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

Many thanks to Erika and Alberto Pessina, a great pair of Italian photographers, for sharing with me a few of their wonderful shots from the game between Afghanistan and Briantea84 on May 29th.

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ImageBriantea’s distinct height advantage, coupled with very skilled players across the roster, proved difficult for the Afghans to deal with at the beginning of the game.

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But the team refused to be intimidated and, as Mohammadullah (15) shows here, fought back with effort and focus

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Saber (9) and Wasiqullah (13) adopted starring roles against Briatnea84, leading the team to a stirring 3rd quarter comeback

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Even in a loss, the team showed what it is capable of when playing its best against top competition. The future is bright.

 

I deliberately left out one important event in my recent wrap-up of the Afghanistan team’s trip to Italy. I did this because I wanted to keep the focus on the fantastic experiences we all had together, the amazing development of the team in such a short time, and the courage and will the players displayed throughout our slate of games. However, it wouldn’t be a faithful recounting without mentioning one very difficult, very disappointing issue we dealt with, nor would it do proper justice to the team’s strength in overcoming this issue to play as well as they did in their final game against Briantea84.

The night before the Briantea game, after everyone had gone to bed, four players – Shahpoor, Mojeeb, Nasrullah, and Said Mohammad – walked out of the team hotel and never came back. When it was discovered the following morning that they were gone, everyone was immediately concerned for their safety. No one knew where they had gone or if they had gotten lost or into some sort of trouble that prevented them from returning to the hotel. Their Afghan mobile phones didn’t work in Italy, so there was no way to contact them to find out what happened. As the day went on and more details were discovered, however, it became clear that they had left the team voluntarily with the intent to stay in Europe rather than return to Afghanistan following the conclusion of the trip.

These were four of our top players. More importantly, though, they were part of our family. Every member of the team – as well as the coaches – was dealt a huge blow by their defection. Did we understand why they would want to stay in Europe? Of course. However, leaving the team without notice on the eve of its biggest game – turning their backs on all its collective potential in service of furthering their individual agendas – was a very difficult pill to swallow.

As the day wore on with no word from the missing players and the game against Briantea84 looming closer, we had to make a decision. Could we put this painful situation aside and play the best game we were capable of in spite of it? Given the number of spectators and media coming to the game and the massive amount of work Briantea’s staff had done to bring our team to Italy and promote the evening’s main event, we had to find a way. The team gathered and, to a man, agreed that we would do our best to put the issue out of our minds for the coming hours and focus on doing everything we could to make Afghanistan proud.

I’m without words to describe the kinship and pride I feel toward the remaining players of the team for what they were able to accomplish in the face of such a challenge. Though they may not have won the game, they played like champions and, in every player’s case, brought their games to a new level in response to the added pressure of having to adopt on-court leadership roles that had been primarily handled by the departed players up to that point. The Italian crowd fell in love with them immediately and cheered for the Afghans just as hard as they cheered for their hometown team. The scene following the final buzzer – a sea of Italian fans swarming onto the court to ask the Afghan players for photos and autographs – brought tears to my eyes.

Losing four players with whom we’ve experienced so much has been heartbreaking. I’ve coached those guys since they were barely more than kids. The wound from their leaving will take time to heal for all of us. However, given the perseverance shown by the remaining 11 players, I am confident that this team will continue its growth and become even stronger in the future. Afghans are the most resilient people I have ever met, and this team exemplifies that toughness and mental fortitude.

We wish the four who left the best of luck in their new lives – we received word from one of them recently that they are safe and well.

Now it is time to look forward. In October I will travel back to Afghanistan to select new players to join the national team and continue their training in preparation for their next international competition (time/location TBD). I know I can speak for the team in saying that we are excited to embrace whatever challenge comes next.

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The remaining players of the national team during the playing of the Afghanistan National Anthem before the game against Briantea84

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The players celebrate their courageous final performance with Italian fans following the game

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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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!

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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.

ImageThe 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. 

On the Afternoon of May 25th, the Afghanistan Men’s Wheelchair Basketball team won its first game! Six games into our trip, the team finally put all its hard work to full use in defeating the team from Cinisello by one point in a game that aged its poor coach by about 10 years. Shahpoor swished a pair of free throws with 45 seconds to play to give the Afghans a three point lead before the Italians scored inside to cut the margin to one. The Afghans made a final defensive stand to hold onto the victory and, as the final buzzer sounded, I breathed for the first time in what felt like hours. Congratulations to the team on such a great achievement!
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Mojeeb scores in the team’s game against Torino (photo by David Constantine)

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The team celebrates its first victory along with the coaches and Afghanistan Paralympic Committee representative, Abdul Husain Hesary  (back right) – Photo by Michael Glowacki

The morning after notching its first win, the team was rewarded by a visit at practice by U.S. National Team player and member of Italian League champions Briantea84, Brian Bell. It was a fantastic experience for our guys to get to share the court (and learn some new techniques) from one of the top players in the world. Thanks to Brian for taking the time to meet the team!

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Brian Bell and Shahpoor line up for the opening tip

It’s hard to believe the national team and I left Afghanistan nearly a week ago – between the travel to and through Italy, acclimating to the Italian lifestyle, and playing our first four-game competition, it feels like we just arrived! It’s been such a whirlwind of activity that I need to try to capture all that has happened since leaving Kabul on Monday the 19th in a single post – there hasn’t been a single free hour since we left that I could devote to writing. I guess that means we’ve been productive!

The Flights
I was nervous about the complicated nature of escorting 15 Afghan players, 23 wheelchairs, and almost zero flying experience other than myself and Michael (Alberto flew to Italy two days ahead of us) through the Kabul and Dubai airports, both of which have been challenging for me as a disabled traveler in the past. Three days before we were scheduled to leave, we were informed by Emirates Airlines that all our flight reservations had been canceled because the travel agent failed to confirm them in time. Uh oh. When I asked if there were other seats available, the customer service person informed me that the next available seats for a group of our size would be in mid-July. Mid-July!! Thankfully, after an evening of morose conjecture about what we were going to do, ICRC’s travel department was miraculously able to rebook us on the same flights to Dubai and Milan despite the prior claim that no seats were available. Between the near-cancelation of the flights and the fact that Emirates required us to submit physician-stamped forms for each wheelchair user stating that, even though they are disabled, they do not require oxygen or a doctor on board to survive the flight (Alberto informed them that these are athletes – they have an abundance of oxygen!), I felt a sense of foreboding about the prospect of getting everyone all the way to Italy.

Thankfully, the actual travel process was remarkably smooth – far smoother than any flight I’ve ever taken through Dubai by myself, in fact. The very few minor challenges:

1. Mohammadullah, our quietest, shyest player and one of those who had never been on a plane of any kind before, was scared enough by the experience of taking off and seeing Kabul disappear below him that he shut his window blind and stared straight ahead for the first hour of the flight to Dubai.

2. Somehow, to build on this traumatic first flying experience, Mohammadullah was also seated next to a crazy woman who, after realizing that Mohammadullah had inadvertently taken her seat (he was meant to be in the one next to her), demanded to be moved elsewhere because, quote, “this is why I can’t stand Afghanistan!” Mohammadullah, who speaks no English, just sat there meekly wondering what he had done wrong and hoping the terrible experience would end soon.

3. Coincidentally, as we were waiting in line at the Kabul Airport to get our passports stamped, this same woman had demanded to know why Mirwais, who was sitting a few feet away from her in line, was “staring at her.” Neither Mohammadullah nor Mirwais knew how to react to this lady, so I assured them that every plane has at least one crazy person on board, but I was sure she was harmless. Thankfully, she was.

4. When we got to Dubai, we were booked in a hotel near the airport for our 17 hour layover before leaving the next morning for Milan. The hotel stay included dinner and breakfast at the hotel buffet. Since none of the players had ever eaten non-Afghan food, there was a lot of sitting motionless and staring at their plates filled with a variety of foreign foods, wondering how they were going to keep from starving if this is what they had to eat the whole time. I assured them that the food was going to get a lot weirder for them in Italy, so they better learn to like new things. Several made a valiant effort. Others subsisted on bread and bananas.

When we finally arrived in Milan after 27 hours of travel, the players were met by a gauntlet of photographers and video cameras from various local and international news outlets covering their arrival. Just to think of how different that experience was for a group of people that were largely ignored their entire lives until two or three years ago was truly amazing. I was able to observe from the rear of the pack, watching the scene unfold with reporters pulling individual players aside to interview them as each member of the team stared around him in awe at all the commotion. When Alberto came forward out of the press to greet us, he had tears in his eyes. We had finally made it – the Afghan National Wheelchair Basketball Team was actually in Italy!

The Beach
After exiting the airport, we got on a coach bus and immediately drove 4 ½ hours to a tiny beach community on the Adriatic Coast about an hour outside Bologna, where our first competition would take place. The collective energy and enthusiasm during the drive was through the roof. The players couldn’t believe they were in a place so green and beautiful. Within 30 minutes of starting the drive, they were dancing to the radio and singing at the tops of their voices. As unlikely as the eventuality of my bringing 15 disabled Afghans to Italy to play basketball may have seemed five years ago, that was nothing compared to being on a bus full of them clapping and dancing along to Two Princes by the Spin Doctors.

The place we had been booked for the first tournament was a “camping hotel” right on the beach. None of the players had ever seen an ocean or a sea before, so you can imagine their excitement the morning after our arrival when we introduced them to the Adriatic (Said Mohammad’s excitement was tempered slightly when he cupped his hands and took a drink of seawater – “Blech! Why is it so salty??!”). It took Saber only about 5 minutes of revelry before he had pushed his wheelchair 30 yards out into the calm surf and jumped into the water. Fearless!

After watching and cheering for Saber for a couple minutes, other players began stripping off shirts, orthotic devices, and prosthetic limbs. Soon the water was full of deliriously happy Afghans shouting exultation at this new, unbelievable experience they were sharing together. As I told Michael at the time, even if we don’t win a game on this trip and even if I never get another chance to coach these players, it was all worth it to watch them experience the freedom of swimming in the sea for the first time.
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The players arrive at the beach – their first time laying eyes on the sea.

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Saber emerging from his first swim as Michael captures the moment in the background

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The Bologna Games

The games we played at our first competition took place at a giant exhibition center that was hosting a medical device convention. Our team, the Italian Under-22 National Team, and a select team made up of players from Italy’s top (professional) division provided entertainment by playing three games each day of the competition – two for each team each day. The two Italian teams were clearly very strong and very experienced. Even the under-22 team was exceedingly disciplined. We watched them play each other in the opening game of the first day and they were extremely athletic, well-coached, and TALL. Given the level of their play, the tiredness from our team’s long journey, and the pressure of playing the Afghans’ first international games, I knew we would be lucky to stay within 20 in any of these games. I laid out our game plan and told the players that, no matter what the score, I only cared that they played their best and gave us something to build from as we moved through our Italian game schedule.

The games were, not-surprisingly, extremely tough and in two of them we were beaten pretty handily. However, on the second day our team started to hit its stride, realizing that, with unselfish, team-oriented play, good defense, and no fear, we could play with these guys. In our second game against the select team, we actually had the game tied going into the fourth quarter (much to the surprise of the other team, who had beaten us by 26 the day before). We lost by six points in the end – 66-60 – but it was a tremendous improvement over the level we assumed was our ceiling after the first day’s games. Even given this massive leap forward against a top team, however, the guys were despondent after the game. They aren’t content coming in a close second in these games – they want to win. Difficult as it was for me to see them taking a loss so hard, I was incredibly proud of the players for having the confidence in themselves to demand victory, even this early on in their development. We may not have gotten a win right away, but we showed ourselves and our opponents that Afghanistan has all the tools to compete at this level. We have four more games the rest of the way – all against Italian professional teams – and I can’t wait to get the guys back on the court to show what they now know they’re capable of.

My first training camp with the Afghanistan men’s wheelchair basketball national team is in the books! We completed the marathon 10-day camp last night and I’m thrilled with the progress the team has made. We leave tomorrow morning for Italy and the excitement level is sky high for all involved. I have to imagine the players are at least a little nervous about their first journey into the unknown of the western world, but if they are, they aren’t showing it. I guess when you grow up with the types of challenges these men have all overcome to get where they are today, even a first international basketball competition in a far-off country isn’t such a daunting prospect.

Before we head off on our epic adventure together, I’d like to introduce all the players of the national team. Each player has a fantastic personality all his own and, as we prepare to embark on what I’m sure will be a highlight-filled whirlwind basketball tour of northern Italy (the stories from which I will be writing about here as often as I can), I want people to get to know a bit about each of them.

All photos courtesy of Michael Glowacki.

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Shahpoor
Age:
21
Hometown:
Maimana
Shahpoor, who was one of the Maimana players I first came to Afghanistan to coach in 2009, is the most complete player in Afghanistan. His intensity and competitive drive are second to none and he is a natural on-court leader even at his young age. He can struggle at times with containing his emotions in the heat of competition, but he told me after our last training camp practice that he is committed to being the leader his teammates expect him to be, no matter what challenges we face.

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Farhad
Age:
24
Hometown:
Herat
Farhad has gone through one of the biggest personality evolutions since I first started coaching in Afghanistan. The first year or two I coached him, he was always quiet and stoic. He revealed to Michael in an interview that, not long ago, he decided he would be more happy showing the world his outgoing side. Now he is the biggest joker on the team, regularly breaking into song and randomly yelling out English phrases during practice like, “Come on, baby! Let’s dance!”

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Wasiqullah
Age:
36
Hometown: Kabul
Wasiq is a physiotherapist at the ICRC ortho centre in Kabul who, after starting out as a coach of the Kabul wheelchair basketball team, fell in love with the game and became a player himself. He won the 2014 national tournament Most Valuable Player (MVP) award in leading Kabul to its first title and is a stabilizing force for the younger players on the national team.

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Mojeeb
Age:
20
Hometown: Mazar-i-Shareef
Mojeeb is a natural talent who can take over games with his speed and knack for hitting difficult shots in traffic. He says little, but is constantly laughing. He was the MVP of the 2013 national tournament (at just 19) when he led Mazar to the title.

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Mirwais
Age:
31
Hometown: Kabul
Mirwais is the most well-rounded class 1 player on the team and my regular interpreter during practices. He has an intuitive understanding of the game and regularly makes in-game decisions that belie his limited playing experience. He is also one of the most promising potential coaches in the country, leading the Kabul women’s team for the past two years

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Ramazan
Age: 20
Hometown: Maimana
Ramazan was another of the original Maimana players that sent the request to the U.S. for a basketball coach that brought me to Afghanistan for the first time. Back then, as a 15 year-old, he was a bit sullen and rarely showed any excitement or joy in practices. He has gone through a remarkable transformation through his basketball success in the years since, though, and now has one of the quickest laughs on the team. A natural point guard, Ramazan is a creative passer and excellent ball handler despite his dominant right arm being withered by childhood polio.

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Habib
Age:
33
Hometown: Herat
Habib, since I first met him when he traveled to Kabul in 2011 to join my training of the team that spring, has been the consummate student of the game. He has always peppered me with questions about specific rules and strategies, and puts the knowledge to good use in his cerebral play on the court.

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Mohommadullah
Age:
35
Hometown: Kabul
Mohommadullah’s beard and imposing expression conceal one of the sweetest personalities in the world. He has come as far in his three years of playing basketball as any player in Afghanistan, and was the first to master team-first strategies by setting picks and screens for his teammates. These are invaluable traits in a class 1 player, and lead to his being universally loved by all his teammates.

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Eqbal
Age:
32
Hometown: Herat
Eqbal is a bruising post player who may give up a few inches of height to some of his Italian opponents, but will never give ground in toughness. He missed the first half of the national team’s training camp to fly home to be with his mother, who was ill in the hospital. She has since recovered, and Eqbal has done a great job catching up on a jam-packed 10 days worth of material in just half that time.

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Basir
Age:
23
Hometown: Mazar-i-Shareef
Basir may not look like a typical basketball player, but he’s one of the few who has shown a natural “court sense” that allows him to succeed both in team concepts and as an individual. He’s a class 1, so he’s not working with the same physical tools as many of his teammates, but makes up for it with craftiness and a solid grasp of fundamentals. He’s also missing a front tooth after getting hit in the face with a ball during one of Mazar’s practices, so he’s got a bit of a tough guy sneer when he chooses to use it.

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Safi
Age:
24
Hometown: Kabul
Safi is another player who’s gone through a significant metamorphosis over the few years I’ve been coaching him. When I first met him in 2011, he really didn’t distinguish himself as a player or a personality. By 2012, he had become one of the best players in Kabul through hard work, but still wasn’t a vocal leader yet. Last year, though, he had transformed into a pillar of intensity and is now the player on the national team most likely to call out a teammate for not playing up to his potential or for making a careless mistake.

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Nasrullah
Age:
19
Hometown: Mazar-i-Shareef
Nasrullah is the young clown prince of the national team. He cracks everyone up multiple times per practice with his broken English, strange comedic outbursts during otherwise serious drills, or his elastic facial contortions when lining up a free throw. I learned at the beginning of training camp that Nasrullah lives in a homeless shelter in Mazar, which is a level of poverty beyond even the rest of his teammates. The fact that he has transcended disability and abject poverty to achieve his position on the national team and is about to travel to Italy representing his entire country is a true testament to his strength of character and will.

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Fahim
Age:
25
Hometown: Kabul
Fahim is an employee at the Ortho Centre working in the patient management office. He is a coordinator for both the Kabul team and the national team, helping to ensure practices are scheduled and all the logistics of team business are taken care of. He plays with an unorthodox style, but one that is effective for him and, like his national team teammate, Basir, always seems to find himself in the right place at the right time to score when his team needs it most.

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Said Mohammad
Age:
21
Hometown: Mazar-i-Shareef
Said Mohammad is the best outside shooter and overall best basketball technician on the team. Like many of his teammates, he is a funny character who is always laughing at practices, but is also one of the most focused players when we need to accomplish a task.

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Saber
Age:
24
Hometown: Kabul
Of all the blindingly fast players on the national team, Saber is the fastest. He is an incredible athlete who has already competed internationally as a weight lifter for Afghanistan, and is the only player with that level of competitive experience. Basketball is a much different game, of course, but the calm intensity and coolness under pressure Saber has developed through his competitive past will be critical to his team’s success.

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Watch out Italy. Here we come!

 

A lifelong friend of Alberto Cairo designed the uniforms shown in the above photos. Sergio Silvestris supported Alberto’s groundbreaking work helping the disabled of Afghanistan for many years, including conceiving and leading an Italian fundraising effort to help reconstruct the Kabul Orthopaedic Centre (where our new gymnasium was completed a few months ago) after its near destruction in 1994. Voluntarily designing the national team’s uniforms and warm-up suits (and working with the Italian sportswear company, Sergio Tacchini, to have them produced) was just the latest example of Sergio’s creative selflessness in service of Afghans. Shortly after completing the uniform designs early this year, Sergio fell ill and, after a long battle with pneumonia, passed away in March. The national team will wear his initials on the backs of their Motivation wheelchairs and are dedicating their performance in Italy to Sergio’s memory.

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