Palestinians, like the Afghans and Cambodians I’ve come to know so well, are warm, welcoming people with dynamic personalities that endeared me to them immediately. They also have great senses of humor, which allowed us to bond very quickly.

The clinic was organized by the Palestinian Paralympic Committee’s secretary general, Ehsan Idkaidek, who has been at the forefront of a recent resurrection of wheelchair basketball in the country since it disappeared during the second Intifada in 2000. Ehsan, whose disability (polio) is too severe for him to play wheelchair basketball himself, is a natural leader who has the intelligence and strength of will to reinvigorate disability sports in the country after a decade without them. In addition to being the Paralympic secretary general, Ehsan also sits on the board of a local sports club in Ramallah, which hosted the training camp.

In a remarkable small world moment, another member of the club’s board, Nader, who served as my interpreter during my stay, perfected his English while getting a bachelor’s degree at Portland State University. What are the odds that I’d travel all the way to the West Bank and end up working with someone who lived in my hometown?? As a result of his time living in Portland in the early 90s, Nader is also a fellow die-hard Blazer fan! Amazing.

The thing that separated this clinic from those I’ve conducted previously was that half the players had been playing wheelchair basketball for at least five years, with many having started in the mid-90s when the game first came to Palestine. All of them stopped from 2000 to around 2009 due to the Intifada, but the experience and knowledge level of several of the older players was much higher than the foreign players I’ve coached in the past. The other half of the players, however, had just started playing the game, with many never having sat in a chair before the first day of the clinic.This presented a unique challenge, since I needed to create completely different training plans for the two halves of the player pool to ensure each developed at its appropriate level, while finding ways to involve each group in both morning and afternoon sessions.

Luckily, I had access to several assistant coaches – some of whom were among the pool of experienced players, while others were high-level able bodied basketball players or other athletes who graciously volunteered to get involved in teaching and promoting the game. The coaches did a great job helping to ensure the younger players mastered the basics of the game during the more advanced training sessions for the experienced players. As a result of being able to learn new skills in the afternoon with me, then reinforce those skills with the assistant coaches the following morning, the new players’ learning curves were amazingly steep. A few of the young players struggled to push their wheelchairs at the beginning of the first day – literally getting once around the court was a huge ordeal. By the end of just three days of training, though, they had all advanced to the point of being able to effectively shoot, pass, dribble and play defense, and some of them were even pushing toward being included in the advanced group by the afternoon of the last day.

On the final day, we broke the players up into four teams mixed between experienced and new players and held a day-long tournament. As always, inserting the players into a competitive environment brought out the best in everyone. The tournament was attended by members of the U.S. Consulate, which provided funding for the clinic, as well as the Paralympic Committee, Palestinian military representatives, and other local dignitaries. It was a hugely positive day that concluded with awards being presented and players lining up to give high fives and hugs to their new American coach as we wished each other goodbye and good luck.

Palestine is in a very difficult political situation right now, but it was a true privilege to get to participate in an experience that brought nothing but happiness and excitement to all involved. Many thanks to Ehsan, his colleagues, and all the players for making me feel so at home so quickly. I look forward to returning to help them continue building their program as soon as possible.

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Said, one of the new players in the group, developed a nasty blister on the palm of his right hand during the three days of training. I told him to tape it before the tournament. This is what he came back with.

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Enjoying a Palestinian meal with (from left) the country’s best player, Khalid, Paralympic Sercretary General Ehsan, and fellow Blazer fanatic NaderImage
Visiting the old city of Jerusalem with my friend and ICRC colleague, Paul Salvanes, with whom I lived for a short time last year in Jalalabad, Afghanistan

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In an impressive feat, zero out of 35 people look at the camera during a posed photo with the tournament champions after the presentation of their medals

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