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

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

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