It has been nearly a week since my last update chronicling the team’s first ever international victory. It’s difficult for me to fathom how much has happened in those six days, but I’ll do my best to capture the major highlights among so many beautiful, unbelievable moments for all involved.
Two days after getting our first win in the 3rd place game of the tournament we played in Saregno last Sunday, we lined up at the same gym against the home team and tournament champions – the only team we hadn’t played in the tournament. In the championship game, they had beaten Torino – the team that beat us by 25 points in our first game of the tournament – by 30. We knew we would have to play at our absolute peak for the entire game if we had any chance of competing with such a strong squad.
Fortunately, we had a few things working in our favor to balance out the seeming competitive disparity between our team and Saregno. First, we had been joined at our practice that morning by Malik Abes, the head coach of Briantea84 – the Italian champions and the team that invited the Afghans to come to Italy in the first place. Malik also coaches the Swedish men’s national team, so it was an honor for us to have such an experienced and successful coach lend his insights to our team. He worked with the players on improving their shooting technique – something they desperately needed to compete on the same level as the Italian teams – and joined us on the bench as a guest assistant coach for the game. The team was also joined on the bench by an old friend – Catriona Shepherd, a former ICRC physiotherapist who had been instrumental in helping Alberto establish the wheelchair basketball program in Kabul back in 2011/2012. All the players were delighted to see a familiar face in Italy and the energy level climbed noticeably heading into the game as a result.
I gave the players a pregame speech about the need to have confidence in themselves even when playing a team that seemed stronger than them on paper; they had to know that they have the ability to beat anyone if they play to their strengths and neutralize the opponent’s primary threats. Malik suggested that one way to do this would be to utilize a full court press defense that would emphasize our speed advantage and, with proper execution, keep the ball away from Saregno’s biggest players near the basket. Even though we had barely used the press previously – I had taught a version of it in training camp, but we had only used it for a few minutes (and without much success) during the previous games – I decided to take Coach Abes’ advice and give the press a shot. The team buzzed with nervous energy and excitement heading into the opening tip; I was confident that, no matter what the end result, they were going to give every ounce of effort by the end of the game, and that’s all I could ask.
The press defense worked fantastically well (thanks, Coach!), but Saregno was more experienced, more consistent shooters, and very solid on offense and defense. They held a consistent lead throughout the game despite our team controlling the tempo with the press. Every time the Afghans would make a run to close the gap, the Italians would make several impressive plays in a row to push it back above 10 points. I could tell, though, that our relentlessness on defense was beginning to wear them down by midway through the fourth quarter, so I called a timeout to tell the team that, even though we were behind by 11 at that point, I knew we could come back if we just continued to keep our foot on the gas pedal on defense and play an unselfish offensive game. Despite the starters’ exhaustion from playing heavy minutes up to that point, they dug deep and made a string of fantastic plays to tie the game with under 30 seconds to play! I called another timeout and, sensing my stress, the gym’s old, nearly toothless custodian showed up at my side as the players retook the court and handed me a small plastic cup with what I thought was a tiny amount of water. A bit confused, but not about to turn down a chance to sooth my throat after over an hour of constantly screaming instructions at the top of my lungs, I quaffed the contents of the cup before realizing that the liquid wasn’t water, but the strongest grappa (Italian alcohol) I’d ever tasted. Whether or not an ounce of grappa had any effect on my nerves, the experience made me laugh out loud and may have prevented me from having a heart attack before the end of the game. The Afghans held strong on defense in the closing seconds and, after narrowly missing a shot at the buzzer, headed into their first ever overtime period.
Running on fumes, the starters still managed to control the extra period with defense and knocked down just enough shots to eke out a two point overtime victory. Whew!!! I didn’t think we could play a game that had my heart pounding more than our first win had, but given the level of the competition and the relentless pace of our play (and need to play nearly perfectly the entire game to have a chance), I felt like collapsing on the court as the final buzzer sounded. We congratulated our opponents on a fantastic game and joined them for a locker room party with cake and soda, during which they presented our team with a signed, framed photo of their roster as a keepsake. They said playing us was a seminal moment for them as a team and they hoped we would remember them as long as they would remember us. It was an incredibly generous and classy gesture. I hope we get a chance to return to Italy sometime in the not-too-distant future to face them again.
The day after our epic battle with Saregno (the game lasted so long that the cranky owner of our team hotel refused to serve us dinner when we returned, so everyone went to bed hungry as well as utterly exhausted), we took a boat tour of Lake Como – one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen and a natural scene unlike anything the players had ever even dreamed of. The lake was so clear and inviting that, when we made a stop on the island of Bellagio, Saber braved the cold mountain water and jumped in for an impromptu swim.
Enjoying nature with Basir on Lake Como with a dynamite photo bomb by Habib
That evening, Alberto and I left the hotel to return to his house in Milan, where we would be picking up my wife, Lindy, at the airport the following morning. Lindy was arriving just in time for the team’s final game on Thursday the 29th, this one against Malik Abes’ Briantea84 team at the famed Mapooro Arena – a Mecca for decades of professional Italian basketball – in Cantú. Alberto and I took a brief stroll through the historic center of Milan on Wednesday evening, during which he got a phone call from an unknown number. He answered the caller’s salutation with what seemed like incredulity based on my very limited Italian. It turned out to be a call from Alberto’s childhood hero, Pierlouigi Marzorati, the greatest point guard in the history of Italian basketball, who had found out about Alberto’s work with Afghan wheelchair basketball players and called to ask if he could meet Alberto at the following night’s game. Alberto was nearly speechless as he relayed the contents of the call to me after hanging up – this was like if Magic Johnson called my cell phone to say hello and ask to meet me. What an honor!
We picked Lindy up the following morning and made our way back to the team hotel in Seveso to prepare for the night’s game – by far the biggest we’d played yet. When we arrived at the arena, over 1,000 spectators were taking their seats, along with several more faces from the Afghan team’s past – two other former ICRC physiotherapists, Vivienne and Maria, had joined Catriona and Lindy to form the team’s small-but-vocal cheering section. There was also a large contingent of local and international media, including the BBC’s and Al Jazeera’s world services, all wanting to talk to the players about their experience in Italy. This was all coupled with loud rock music blaring from the arena’s PA system to create an atmosphere far more raucous and chaotic than anything the Afghans had ever experienced on a basketball court before. Then there was the Briantea84 team –taller, more athletic, and more disciplined than any of the teams we had faced up to that point. It was clear why they had won the championship two years running in Italy’s top division.
The team breaks the pregame huddle and takes the court against Briantea84 at Mapooro Arena
The game itself kicked off with a predictably dominant performance by Briantea84, which built a 24 point lead by halftime. Our players were a bit unsure how to handle the speed, coordination, precise shooting, and massive size advantage of the host team. I took them outside the arena (the only place where I could make myself heard enough to give them a pep talk) to let them know that they still had one half to play and, regardless of the final score, I wanted them to finish the last game of this trip with the kind of intensity and focus I knew they had. “Forget the score,” I told them. “just play the way you know how and make yourselves and your country proud.”
Following an emotional halftime presentation of a personalized sweatshirt and a book on the history of Italian basketball to Alberto by Pierlouigi Marzorati, the team came out with a vengeance and, against all odds, outscored Briantea by eight points in the third quarter! The crowd, all devoted fans of the home team, screamed their support of the Afghans as the arena shook with cheers. The final score of the game may have been lopsided in favor of the Italian team, but everyone present caught a glimpse of the great potential of this new team from Afghanistan and became converted fans in the process. The Afghan players were able to see that, despite not ending their trip with a win, they had made massive improvement over the course of the 11 day trip and could rightly consider the experience a great victory overall.
Alberto and me with Italian basketball legend, Pierlouigi Marzorati
My favorite moment of the evening came after the game ended, when the crowd flooded onto the court. As I searched for Lindy in the press of people and news cameras, I stumbled upon an amazing sight – Mohammadullah, the team’s quietest player and the one who had the most difficulty adjusting to Italian life, surrounded by children asking him to sign his name on their arms! He was smiling shyly and complying for everyone who asked.
The famous Mohammadullah
The morning following the Briantea game, the team was booked to put on a brief demo at the annual Paralympic Sport Day in Cantú, before heading to the airport to return home. None of us were terribly excited to be playing early that morning after such an exhausting game that went very late the night before, but when we arrived at the sports hall for the event, we found it packed to the rafters with over 3,000 screaming schoolchildren chanting for the Afghans and doing the wave to welcome us. We were split into two teams – orange and green – and the arena exploded in cheers with every made basket by either team. The players, so tired just moments before taking the court, fed off the energy of the crowd and put on a fantastic show for the gathered throng. One group of teenage girls was overheard by Alberto saying, in Italian, “the players on the green team are SO handsome!” These are people who were thought of by their fellow Afghans – and most of whom thought of themselves – as nobodies just a few short years ago, and now they were being treated like celebrities in a foreign country!
The players close out the trip with an exhibition in front of 3,000 new fans!
At the airport following the exhibition, we said a tearful but happy goodbye as the players rolled away toward their homeward flight, each of us realizing that this experience was something that will change all our lives, and one none of us will ever forget.
The players, Alberto, and I say farewell to our temporary Italian family – our great hosts from Briantea84 and the Italian Army contingent that transported us around Northern Italy for the past week.