The Games

When I last wrote, Team Afghanistan had just finished up an inspirational performance in a loss against Japan. The buzz following that game – the team’s first on national television and on the main arena court – was incredible despite the fact that Japan beat us handily. It was the first sign of the Afghan players truly grasping the team concept and beginning to put that together against one of the world’s top teams.

The next day in our game against an equally strong Korea team, however, it looked like the Japan game had never happened. Our communication was nearly non-existent, the players sniped at each other after unsuccessful plays, and the bench – which had provided a major spark in the Japan game by loudly encouraging the on-court players – was silent. It felt like the players had a hangover from the excitement of the previous night’s game. We lost by an even larger margin than we had against Japan. Something had been missing. It was an unsettling feeling for all of us, and one I was determined not to experience again. We had a postgame talk about the importance of brotherhood and support for one another even in the face of poor play and a demoralizing defeat, neither of which had been on display against Korea.

That evening, we were extended an invitation by the team captain and head coach of the Australian men’s team – the defending world champions – for our entire team to sit courtside during their otherwise closed practice session to observe how they prepare themselves for competition. It was the best remedy for a poor team performance I could have asked for. Our guys were fascinated by the tight coordination, total efficiency, and team cohesion the Australians displayed. They got to see a team that practices exactly like it plays – with 100% effort at all times, constant communication between the players, and complete trust and camaraderie among all teammates. My sincere thanks to Australian captain Brad Ness, coach Ben Ettridge, and all the Australia players and staff for showing our team more about how to play together in one hour than I could have explained in years. The Afghanistan team and I had a wonderful talk after the practice, during which each Afghan player took a turn explaining something he had learned from the experience; every one of the 12 players had a uniquely important realization to share. It was encouraging.

In our game the following afternoon against China – another extremely strong team that concluded our four-game murderer’s row of opponents (Thailand, Japan, Korea, China) within our tournament group – the team showed that the lessons they learned from Australia had really hit home. We played our best game of the tournament so far. As with Japan, we lost by a lot, but the team never for one second lost heart or stopped supporting each other. In each successive quarter of the game, the team played better on both offense and defense, the bench shouted constant encouragement, and the players fought with all their might right up to the final buzzer. It was the leap forward I’d hoped we would take following the progress we’d made against Japan, and we got great feedback about our play from coaches and players from other teams (even from the referees) following the game.

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The team huddles before taking the court against China

Alem, at the free throw line, hears his teammates on the bench shouting “buladay” (you will do it!) in his native language of Uzbeki (Photo courtesy of

The team in great spirits as they pass through the media zone following the game with China (photo courtesy of

After the game against China, our team was set to play the Philippines in our final matchup – our best chance in the tournament to get a victory, especially following the growth we’d shown in the previous game. The Philippines team was much more experienced than we were (as were all the teams we played), but we had an edge in speed that I hoped to exploit by employing a full court press defense. Afghanistan played a strong first half – shooting poorly but using good defense and solid communication to keep the game close. All we needed was to see a few shots fall early in the second half to take momentum and, I hoped, leave with our first victory. Unfortunately, perhaps due to the fatigue of playing in our first international tournament, possibly because of the pressure of the situation – probably a combination of both factors – the team’s defensive communication broke down in the third quarter and the Philippines took advantage, getting a series of easy shots and pushing their lead to 25 points. During a timeout halfway through the final quarter, I emphasized the need to compete hard all the way to the finish – forgetting the score and ending on a positive note that we could build from moving forward. The team did just that and cut the margin to 14 by the end. I was proud of them and knew it was a sign of good things to come.

However, all the future promise in the world couldn’t numb the pain of defeat in the moment for the players. Many were in tears and I had to track them down individually to console them before I could bring the whole team together for our postgame talk. It was a hard moment, though I knew that the progress the team had made through the tournament, and the determination represented by their disappointment, would lead to many victories down the road. It will just take time, as it does for every new team.

The Ocean

The morning following our game against the Philippines was the team’s one extended stretch of free time in Japan, so we took that opportunity to give the players their first taste of the country outside the area of Chiba where our hotel and the arena were located. We chartered an early morning bus to a beach on the Pacific – about an hour away – for the players’ first view of the open ocean. The ones who went Italy last year had seen the Adriatic Sea, and we took a walk to Tokyo Bay on our first night in Japan, but neither of those can hold a candle to the breaking waves and unfathomable expanse of the ocean.

The players were in much better spirits as we left, the night having given them time to process the previous day’s loss and replace their sadness with excitement to see something completely new. As luck would have it, the eight days of beautiful weather we’d experienced up until that point gave way to driving winds, colder temperatures, and persistent rain on the day of our excursion. That didn’t dampen the group’s spirits, though; they pushed their wheelchairs or walked into a strong headwind and rain blowing directly into their faces, across wet, soft sand and, in several cases, all the way into the waves themselves. Even dripping wet and shivering from the cold, everyone had smiles on their faces as they posed for pictures in or near the water. The bus was filled with laughter as we drove away, covered in sand and soaked to the skin, but united in another once-in-a-lifetime shared memory.

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Mohammadullah (right) and Sabir push their chairs into the surf

A Fond Farewell

After returning from the beach, the team gathered to watch the Chinese women defeat Australia for the gold medal and the region’s sole women’s berth in the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The next day, the Japanese men defeated Korea in a fantastic game to take the bronze medal and the third and final Paralympic qualifying spot for the men. Australia finished the tournament by beating an impressive Iranian team to take the gold medal (both those teams qualified for Rio automatically as the tournament’s #1 and #2 finishers).

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The team poses with captain Brad Ness after Australia’s gold medal victory

That evening, the IWBF held a banquet for all the teams to close the tournament. During dinner, a slide show was projected on giant screens at the front of the hall with beautiful photos from the week’s games. The Afghan players could barely contain their excitement when their larger-than-life images were displayed before the gathered crowd, right alongside photos of some of the world’s best players.

Below are a selection of the photos of our team from the slide show, graciously shared by the IWBF.









Yesterday the team flew back to Afghanistan and I returned home to Colorado. It was difficult to say goodbye after having had such an incredible experience together, but each player had a newfound confidence in his eyes as we wished each other well. We may not have gotten a win in this first tournament, but the entire experience was a giant victory for the team and for disabled athletes across Afghanistan.

Finally, I’d like to extend my sincere thanks to Maureen Orchard and Don Perriman of the IWBF (along with all the IWBF officials who welcomed us into their family at this tournament); to Yurie Miyamoto and her colleagues in the Japan Wheelchair Basketball Federation for being such amazing organizers and hosts; to Hiroki Akahori, our trusted team liason, and all his fellow volunteers for making the tournament run (and somehow making sure we were always at the right place on time); to Shizuko, Shiho and the JTB crew for dealing with our endless requests and questions at the information desk; to Hitomi 1 and Hitomi 2 from the ICRC Tokyo office for organizing media interviews and gamely braving the weather to accompany us to the beach (and for loaning us an iron!); to all the coaches, team representatives, and players from all the other teams for their support, friendship, and for teaching us so much about how to play at the international level; and, most of all, to Alberto Cairo and the late Sergio Sylvestris, without whom none of this would have been possible for Team Afghanistan.

It’s now been five days since we arrived in Japan and we’ve already had what seems like a year’s worth of new, amazing, wonderful experiences. We’re three games into the Asia-Oceania Championships, with three more to go. Here’s a rundown of the highlights so far:

The Journey

We left Kabul on the 6th on an Emirates Airline flight to Dubai. Out of the kindness of their hearts, the airline staff upgraded the entire team to business class for the first leg of the trip, so our players and coaches (many of whom had never been on an airplane before, much less a huge jetliner) occupied the entire business class cabin! It was fantastic. I couldn’t stop laughing as I sat at the back of the cabin observing all the players in their luxurious surroundings, trying to casually watch movies and eat their fancy lunches while periodically glancing around as if to confirm that everyone was still there and this was really happening to them.

At one point, just as we were taking off, Bilal – the fearless skateboarding star – shrieked out loud and clapped his hand over his mouth as he felt the sensation of leaving the ground and not coming back down for the first time. Sakhi, who was also on his first flight, pressed his face to the window and shouted, “look how small the houses are!!” even though we had just taken off and were only about a thousand feet off the ground.

Everyone was joking and laughing the entire time. It was the perfect beginning to the trip.

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The team flies in style!

Nothing good lasts forever, though. When we arrived in Dubai, smiles on all our faces, we found out that the travel agent who booked our flights had forgotten to reserve a hotel for our 11 hour layover. That meant we had to spend nearly half a day sitting in the terminal at the airport before our 2am flight to Tokyo. The only seats were hard, uncomfortable plastic chairs with the exception of one small area at the other end of the terminal from our gate, where there was a small collection of circular and other oddly shaped couch/benches. I wouldn’t call them comfortable, but by halfway through our stay, three quarters of the team was draped across various corners of the area, sound asleep, while the airport bustled all around them.

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Sakhi slept on this circular bench with a magazine on his face for hours (not pictured: everyone else in similar poses)

Learning the Culture

Before we left Kabul, I had a series of discussion sessions with the players to talk about various topics they’d need to know about on the trip. One of those topics was Japanese culture, including the differences between how people behave in public here as opposed to Afghanistan. Needless to say, not all the players remembered this lesson in its entirety. I went on a walk through the city with a large group our first afternoon here, and we ended up going to the shore of Tokyo Bay, about a mile from the hotel. It took quite a while to make the journey, since many of the players who don’t use wheelchairs outside the basketball court (most of the team) don’t move terribly fast. By the time we reached the tiny beach (the bay is surrounded by industrial complexes, so it’s not particularly scenic by the standards of someone who grew up with the Pacific Ocean an hour away, but the players who were traveling outside Afghanistan for the first time had never seen a body of open water before, so it was very exciting for them), everybody was talking in standard Afghan voices, which are about the equivalent of a space shuttle launch when compared to the demureness of Japanese public conversation. When the sun sunk low over the horizon, though, things suddenly got quiet as the guys got to see their first sunset on the water.

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Sunset on the shore of Tokyo Bay

While they may occasionally struggle with voice immodulation, the element of Japanese culture several players have mastered surprisingly quickly is the use of chopsticks. I jokingly suggested they try using them at our first dinner in the hotel dining room used by all the teams, figuring there was no way a group of people who rarely use utensils to eat would be able to learn the fine art of chopstick control. I should know by now that issuing a challenge to an Afghan is a guarantee that they’ll figure out how to do anything. Sabir was the first to get it down, followed by Wasiq, then the least likely candidate on the team – Mohammadullah. Now half the team are eating their meals – meat, rice, fruit, anything – with chopsticks. Incredible.

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Sabir, Mohammadullah, and Wasiq blending into Japanese culture like they were born here

Beginning the Tournament
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Following the opening ceremonies, we played our first game of the tournament on Saturday the 10th against United Arab Emirates. Coming into the tournament, I had the goal of learning as much as possible from each game, win or lose, and told the players that as long as we managed to improve from game to game, I’d be happy no matter what our record. That said, of the five teams in our group, UAE was the team we had the best chance of beating, so I was nervous heading into the game. I really wanted to get a win on the books out of the gate, knowing that it was going to be unlikely that we’d be able to hang with teams as strong as Thailand, Japan, Korea, and China (the other teams in our opening round group) this early in our development.

We started off quite strongly – not shooting particularly well, but playing effectively aggressive defense and using that to play evenly with UAE through the first half. At halftime, I was sure we’d be able to beat them if we could play as well in the second half and wear them down with our speed. Unfortunately, the consequence of combining aggressive defense with the best referees we’ve ever played with was a lot of fouls – so many that four of our five starters were disqualified by the end of the third quarter! With a short rotation and limited lineup options available, we couldn’t keep up with the more experienced UAE team and they ended up beating us by 20 points. The game was much closer than the score indicated, but it was a clear sign that we need to clean up our play before we’re going to be able to play at this level. The players – particularly those who fouled out of the game – were very upset over the loss, but I kept emphasizing the fact that this is a learning experience and that we have to use the lessons learned from losing if we want to learn how to win.

Our second game was against Thailand, a team that, under the guidance of an excellent Iranian coach, has grown by leaps and bounds over the past couple years. We went in knowing the game was going to be a very tough test. The Thais are taller than us (a few of them, anyway), faster as a team, and have excellent team chemistry. Our team came out very nervous to play against their best competition yet and, while we played pretty decently, the ball simply wouldn’t go in the basket. We scored four first half points and trailed by 40 at halftime. This was my first real test in team motivation – it was an unwinnable game, but we had 20 minutes left to play and I needed the team to remain focused and play as hard as they can in order to build upon the game leading into the rest of the tournament. In the second half we managed to raise the intensity even further, our shots started to fall a bit more regularly, and we played the Thai team much more closely. The final score was still extremely lopsided, but we finished strong and put 20 points on the board in the second half – a big improvement and a success that we could take into our next game.

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Huddling during the game against Thailand

Our third game of the tournament, which took place last night, was going to be our toughest test. We played Japan – an elite team on the world stage – on the arena’s main court (the first two games had been on the second court, which is in a small gymnasium that can only accommodate a handful of standing spectators; the main court is huge with stadium seating for probably 5,000 people), with the game being broadcast live on Japanese TV. We had a great, focused practice for an hour on the morning of the big game and I told the players to play as though they were back home in Afghanistan; forget the crowd, the cameras, and the peripheral distractions and just play to the best of their ability while supporting each other from the beginning to the end. It was the first game before which I didn’t feel particularly nervous. We had prepared well and had nothing to lose, so I just tried to do the same thing I told the players to do; relax and enjoy the moment.

Before the game, the head coach of Japan, Shimpei Oikawa – whom I had gotten to know in 2011 when we both went to the University of Illinois to learn from master wheelchair basketball coach, Mike Frogley – came to me and told me how much he respects our team and how impressed he is by far we’ve come in such a short time. It meant a lot for him to say that, and I told him we would learn as much as we possibly could from the experience of playing his outstanding squad.

Our team came out under the bright lights and, despite some early game jitters and the unfamiliar surroundings – not to mention a large crowd that was very partisan for the home team – played its best basketball ever. They worked together, played outstanding team defense, and made a few remarkable plays. At one point, Mohammadullah – a class 1.0 player with very little trunk balance – was fouled by a Japanese defender while shooting and converted the shot while absorbing the contact. The bench exploded, as did the crowd, who momentarily forgot who they were rooting for. Everyone on the team played in the game, and all of them played their best.

The final score was 91-12 in favor of Japan. It was the biggest loss I’ve ever been involved in since I started playing basketball when I was 9, yet I felt euphoric after the final buzzer sounded. Our team finally figured out how to play together, rather than as a collection of individuals, and they played their best game against the best opponent they’ve ever faced. The final score is irrelevant. They finally made the mental leap to understanding how to play at this level, and they will only grow from here.

After the game ended, Mohammadullah was so overwhelmed by the moment that he was in tears – tears of happiness that he had just played against one of the best wheelchair basketball teams in the world on live television, representing his entire country, supported by his team of brothers, and he had scored. He will never forget that moment. Neither will I.

Over the course of the last seven days, I’ve been putting the 2015 Afghanistan Men’s Wheelchair Basketball Team through an intensive training camp to prepare the team for its first official international competition. We leave tomorrow morning for the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation Asia-Oceania (IWBF AOZ) Championships in Chiba, Japan. The IWBF AOZ Championships are the qualifying tournament for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Brazil and will feature 12 national teams from across Asia and Australia competing for the three Paralympic slots from our region. The competing teams include some of the world’s best – including 2012 Paralympic silver medalists Australia and hosts Japan – and they all have far more individual and collective experience than we do. With this being the players’ first time competing (and my first time coaching) internationally at this level, we have our work cut out for us!

It’s been a fantastic week of training, and I’m so proud of all the players for the hard work they’ve put in to prepare themselves for this tournament. Seven of the 12 team members were on the team that went to Italy for a series of exhibition games in June 2014, but the other five will be playing outside Afghanistan (and traveling abroad!) for the first time. Given the magnitude of this tournament and the excitement of visiting a country as foreign to them as Japan, though, the team has been remarkably focused and composed throughout our week of training. They’ve shown noticeable improvement in all facets of the game, have watched hours of video of our opponents to improve their mental readiness, and are committed 100% to supporting each other throughout this experience. They’re ready to represent Afghanistan to the best of their abilities, and that’s all I can ask for.

Throughout this week of working and bonding with the national team players, I’ve had flashbacks to my early days meeting and coaching each of them. On one hand, it seems like a lifetime ago that I was introducing most of them to wheelchair basketball for the first time; on the other, it’s hard to believe how far they’ve all come in just a few years. Below are the members of the 2015 national team. Wish us luck!

#1 – Basir Tajiki
Hometown: Mazar-i-Sharif

Basir, affectionately nicknamed “ Numbah One” by the Italian soldiers that served as our drivers/bodyguards/entourage during our trip to Italy in 2014, is the coach of the men’s and women’s teams in Mazar and, at just 23, is his home city’s most experienced player. He has been playing wheelchair basketball since his early teens – one of the Mazar players that was on the first team formed in Afghanistan, back in the years before I first came. He’s the national team’s shortest player, but more than makes up for his lack of size with limitless confidence.

#5 – Sayed Habib Naeemi
Hometown: Herat

Habib came to Kabul from Herat in 2011 during my second trip to Afghanistan to learn the basics of wheelchair basketball with the group of brand new Kabul players, then took what he learned back to Herat and helped to start the game there. Habib has worked tirelessly on his game and has become one of the most consistent midrange shooters on the team, as well as a true student of wheelchair basketball. His knowledge and experience, having played on the team that went to Italy, will be put to good use in Japan.

#6 – Alem Muradi
Hometown: Maimana

When I first came to Afghanistan in 2009 to coach the newly formed Maimana team, Alem was just 15 years old and was, by far, the team’s physically weakest player. He was painfully thin and his body was twisted from a genetic disability that made it difficult for him to push a wheelchair, much less play basketball. At the time, Alem had to use every ounce of strength he had just to get the ball up to the level of the rim. He was a picture of perseverance, though, and continued to practice and practice, gradually becoming stronger, growing a full foot taller, and getting surgery in 2014 that gave him a bit more mobility in his wheelchair. In 2015, he had improved so much that he made the national team roster and, in the months since, has become the team’s best outside shooter and a fantastic defender. Alem’s is one of the most remarkable success stories I’ve ever seen in wheelchair basketball. He may be our secret weapon at the beginning of the tournament in Japan, but he won’t stay a secret for long.

#7 – Ramazan Karimy
Hometown: Maimana

Ramazan was the other 15 year-old on the Maimana team when I first came; his nickname among his teammates was “Chucha” – “the kid” in Persian. Like Alem, he’s gone through a massive transformation in the years since, though his shift was more mental and emotional than physical. Ramazan was always naturally athletic, but was moody and unconfident when I first met him. I worried at first that he wouldn’t stick with basketball for long, but being part of a team and seeing the beginnings of success in those early years transformed his attitude. Within three years he had become one of the best players on the Maimana team and made Afghanistan’s first national team as an ace ball handler and point guard. He’ll be a starter for the first time in Japan, and his improved shot and sharp passing will be the engines that make the team run.

#8 – Belal Mir Batzai
Hometown: Kabul

Belal is the youngest player on the national team and is an outstanding young man, always supporting his teammates and doing anything he can to keep the group’s morale high. He just started playing wheelchair basketball two-and-a-half years ago after starting his athletic career as a skateboarder – and now disabled skateboarding teacher – in the world-famous Skateistan program (he skates sitting down and can do truly remarkable things on a board). He has quickly become one of the most talented players in Afghanistan and, at the last men’s national tournament in May 2015, was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player. Belal is playing on his first men’s national team, but will be a key to the team’s success in Japan with his athleticism, strength, and focus.

#9 – Sabir Sultani
Hometown: Kabul

Sabir may look like he was drawn in a superhero comic book, but his powerful frame belies one of the gentlest personalities I’ve encountered anywhere I’ve traveled. Loved by all his teammates, he is the most athletic player on a team loaded with phenomenal athletes. Sabir started his athletic career as a competitive weight lifter before changing his focus to wheelchair basketball in 2013 and has turned that weight lifting power into blinding speed in a wheelchair. He has also parlayed his growth from the experience of team sports into a job making prosthetic limbs at the ICRC orthopedic center, exemplifying the full range of life success that wheelchair basketball can help players achieve. He’s one of two returning starters from the team that went to Italy and will be relied upon to defend the opposing team’s fastest player in each game.

#10 – Fahim Zaki
Hometown: Kabul

In 2011, when I first started coaching new players in Kabul, Fahim wasn’t strong enough to play with the top fifteen initial players in the city. Playing on a regular basis led to a rapid physical transformation, though, and after making the Kabul team the following year, Fahim progressed enough in 2013 to make the first men’s national team and travel with the team to Italy. Now he’s a veteran player with a broad skill set and a nose for the ball that makes good things happen for the team on offense and defense. Fahim recently got engaged and will get married soon after the team returns from Japan. Congratulations, Fahim!

#11 – Nazir Qatali
Hometown: Herat

Along with Belal, Nazir is one of the two newest players to wheelchair basketball on the men’s national team. Like his teammate, he also picked the game up quickly and showed great aptitude from the outset. He is a natural low post player with a knack for getting near the basket and scoring on offense. Nazir also has a hilarious personality and is constantly making jokes and cracking up his teammates. He showed up to practice on Saturday having shaved his five o’clock shadow into the beginnings of a tremendous mustache/soul patch combo. He came straight up to me, pointed to his face and, with a huge grin, said, “Mr. Jess – it’s good for Japan??” Yep – it’s good. His new nickname is “The Stache.”

#12 – Sakhi Noorzay
Hometown: Maimana

Sakhi, who was just 17 years old when I first went to Maimana, was the team’s one English-speaking player. He was also very outgoing and curious about the new American in town, so we bonded quickly. At the time, Sakhi was a promising player, but for the first couple years, struggled to translate his strong technique into success during games. However, when his Maimana teammate, Shahpoor, left the national team and defected to Europe during our trip to Italy, it opened up a leadership opportunity for Sakhi – one he took immediate advantage of. Just four months later, he was one of the leaders in Maimana’s run to an improbable national championship. He has blossomed into one of the national team’s best and smartest players and will play an huge role in Japan.

#13 – Wasiqullah Sediqi
Hometown: Kabul

Wasiq is the captain of the 2015 national team and has been a member of the national team since its inception in 2013. He is a physiotherapist for the ICRC in Kabul who initially wanted to be a wheelchair basketball coach before trying his hand at playing the game in 2012 and immediately taking to it. Wasiq’s composure and veteran leadership on the court – and his experience playing in Italy last year – will be critical to helping the team adjust to the high level of competition we’re about to face.

#14 – Ghafar Ghafoori
Hometown: Kandahar

Kandahar’s lone representative on the national team, Ghafar is the team’s enforcer. He’s a gentle giant, though, who constantly has a smile on his face and sometimes surprises even himself with his physical power. My favorite Ghafar story took place during his first national tournament with Kandahar, when he and an opposing player – a decent-sized opposing player, no less – both had a hold of the ball. Ghafar pulled the ball upward as he tried to take possession of it, lifting the ball, his opponent, and his opponent’s wheelchair a full foot off the ground. As I blew my whistle to stop the play, Ghafar looked innocently in my direction, a bashful grin on his face, and calmly set the other player down like he was made of plastic. This is Ghafar’s first national team, and his first time traveling outside Afghanistan. He is the least likely team member to be accidentally mistaken for a local in Japan.

#15 – Mohammadullah Ahmadi
Hometown: Kabul

On second thought, Mohammadullah might be even less likely to blend into Japanese society than Ghafar. He is the senior member of the national team and is adored by everyone he meets. He was the first player in Afghanistan to grasp the concept of playing unselfishly to help his team – to this day, when I explain to players who have played with him how they can set picks and screens to get free shots for their teammates, the standard lightbulb-turning-on response is, “Oh! Like Mohammadullah!” Mohammadullah struggled the most with foreign food among the players who went to Italy, finally deciding he liked pizza on the last day (but still with visions of traditional Afghan food dancing in his head). I can’t wait to see how he responds to sushi.

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The 2015 Afghanistan Men’s National Team, deadly serious and ready for competition (click to enlarge)
Back row in black, L-R: Coach Jess Markt, Team Manager Shukrullah Zeerak, Wheelchair Basketball Federation of Afghanistan (WBFA) President Safi Hussain Hesari, WBFA Senior Advisor and future saint Alberto Cairo, Assistant Coach Qawamuddin Ghafoori – Photo by Ishaq Anis

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Outtake from five seconds earlier, before everybody had a chance to get serious

On a personal side note, this will be my first time visiting Japan since I went as an exchange student for a month in 1993. I was 16 and it was three years before I broke my back in a car accident and became a paraplegic. One of my favorite memories from that trip is playing basketball with the team at a Japanese high school my American friends and I attended for two weeks. I’m not sure I could have come up with a less likely scenario at that time than one in which I’d next come to the country 22 years later as the coach of a wheelchair basketball team from Afghanistan. Life. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I wouldn’t have wanted it to unfold any other way.

On September 16th, the morning after I arrived in Kabul from India, I was already on the court officiating the Fall Women’s National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament. In the past, I’ve always followed a pattern of spending days or weeks training teams leading up to each tournament, but with limited time on this trip due to late September and early October being focused on training the men’s national team for their coming trip to Japan (more on that later), we had to skip dinner and jump straight to dessert. As always, it was incredibly fun being on the court with the women’s teams from Kabul, Mazar, and Herat, and I was really pleased with how much they’d improved since I was last here just four months ago.

In May, Herat was the surprise of the spring women’s tournament, taking second place and nearly beating Kabul in the finals despite having only started playing wheelchair basketball the previous August. Their rapid success caught the attention of the more experienced teams from Kabul and Mazar, who had clearly spent the summer working hard to improve their games and keep up with their rookie counterparts.

Mazar, in particular, came to this tournament with a new level of focus after having fallen from first in the fall of 2014 to third in the spring of this year. They played at a blistering pace throughout the tournament, keeping the defenses of Kabul and Herat on their heels, and built momentum in each game by continually attacking their opponents. In the end, Mazar was just too strong and too driven to be beaten, and they won all three of their games on the way to recapturing their place as the top team in Afghanistan. They’d won two titles previously, but I’ve never seen them this excited – they proved to themselves and to everyone else that, as the longest-tenured team in the country, they are still a force to be reckoned with. Congratulations to Mazar!

Mazar and Kabul show their skills (and beautiful basketball uniforms!) in the tournament final (photo courtesy of Zarlasht Sarmast)

Mazar celebrates with the championship trophy (photo courtesy of Zarlasht Sarmast)

Following Mazar’s victory in the two-day women’s championship, we held a local tournament for all the men’s players from Kabul. The Kabul members of the men’s national team acted as coaches for the six teams, which were made up of players who have been playing for anywhere from four years to just four months. It was a wonderful opportunity for everyone to get to experience an official competition, which is normally limited to the top 10 players from each province during national tournaments.

The energy level was high throughout the three-day competition, and all the players were so excited to have the chance to play in front of crowds and even TV cameras, many for the first time. The teams had been selected to be as even as possible based on player experience and classification, and every team won at least one of their games. The team coached by Shir Padshah, one of my first students in Kabul and the one tournament coach who isn’t a national team member (he decided to focus on coaching over playing about a year ago), finished on top. Shir is a relentlessly positive coach who is constantly shouting during games to motivate his team, so it was great to see him and his players succeed.

The best part of the Kabul tournament, though, was seeing the non-star players get their chance on the court. We made a rule in the opening round of the tournament that the coaches had to give each player at least five minutes of court time per game. When one of those players scored or made a good play on defense, their teammates exploded with enthusiastic cheers, causing the players on the court to beam uncontrollably. As the level of competition has continually grown here in Afghanistan, that innocent excitement about the smallest successes has often been overshadowed. It was so nice to get to experience it again and have such a joyful, positive experience.

Aziz and team Shir
Aziz (center), the youngest player on Shir Padshah’s championship team, accepts the first place trophy with his teammates

Safi Mohammadullah Shir
The winning coaches, from left: Safi (3rd place), Mohammadullah (2nd), and Shir (1st) with an unidentified supporter wearing the first Dave Matthews Band t-shirt I’ve seen in Afghanistan

Now we will all take a few days off to celebrate the Muslim holiday of Eid Al-Adha, following which the men’s national team will convene in Kabul for a 10 day training camp to prepare for its first official international competition – the IWBF Asia-Oceania Championships in Japan. Eid Mubarak, everyone. More to come soon about the national team’s upcoming adventure!

I just finished conducting a packed 10 days of wheelchair basketball clinics in the southern Indian city of Chennai. As I fly from India to Afghanistan, I finally have a few moments to take a breath and write out my impressions of the experience. I taught introductory theory courses for classifiers, coaches, and referees (the first such technical classes for any adaptive sport ever conducted in India), as well as camps for both beginning and more experienced players – an awful lot of material to squeeze into a week and a half, but well worth every minute. The workshops were organized by the Wheelchair Basketball Federation of India (WBFI) and the ICRC, which have been partnering for the last year in a grassroots campaign to build awareness and participation in wheelchair basketball in India from the ground up.

The first time I came to India last December, I visited three different states in a single week and partnered with a group of several other international coaches; that was a wonderful experience, but it felt slightly chaotic with that being the first such set of clinics the WBFI had organized and with different coaches flying around the country from once city to the next with only a few days to teach in each location. This time, with the courses all being held in Chennai, with the organizers’ extra months of experience, and with a bit more time to design and implement curricula for the different groups, it felt more structured and similar to the way I’ve become accustomed to teaching, making an extremely hectic week and a half feel at least a little bit under control.

Blog 1Teaching an introductory course on player classification to a class of physiotherapists (photo courtesy of Angel Singha)

All told, the courses brought together 75 people from 10 Indian states (plus dozens of volunteers, several local leaders in business and the non-profit world, para athletes from other sports, and a variety of other observers who had the chance to see wheelchair basketball being played in India for the first time); it was beautiful to see how much the sport has already grown there since I first visited just eight months ago. Course participants came from as far away as Nepal and Kashmir, and all of them worked together in mixed groups that didn’t hew to the locations they came from. It was exciting to see so many different areas and cultures represented and even more exciting to see players and technical officials interacting as though they had all grown up in the same neighborhood – this despite the fact that many of them don’t even share a common language. I’ve gotten used to teaching through interpreters, but this was the first time I’ve ever had to teach through multiple interpreters (as many as three) all at the same time!

The diverse group of course participants included several women, including a coaching trainee – Nasreena – from the far northern area of Jammu and Kashmir which, with its geographic setting at the intersection of India, Pakistan, and China, has been at the center of decades of conflict. Nasreena had never played or coached basketball of any kind and, like her fellow Kashmiri players, was in a culture very different from her own, but she jumped right in and, by the end of the clinics, was shouting instructions to more experienced male players from different states as though she’d been doing it for years.

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Nasreena (far right) and fellow coaches Farhana (middle) and Prabhu (crouching on left) instruct their team during a scrimmage (photo courtesy of Ashish Bhatia)

The participants from Nepal were also welcomed with open arms and developed fast friendships with the Indian players. I was so impressed that they would make the two-day plane, train, and bus journey to be a part of this event. It was a truly remarkable mix of people, and showed the unique power of sport to be a unifying force that bridges and all kinds of cultural boundaries.

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Tilak (left) and Himal from Nepal participated in coach and classifier courses (photo courtesy of Ashish Bhatia)

The classroom courses for classifiers, coaches, and referees were wonderful, and I’m so happy to see such a large group of highly-knowledgeable people from outside the disabled community (most of the classroom participants were physical therapists, able-bodied basketball players, coaches and referees, or physical education teachers) committing themselves to helping the game expand from within the country. They were great with the players and will bring a lot to the table in terms of spreading a high level technical knowledge base to their areas of India.

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Jay Ramji leads the huddle in a game among Chennai players during the coaching clinic (photo courtesy of Ashish Bhatia)
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Neeraj from New Delhi fully commits to his coaching craft as Vassan from Chennai listens (photo courtesy of Ashish Bhatia)

As I’ve seen in the countries where I’ve coached previously, wheelchair basketball can also serve as a tremendous driver for disabled individuals to discover their inner potential and transcend the boundaries their societies have placed on them. This was never more apparent than in the group of brand new players from the southwestern state of Karnataka who said that, before coming to Chennai to attend the workshop, many of them hadn’t left their homes – not their towns, their houses – for years! That was an unbelievable revelation to me, and made me realize all over again how big a difference the opportunity to play sports can make in the lives of people who have spent so long – and become so used to – being marginalized.

One other amazing interaction I had happened on my first night in Chennai, before the courses had even started. I was meeting up with ICRC and WBFI colleagues for dinner at my hotel and was approached by a young, athletic-looking Indian guy in a wheelchair. I assumed he was going to be taking part in the upcoming event, so happily introduced myself. He told me his name was Shudeep, that he had come from Kolkata, and that he had never heard of wheelchair basketball – he just happened to be eating in the hotel restaurant when he noticed me and Madhavi Latha, the president of the WBFI, and thought there must be some sort of wheelchair-related event happening in town, so he came over to investigate. When we told him about the clinics, he got really excited, as he said sports had been a huge part of his life before he was became a paraplegic over a decade ago, but that he hadn’t every had the opportunity to participate in any since he’d been injured since nothing like that was available in his home state. He was in town to have surgery for a pressure sore the following day, so we asked if he might be able to come by the gymnasium to check out the clinic before he had to check into the hospital. He enthusiastically agreed, and when he and his wife came the next day, his face lit up like a spotlight when he had the chance to see the game being played and take some shots himself. The next day he posted the following update and photo on Facebook:

“Some priceless moments just on my way to Apollo Hospital… Perfect motivation one can get and can’t wait to recover and head back to the court. This was the platform I was searching desperately for years to get involved into… To get motivated and to inspire others… To live life to the max!!!”Blog 11
As clear an example as I can remember of why I love doing this work so much. I am truly lucky to get to meet people like Shudeep (left) and see transformations like his happening on a regular basis (Photo courtesy of Shudeep Baidya)

It is a testament to the commitment of the WBFI and the ICRC (and all the volunteers, coaches, referees, and classifiers) that so many potential players here are discovering the joy of wheelchair basketball. It was such an honor to have been asked to come back and teach all these groups, and I am already eagerly anticipating the growth that I know the country will see by my next visit. Thanks to everyone who made me feel so welcome during my stay, and to all the players and course participants who were such a joy to coach.

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Rahman from Chennai had his 24th birthday during the players’ workshop – it was a good day (photo courtesy of Ashish Bhatia)

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Jagannathan, player representative for the WBFI and captain of the Chennai Eagles (photo courtesy of Ashish Bhatia)

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Arul from Chennai takes a shot during one of the great games held during the player workshops (photo courtesy of Ashish Bhatia)

Wheelchair basketball in Afghanistan has taken another huge leap forward; the Afghanistan Men’s National Team has been named as a participant at the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation (IWBF) Asia-Oceania Wheelchair Basketball Championships in Japan this October! The Championships are the regional qualifying tournament for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Brazil and will be Afghanistan’s first opportunity to play in an official IWBF competition against national teams from other countries, several of which rank among the best in the world.

Ever since becoming an IWBF member in April, the Wheelchair Basketball Federation of Afghanistan (WBFA) has been working to get the Afghanistan team invited to be a part of this very important tournament. It didn’t look like there was a chance that we would be included, as the tournament field had been set over a year ago, well before Afghanistan had even applied for membership in the IWBF. We were all assuming that we would have to continue to wait to experience our first official international competition when, in a surprise last-minute development, the IWBF informed us that it was expanding the tournament from 10 to 12 teams and that we were one of the two additions to the field. Afghanistan is in!

The IWBF Asia-Oceania Championships will take place from October 10th to 18th. The top three finishers will earn the region’s positions at the Paralympics next summer. Most important for the Afghans, though, will be having the opportunity to play against so many great teams from around their region of the world while becoming a true member of the global wheelchair basketball community for the first time. It will be an amazing learning experience for all of them on so many different levels.

I will be traveling to India to conduct a series of previously-scheduled wheelchair basketball courses over the first two weeks of September, then heading directly from there to Afghanistan to spend two weeks preparing the men’s national team before going with them to Japan as their head coach. I’ll relay as many experiences as I can here on my blog, so stay tuned for what are sure to be some fantastic stories coming soon.

Congratulations to the 2015 Afghanistan Men’s National Team – you will make your country proud!

In the eight days since my last post, I’ve held training sessions for five different groups of players – about 60 players in total in that span. The first four days following the men’s national championship tournament were dedicated to an intensive two-a-day training camp for the Afghanistan men’s national team. The latter four days were split between four groups of lesser experienced Kabul-based players – those who haven’t (yet) had the chance to represent their city at one of the national tournaments. That meant I had the opportunity, within the span of just over a week, to teach a huge range of players, from the most experienced and highly-skilled in the country to those who were picking up a basketball for the first time.

The national team training camp convened after just one day of recovery from the grueling four-day tournament, during which each team had played either seven or eight games. Given that the majority of the national team players logged heavy minutes in all of their teams’ games, they were all fighting through physical and mental fatigue at the beginning of camp. This fatigue led to a few minor injuries and illnesses that gradually reduced our number of active players from thirteen on the first day (we were also missing a couple players who had to return home after the tournament for final exams at school) to ten on the fourth, but those who made it through the grind showed remarkable resilience and improvement.

This team has improved to the point that they’re now learning abstract concepts like reading offenses and defenses to make split-second decisions and counter-decisions during the flow of a game. It’s an important leap forward for all of them, and is a completely new mental approach to wheelchair basketball from what they’re used to – incorporating chess-like strategic thinking into a game where they, their teammates, and their opponents are moving at top speed all the time. It has been a difficult evolution to teach, and I feel like I’ve learned as much as they have from the experience but. By the end of the four days, though, I could see that the light bulb of understanding had flickered on for all of them. The players were all just as excited as I was when everything started to click after days of trying to grasp such new and foreign ideas. It was an encouraging step toward reaching the level of group cohesion that they’ll need to compete internationally.

Shifting immediately from the high-level national team training to working with players trying to understand basketball at a much more basic level was an energizing experience. This was the first time in three years that I’ve had the chance to teach beginning-level players in Afghanistan. As the game has spread across the country during these past few years, I’ve been increasingly focused on training the top players and coaches in each province so that they could – in turn – spread that teaching to ever-expanding groups of newer players in their local areas. While this will continue to be my primary teaching approach here (the goal, after all, is to gradually increase local knowledge to the point that, eventually, the Afghans will be doing all the teaching themselves), the schedule lined up this time in a way that allowed me to take a few days at the end of the trip to get back to my roots. It was an opportunity to engage with lots of new players and to reconnect with several whom I hadn’t seen since the early days of 2011 and 2012.

The experience was wonderful and a bit nostalgic. It was a nice reminder of why I started doing this work in Afghanistan in the first place. I love seeing the popularity of wheelchair basketball being spread by its local practitioners – new players being introduced to the game by players and coaches who were themselves brand new just a few short years ago – but, for a few days, it was a pleasure to get to share that initial excitement with them again myself.


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