Last week I traveled to Brazil to represent the ICRC at the 2016 Summer Paralympic Games in Rio de Janiero. The purpose of my trip was to take part in the International Paralympic Committee’s Inclusion Summit, a two-day event that is held at each Paralympics with the goal of bringing together organizations and individuals focused on advancing the inclusion agenda for people with physical disabilities, both at the Paralympics itself and in society as a whole. In addition, I would give a presentation on the work I’ve been doing with the ICRC to build the wheelchair basketball program in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and network to establish relationships between the ICRC and potential partners with similar organizational goals. On top of these practical goals, though, I was excited to have the chance to take part in my second consecutive Summer Paralympics, connect with many colleagues and friends in the international wheelchair basketball community, soak in the amazing atmosphere of the Games and, of course, take in as many games as I could squeeze in around a full meeting schedule.

I was very curious to see how the Rio Paralympics would stack up against the 2012 London Games, which had been such a revelation in terms of both public promotion and overall popularity. London had filled its Olympic venues for all the Paralympic events (the Paralympics take place two weeks after the Olympics in the same city and are held in all the same facilities) and, with live coverage of the games on a major British TV channel and billboards, posters, and other promotions for the Games blanketing the city, the visibility of the Paralympics was taken to a previously inconceivable level. It was an incredibly high bar for Rio and all future Paralympics to meet.

There were significant (and legitimate) concerns immediately before the 2016 Games began. Brazil announced to the media just over a week before the opening ceremonies that it had run out of budget and was unsure if it would be able to fund the promised travel expenses for athletes from smaller nations without the financial wherewithal to send the athletes themselves. There had been widespread complaints from Olympians about the quality of the accommodations at the Athletes Village. Petty crime had been a persistent problem during the Olympics. And ticket sales for Paralympic events were much lower than expected in the days leading up to the Games; far behind where London had been.

Thankfully, just under the wire, the Rio Paralympic Organizing Committee came through and made it all work. The atmosphere in the city was infected by the Games, there were visible promotions everywhere, and Rio’s public services had been updated to ensure those with physical disabilities could effectively navigate the distances between the giant city’s various tourist neighborhoods and the area where the Olympic Park was located. The Park itself was packed with throngs of good-natured fans – both Brazilian and foreign – who had snapped up nearly every available ticket once the Organizing Committee decided to lower prices across the board, and armies of colorful-shirted Paralympics volunteers were everywhere to ensure things ran as smoothly as possible. It may not have quite reached the perfection of the London Paralympics, but Rio acquitted itself extremely well, especially given its myriad challenges going into the start of the Games.

The Inclusion Summit, which I had participated in during the London Games as well, was a valuable opportunity to hear presentations on the ways Brazil had prepared to be a fully-inclusive Olympic and Paralympic host country, reflections on the various successes and lessons-learned by London in 2012, and perspectives on various philosophies and strategies for promoting inclusion in the sporting and professional worlds. The presentation that made the most impact on me was by a young athlete named Luis Herazo, a javelin thrower with cerebral palsy from a tiny village in Columbia. He told his personal story of growing up as a relative outcast in his community, mocked and brushed aside in equal parts during his childhood. As a young teenager, Luis was introduced to adaptive sports by a local track and field coach. He couldn’t believe sport was something that could be available to someone like him, but he took to it immediately. In just a few short years, he began to excel as a javelin thrower and sprinter and, in 2016, became the first person from his district to ever win a gold medal at the Columbian national para games. Suddenly he was transformed from an afterthought in his society – and even in his own family – to a celebrity who was known and lauded throughout his home town. Every time visitors come to his family’s home, the first thing his father does is show them the room displaying Luis’s trophies, medals, and ribbons. It’s a story that mirrors that of so many of the athletes with whom I’ve been able to work in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Palestine, and India over the past several years, but one that never ceases to inspire.

The day after the Inclusion Summit, I was invited to give a presentation at the House of Switzerland – a temporary enclave set near Copa Cabana Beach that allowed locals to experience Swiss culture and history. The Swiss Embassy gave the ICRC its own presence at the House, which included a room full of large, high-resolution photos of the organization’s recent move to support sport in the nations in which it works. It was amazing for me to roll into the room and see posters of so many athletes I’ve coached all captured in one place. There was even a photo of me coaching players in New Delhi, India. It made me feel proud and nostalgic at the same time. It also made me miss some of the athletes I haven’t seen in several years.

I delivered my presentation through an interpreter since the majority of the audience were Portuguese speakers. I’ve coached through interpreters in all the places where I’ve worked, but I’d never given a speech with one, and it was a bit challenging at first since the translation was happening simultaneously with my speaking – both of us using microphones – so I had to figure out the pacing of telling the story, ensure I wasn’t getting too far ahead for the interpreter and audience to keep up, and try not to confuse myself in the process. We quickly hit our stride, though, and the audience was great. Once I finished the presentation, I spent the next 30 minutes answering a fantastic bunch of insightful questions from nearly every member of the audience. I’d given similar presentations in a few different venues over the past year, but I’d never presented to a general audience with no specific tie to the subject matter – it was really fun to interact with the Brazilian public in that way. Many thanks to the House of Switzerland and the ICRC for inviting me to do it!

Each day I was in Rio, I spent the whole day in presentations and meetings, then took a taxi with my Brazilian ICRC colleague, Flavio, to the Olympic Park to catch the last wheelchair basketball game or two of the night. Before our first game – the men’s semifinal between the U.S. and Turkey – Flavio and I had to track down our accreditation badges, graciously provided by the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation (IWBF), which would allow us access to all the games as well as the “backstage” areas of the arena designated for players, teams, and officials. Unfortunately, the accreditation office with the badges had closed minutes before we arrived. However, we met two wonderful volunteers – one Brazilian and one British – who helped us get into the arena through back channels so we wouldn’t miss the USA game. While we were outside waiting for one of the volunteers to plead our case with a security guard, sitting in a dark corner in the massive expanse of the Olympic Park, I heard from behind me an Italian-accented voice call out my name. It was the wonderful Silvia Galimberti – the communications director of Italy’s wheelchair basketball champions, Briantea84. Sylvia was the person primarily responsible for inviting me, Alberto Cairo, and the Afghanistan men’s national team to Italy in 2014 to play our first games outside Afghanistan. Silvia has an irrepressibly positive personality and it was such an unexpected pleasure to reconnect with her so far from where we’d met. We shared a rooting interest in that night’s game, as U.S. player, Brian Bell, is the star of Silvia’s Briantea84 team during the Italian league season.

Getting back to the Games themselves, there were some major surprises during this Paralympic wheelchair basketball tournament, particularly on the men’s side. Turkey and Spain both made the semi-finals (against the U.S. and Great Britain, respectively), which was a big leap forward for both countries. The men’s teams from Australia and Canada had won all the gold medals in the past four Paralympics and, with Britain and the US, had comprised the medal competitors in nearly every Games during that time. Spain and Turkey had been rapidly developing both in their national professional leagues and in their international success the last several years, and making the medal rounds of the Paralympics was a culmination of that growth. Behind stifling defense and an innovative “small-ball” lineup featuring unbelievable team speed, the U.S. overwhelmed Turkey to make the gold medal game. In another surprise in a tournament full of them, the ascendant Spanish team upset Great Britain to set up a gold medal matchup with the Americans.

The following night, I had one of my absolute highlights of the week when I watched the women’s gold medal wheelchair basketball game between the U.S. and defending Paralympic gold medalists Germany. The U.S. team included two players I’ve spent the last two years coaching for the Denver Lady Rolling Nuggets – Christina Schwab and Natalie Schneider. I was so excited to see them play at the Paralympic level, especially in the championship game. Christina had won two Paralympic gold medals previously (and was a track & field racer in London after taking a few years off from basketball) and Natalie had won one Paralympic gold during several years as a national team member. The U.S. was trying to come back from a disappointing fourth place finish in 2012. Having practiced against them a couple times last year as they prepared for the North American Paralympic qualifying tournament, I knew how talented the team was and how focused they would be behind the coaching of Stephanie Wheeler, another multiple gold medalist as a player before moving into coaching full time. True to form, the U.S. women came out with complete determination. Behind an amazing 33 point, 8 rebound, 6 assist performance from star guard Becca Murray, the U.S. controlled the game from the outset and won by a comfortable 17 point margin to take home the gold. I felt so lucky to be able to watch my countrywomen, including Christina and Natalie, win the ultimate prize in our sport.

The next evening, the wheelchair basketball tournament concluded with the U.S. vs. Spain men’s gold medal game. While I didn’t have any players I had the same close relationships with as I did with the women’s team, it was still wonderful to watch the U.S. men represent the country with their exciting, fast-paced style. While the game was a bit closer than the women’s through the first half, the U.S. used a balanced defense-focused attack to gradually wear down the Spaniards, then broke the game open behind some incredible clutch three point shooting. In the end, the U.S. won by 16 points, securing our second gold – the first time the U.S. men and women had both won wheelchair basketball Paralympic gold medals in 28 years. It was also the first time the U.S. men and women swept the basketball gold medals in both the Olympics and Paralympics. Amazing.

One final anecdote from the Games that was fleeting but very impactful for me – as I arrived at the stadium for the men’s gold medal game and came in through the player’s entrance, I ran into Brad Ness, the captain of the Australian men’s team. I first met Brad back in October when I coached Afghanistan in the Asia Paralympic Qualifying Tournament in Japan, which Australia ended up winning to earn its spot in Rio. Brad came up to me in the early days of the tournament and introduced himself, offering to sit down with the Afghans and talk to them about the way the Australians had developed a positive, winning team culture. He also invited us to join an otherwise closed Team Australia practice so the Afghans could get an impression of how an elite team prepares for its games. Both experiences were invaluable to our growth, and Brad subsequently offered that anytime I ever needed help of any kind with spreading the game in Afghanistan or elsewhere, all I needed to do was give him a call. It was an incredible series of gestures on Brad’s part, and really set him apart in my mind as a global ambassador of the game.

When I saw Brad in Rio, however, something was different. Though he greeted me warmly when we saw each other, he looked completely shocked and dismayed. I knew Australia would have just finished the 5th place game against Brazil – itself a bit of a disappointment because Australia was so accustomed to playing for a gold medal in every Paralympics, but a game everyone expected the Aussies to win very easily. I asked Brad how the game went, and he responded, “Mate… I had a 17 footer to win it at the buzzer and I blew it.” This was Brad’s 5th Paralympics. He has been instrumental in Australia’s dominance and has won a gold and two silver Paralympic medals. In spite of his good-natured personality off the court, he is a fierce competitor on it. I couldn’t imagine how gutting it must be for him to have his team finish out of the medals and then miss the potential game winning shot to end the final game.

I tried my best to say something consoling, knowing nothing I said could ease the sting so soon after a loss. As we shook hands and started to go our separate ways, though, Brad turned and said, “Hey, Jess, you’re doing some really amazing work. I want you to tell the Afghanistan guys that I was really impressed with them in Japan. That was some good basketball they played, and I can tell they’re right on the verge of having everything click and becoming the kind of winning team they want to be. Really, any time you guys could use my help, I’m there.” I can’t properly express how much it meant for a guy going through what Brad was at that moment to step outside his own disappointment and take the time to say that. I also can’t think of a better personification of the Olympic/Paralympic spirit. I head back to Afghanistan in October, and I’ll definitely pass along Brad’s message. It will mean the world to the players.

Thank you to the city of Rio de Janiero and all the colleagues, players, and friends I reconnected with or was able to meet for the first time. It was a great, if all too brief, Paralympic experience.

 

Early in August, I had the opportunity to spend a week in Toronto learning from the incredible group of coaches, players, and staff that make up Canada Wheelchair Basketball. Mike Frogley, formerly the head coach of the University of Illinois and a legendary wheelchair basketball coach and innovator, was an early mentor in my coaching career. I spent several days at U of I back in 2011 studying his teaching techniques as I was first dipping my toe into coaching in Afghanistan; it was an experience that contributed hugely to my moving into coaching and sport program development as a full time career.

Coach Frogley (known by everyone simply as “Frog”) is now the head of the Wheelchair Basketball Canada National Academy. Created in 2013, the Academy is the world’s first full-time, year-round, daily training environment for high performance wheelchair basketball athletes. Though it had been several years since we’d last seen each other, Frog, who has continued to follow the progress of the Afghanistan wheelchair basketball program from afar, invited me to come to the Academy to spend some time with the Team Canada men’s and women’s teams as they went through their final preparations for the Summer Paralympics, taking place from September 7th-18th in Rio de Janiero, Brazil. Always looking for ways to improve my knowledge and skills as a coach, I jumped at the chance.

Coaching

I knew going into the experience that I’d have the chance to learn from some of the best wheelchair basketball minds in the world during my time in Canada, but I assumed that learning would be primarily from the perspective of a passive observer trying to internalize as much information as possible without interrupting the flow of the program’s training camp. I should have known that Frog would never allow me to take such a predictable approach. My first morning there, he asked if I would be up for coaching the Black Aces – a team of extremely talented players from around Canada that was formed to give the men’s national team the best possible competition in its preparation for international tournaments (the Red Aces play a similar role with the women’s team). I’ve built up a decent amount of coaching experience working with players in the various developing countries where I’ve helped to start programs, and have had the honor to coach some world class individual players with the men’s and women’s Rolling Nuggets teams in Colorado the past three years, but I’d never coached a full group of players at this high a level, not to mention against the defending Paralympic gold medalists from the Canadian men’s team. Beyond that, I didn’t even know any of their names! But if Frog had the confidence that I could handle the job, who was I to argue?

The experience turned out to be fantastic. The Black Aces are a terrific group and an amazingly athletic, intelligent team. They were very patient with me as I stumbled over their names during timeouts during that first game. What I didn’t learn until later was that several of the Aces aren’t even disabled. They’re able-bodied players who have spent years competing as part of local wheelchair basketball club teams in their home cities alongside disabled teammates. They were so impressive in their wheelchairs that I never would have known had someone not told me.

I’d played against a few able-bodied players back in the early years of my playing career. I was still a fairly new player with the Portland Wheelblazers when we traveled north to Vancouver, B.C. to play the team there in 2003. It’s been a common model for Canadian teams for a while. Such a massive country with a very diffuse population meant teams needed more bodies in order to have enough players for practices and games, so they opened up wheelchair basketball to anyone who was interested in playing. Several countries have since adopted this concept, with each team being allowed a limited number of able-bodied players. It has created an ongoing debate about whether allowing able-bodied players to join wheelchair basketball teams should be a standard practice everywhere. Both sides of the argument make compelling points:

One side contends that allowing non-disabled athletes to play would potentially reduce the number of opportunities for disabled athletes – the ones for which wheelchair basketball was originally created – and could sully the insular environment that has been created to ensure the game remains pure.

The other says that the only way for the game to gain the kind of broad appeal it deserves – and reach the highest possible level of play – is to allow the best athletes to compete with and against each other, whether they are physically disabled or not. It also points to the fundamental idea of inclusion of people with disabilities – and how the only way that can be promoted to its fullest extent is if everyone is able to be included in the sport.

One thing that was made clear to me in working with the Black Aces was that there is fundamentally no physical difference between an able-bodied player and a minimally disabled player once they are in basketball wheelchairs and competing on the court. I’ve been playing wheelchair basketball for over 15 years and coaching it for seven, and I had no idea four of the players I was coaching were any different than the rest of the high-classification players on the court. When they succeeded, it was due to their skill and intelligence, not any unfair physical advantage. When they failed, it was because their opponents on the Canadian national team – all of whom were disabled – pushed harder or made better physical moves and mental decisions.

The other thing that became clear to me over the course of the week, as I got to know the players on the Black Aces better, was that the able-bodied players were every bit as passionate and dedicated to the game of wheelchair basketball as the rest of us. It was strange to realize that, as a group of people that is accustomed to being marginalized in our societies and is constantly pushing for acceptance as equals, our disabled community is, in this particular case, promoting a similar kind of discrimination by keeping these athletes from having the opportunity to play their chosen sport at the highest level. In Canada and a few other countries, at least there is integration between able-bodied and disabled players at the local level. In the U.S, there is no opportunity for non-disabled players to compete in wheelchair basketball at all.* From my perspective, not allowing skilled, committed athletes to join our game is an anachronistic practice that I hope to see fade away in the near future.

Learning

In addition to the invaluable practical experience I got coaching the Black and Red Aces against the Canadian men’s and women’s teams, I also had tons of opportunity to dialogue with and pick the brains of the coaching and technical staff of Canada Wheelchair Basketball. Each person, from the head coaches of the teams to the youngest intern, had knowledge that I knew would help me immeasurably in my ongoing development as a coach and program developer. In addition, the players themselves have a massive collective knowledge base, from which I gleaned as much as I possibly could in both game environments and in strategy sessions. Everyone was so generous with their time, and I tried to have individual conversations with as many people from around the program as possible in order to learn from each of their unique perspectives.

While I can’t say enough to thank everyone for welcoming me into their circle during such an important training environment, I have to give a special thank you to Frog. Not only did he invite me to be a part of this experience for no other reason than a desire to see wheelchair basketball spread around the world as effectively as possible, but he carved out hours each day to sit down with me and explain all aspects of their player and team development approaches, how they’re using analytics and game video in new and innovative ways, how they plan practices over extended time frames, and how they prepare their players for tournaments like the Paralympics. I could not have asked for a richer, more impactful learning environment than the one he provided.

Teaching

The one thing Frog asked of me in exchange for the phenomenal growth opportunity he and his program were providing was that I give a presentation to the men’s and women’s national teams, the Red and Black Aces, and all the staff and coaches about my experiences coaching in Afghanistan and elsewhere. He is constantly looking for ways to expand the basketball education they are delivering through the Academy and national team programs to encompass larger concepts, including the ways the members of the program can use basketball to make an impact off the court as well as on it.

I was honored to be asked to give the talk, and spent about an hour giving an overview of the story of my first trip to Afghanistan in 2009 all the way up to the Afghanistan men’s national team competing in the Paralympic Qualifying Tournament for Asia last October. I hoped the story and photos I shared would strike a chord with at least a few of the 50 or so people in the room and help them see similar possibilities for their own futures. I had no idea how broadly that message would resonate, though, and was amazed to see several people (who will remain nameless to protect their tough athlete reputations) with tears in their eyes by the end of the talk. Once I concluded and answered some questions, there was immediately a line of players wanting to talk to me and find out how they could help with the initiative I’m building with the ICRC. One of the coaches, Paul Bowes, with whom I had the pleasure of coaching the Black and Red Aces, told me afterward that he had never seen the group of players that focused for that long without a single person checking their phones, dozing off, or losing attention in any way. What a compliment.

I’ve hoped for several years that eventually the ICRC sports program for people with physical disabilities would grow to the point that we would be able to engage other coaches in bringing wheelchair basketball and other sports to developing countries dealing with conflict around the world. Knowing that such a knowledgeable group as Wheelchair Basketball Canada is be willing to be a part its evolution is unbelievably exciting.

Talking

The day before I came home, I had a chance to meet up with two very good friends, Pat and Anna Anderson, and their one-year-old son, Stanley. We went out to breakfast and, while sitting at a table near the entrance, a man walked into the restaurant, looked over, and said to me, “Salam alaikum. Khoubasten?” (“Peace be with you. How are you?”) in Dari, the primary language in Afghanistan. I instinctively responded in the same language, “I’m fine, thanks. How are you?” before stopping and saying, in English, “Wait a second… how did you know I’d understand that??” He smiled and pointed to my shirt, which had a small Afghanistan flag on the chest. We introduced ourselves – he had moved to Canada years before from Kabul – and he asked why I was wearing the shirt. When I told him I coach wheelchair basketball in Afghanistan, he could hardly believe it. He was elated to hear about the program and wished me and the players there great luck in our future endeavors.

One last fun experience I had just before leaving was talking with Pat for the first episode of a wheelchair basketball-focused podcast he’s planning to launch soon. Pat played for the Canadian national team for many years, winning three gold medals, but retired following the 2012 London Paralympics. He’s still a great ambassador and advocate for the game, and his podcast should be a great mechanism through which to engender discussion on important topics and bring further awareness of the game to the broader public. I don’t know exactly when the first episode will be available, but I’ll be sure to post it here once it is.

In about 2 weeks, I’ll be flying down to Rio to represent the ICRC at the last few days of the Paralympics, during which I’ll be attending a summit focused on continuing to use sport as a lever through which to promote inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of society, as well as giving a similar talk to the one I did in Toronto. I’ll also have the chance to watch a couple of Team USA players I’ve coached with the Nuggets (go Christina and Natalie!) as well as see my new friends from Canada compete for men’s and women’s medals. Good luck to all!

 

 

 

 

 

* The one exception in the US is in the collegiate division, where a recently-adopted rule allows newly-formed collegiate teams to roster able-bodied players until they have a chance to develop their program fully enough to have an entire team of disabled players.

It’s the first of June and somehow my three weeks in Gaza are already about to conclude. It’s been a truly wonderful experience – one in which I’ve felt very connected to the people here. Like most things in Palestine these days, though, it hasn’t been without its challenges and sobering realities.

I spent my second week here working with each of the eight men’s club teams and the two women’s teams. I used a different structure this time than I have in the past, with a focus on continuing the development of the coaches after our four-day theoretical course that kicked off the program. Instead of setting the training agendas for the teams myself as I normally do, I sat with each coach and created a plan together so they could take an active role in analyzing their teams and deciding what they most needed to learn in my day with each of them. It was a fun approach that gave me great insight into the thought processes of the coaches – I continue to be excited by the commitment and teaching talent here. The league will have a great chance to flourish with such a solid foundation

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Coach Cashtop instructs new player, Mahmoud, on proper shooting technique (© Jesus Serrano Redondo – ICRC Media Delegate and Spokesperson)

A few of the newer men’s clubs that have been formed in Gaza since I visited last year are primarily made up of disabled victims of the most recent war between Hamas, the governing party in Gaza, and Israel. The war took place in the summer of 2014, so those players are all less than two years post-injury. I’m continually stunned by the resilience and emotional fortitude of the people here. To lose a limb (or limbs in many cases), suffer a spinal cord injury, or deal with any other type of life-altering physical transformation, particularly as part of a war in which the affected individuals have no control, is obviously a massively traumatic event. The collateral damage can be far worse, though.

I learned that one of the new players had his family’s house destroyed in the 2014 war and lost his leg just above the knee in the incident. He was one of 19 family members living in the house and the only one who survived. To move forward from that at even the most basic level takes an inconceivable amount of inner strength. And yet, just this short time later, he has already become the captain of his new wheelchair basketball team and is a relentlessly positive and vocal presence for them on the court. I’m in awe and utterly humbled by what he – and so many of his fellow players – are overcoming in order to be a part of this basketball program.

I mentioned in my last post that we were excited to have the first official game in many years between teams from the West Bank and Gaza here at the end of my trip. We received bad news a few days ago, though, when we learned that the authorities had denied the issuance of permits for all the West Bank players to cross into Gaza. We knew there was a good chance that some of the players would be denied, but to have them all rejected was a huge, huge disappointment. I hoped – probably naively – that something as inspirational as a wheelchair basketball game between long-separated countrymen might sway the authorities to make a positive gesture. Unfortunately, it was not to be. My deepest apologies to the players in the West Bank, whom I was so excited to see again after coaching them two years ago – I will continue to work with my colleagues here to do whatever we can to ensure this game happens in the future.

The last group I worked with was the group of women’s players – about half of whom have been playing since I came a little over a year ago, but with a substantial lapse during the time in between. Many of the conversations my colleagues and I have been having with the Palestinian Paralympic Committee have focused on the need to promote the women’s game just as much as the men’s. It is challenging because of cultural assumptions about sports and whether they are an appropriate pursuit for women here – the Paralympic Committee and several clubs have run into obstacles with families of potential players not being supportive of the idea of their daughters, sisters, and wives joining teams. We’re pushing them to continue to push the issue though, and I told them how quickly the game has grown among women in Afghanistan despite similar societal pressures. The disabled women here in Gaza are much newer to playing sports, but they are quickly falling in love with basketball and – if given an equal chance to play – I know their story will begin to resonate with other women and girls and their families, hopefully prompting more and more players to join in the fun.

AP photo
AP Photo/Khalil Hamra (The Associated Press)

Abs Winston Tweet
Photo and caption courtesy of @AbbsWinston on Twitter

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Hanan shoots and scores! (© Jesus Serrano Redondo – ICRC Media Delegate and Spokesperson)

I also got the chance to visit a brand new sports club exclusively for disabled women – the first of its kind in Gaza – and sit with the players for a couple hours discussing all kinds of things. Because it is uncommon for disabled women here to frequently leave their homes, having the social outlet of their own club is a huge step forward. The conversation was so easy and natural; they were very interested in learning about my experience as a disabled person from a different culture, and we bonded immediately. One of the many great questions they asked was, “in America, how do people look at you as a disabled person?” It was a powerful question to consider, and one I had to think about for a minute before answering. I told them that I don’t think everyone sees me the same way, but in general, I don’t really think about my interactions with people in this way, whether I’m in the U.S. or anywhere else; rather than approaching people with an understanding that they will see my disability first, I present myself according to the way I feel, not necessarily the way I look. I told them I always make eye contact with people. Once people see what is behind your eyes, they will know much more about who you are than if they only see the outer physical picture of your disability. They all nodded excitedly and agreed that this is how they will approach people from now on. Go get ‘em, ladies!

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Chatting with the members of the Al Farisad Sports Club for Disabled Women

The one other great experience I had over the last week was getting to meet an able-bodied basketball team for girls that is being coached by a couple of the wheelchair basketball coaches I’ve been working with the last couple weeks – Ibrahim and Mohammed. The team is for girls aged 15 to 18 and was just formed about six months ago. The girls were so awesome! They’ve come a long way for having only played for such a short time, and are 100% invested in their new sport. I taught them how to do dribble-spin moves during my visit to their practice – something I had to spend a second remembering how to do myself since it’s been 20 years since I last did it without a wheelchair! Ibrahim and Mohammed are doing an amazing job with the group – good luck, girls!

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Coaches Ibrahim (second from left) and Mohammed (back right) and their team of 15-18 year old girls

This afternoon I’ll have one last meeting with all the coaches to go over what we learned during our time together. Then tomorrow we have a closing ceremony that should be a really cool experience with all the players and (hopefully) lots of local and international media present. Gaza, I’ll miss you. Until next time.

It’s hard to believe it’s been two weeks since the end of the men’s tournament in Afghanistan. A lot has happened in that time, so here are a few highlights to bring things up to date.

Motivation

The day before the men’s tournament began, we were joined by two old cohorts – David Constantine, the co-founder of Motivation UK (makers of all basketball wheelchairs our players use in Afghanistan and other places where the ICRC supports wheelchair basketball programs), and his assistant, Johannes. David and Johannes hadn’t been to Afghanistan since 2012, the year of our very first men’s tournament, and hadn’t seen any of the players since they joined us in Italy in 2014. It was wonderful for them to get a chance to see much the game has progressed in the years since and how far the Motivation basketball wheelchairs have taken our players.

David, who is an excellent photographer, managed to capture some amazing images of the tournament action, several of which I included in my previous post.

Blog 8David Constantine and Mohammadullah (Photo by Michael Glowacki)

The Afghanistan Men’s National Team

At the end of the men’s tournament, the third iteration of the men’s national team was named. Two new players – Safi from Kabul and Haidar from Jalalabad – made the roster, joining the 10 players who will return from last year’s team. This is Haidar’s first national team and Safi’s second (he was also on the first version that traveled to Italy in 2014). I spent three days training the team after the tournament concluded. We had a great time working together, and I saw a lot of growth in the players – particularly those who went to Japan last fall.

On the first day of training camp, I asked each of the players to talk about what being on the Afghanistan National Team means to them. The answers were very thoughtful and, in many cases, profound. The theme for all of them was that being a part of this team breaks down so many societal and cultural barriers; it makes them forget that they are from different parts of Afghanistan, that they have different ethnic backgrounds (something that can be very divisive in Afghanistan), and that they are disabled. The assistant coach, Qawamuddin, had perhaps the most poignant comment, saying, “People always assume those with physical disabilities can’t do much for themselves and need to be taken care of. I thought this too when I was asked to coach the wheelchair basketball team in Herat several years ago. I learned very quickly that there are no limits to what people who are driven can accomplish, no matter what their physical barriers. This team is showing that to the whole country – disabled and non-disabled people alike. You will also show the rest of the world that Afghanistan is more than just a place with war and poverty; it is a proud place where people are able to overcome enormous challenges.”  Well said, Qawam. Well said.

The Team of Potential

We also created a new structure this year, naming a second men’s team – the “Team of Potential” – that includes the twelve best players not named to the national team. This will create an opportunity for the next generation of national team players to train together throughout the year, learning from great coaches and preparing themselves for the opportunity to play on the traveling team as soon as it arises. The team is a mix of young players and those with more significant experience – and the team will help the national team train for international competitions by scrimmaging against them several times each year. The new team will be trained by Qawamuddin and another expert teacher, Mirwais from Kabul, who is dealing with an injury and wasn’t able to compete for a player position on the national team this year. Congratulations to the new team and coaches!

Jerusalem

Following the national team training camp, I bade Afghanistan farewell and flew to Israel, where I spent two days recovering in Jerusalem before crossing the border into Gaza. While I was in Jerusalem, I had the chance to spend time with two old friends and colleagues – Greg Halford from the ICRC (Greg and I were together in Afghanistan in 2013 and 2014 and in Gaza last year) and Ehsan Idkaidek of the Palestinian Paralympic Committee in the West Bank. It was great to reunite with both of them and talk about the future of Palestinian wheelchair basketball in both Gaza and the West Bank. Things are naturally very challenging here with the border restrictions for Palestinians, but we are excited to take a major step forward on this trip by bringing several of the top players from the West Bank to Gaza to stage a game between teams from the two sides of Palestine – the first time this has happened in over 15 years. I’m thrilled that this is going to take place while I’m here and can’t wait to reunite with the West Bank players I had the pleasure of training two years ago.

Unfortunately, due to Israeli restrictions currently in place that won’t allow Palestinians from East Jerusalem to cross into Gaza, Ehsan himself won’t be able to join this event. It’s a true shame, as he has been so instrumental in helping to advance sports for people with physical disabilities here and has played an important role in uniting the two sides of the Palestinian Paralympic Committee over the past year. Ehsan, your presence will definitely be missed.
Ehsan Al Jazeera PhotoEhsan Idkaidek (Photo by Al Jazeera)

Getting Started in Gaza

Since I was last in Gaza in February 2015, the Paralympic Committee has managed to bring four new men’s and two new women’s wheelchair basketball clubs on board. This is tremendous progress, and I was amazed and thrilled to hear the game has now reached so many more players than it had just a year ago. I asked the Paralympic Committee to make a plan for how they’d like to structure my visit to – in their view – have the biggest impact on the evolution of their league.

As a result, I spent my first four days here conducting a course for 20 Gazan coaches – twice as many as were here last year – combining classroom theory with on-court practical sessions where they got the chance to coach both new and experienced players in a variety of individual skills and team concepts. I’m so impressed with the assembled group – it includes several members of the able-bodied basketball community, including three players for the men’s able-bodied national basketball team. It’s always fantastic to see people from outside the disabled community getting involved with wheelchair basketball, and Gaza has done a wonderful job of making this integration happen right from the beginning.

The coaches were very engaged and asked fantastic questions throughout the program, though there were a few times where their fervor to get answers got a little out of hand. It’s always a challenge to conduct a class like this in another language because I have to depend on an interpreter to explain to me everything that’s being said by the students (and vice versa, of course). Since Palestinians can get a bit verbose at times – everyone has an opinion on the best answers to everyone else’s questions, even when those questions are being asked only to me – there were instances when a short question would be asked, followed by increasingly loud responses by one, then two, then four, then ten people, leading to everyone in the room trying to yell over the top of each other in what sounded like very aggressive voices (remember, I had no idea what was being said during these repartees). Eventually, I would manage to get everyone to quiet down so my endlessly patient interpreter, Tamara, could explain to me what had been asked. Invariably, the question that had caused the room to explode into a cacophony of raised voices would be something completely innocuous, like, “Is it possible to call two timeouts at the same time if I want to talk to my team for more than a minute?” Each time, once I heard the question translated, I’d burst into laughter in disbelief that that had been the root of the uproar, followed by the entire room of coaches breaking up in laughter at the absurdity of it all.

We all had a wonderful time together during the course, and I think the coaches got a lot out of the experience. Over the coming week, I’ll be working with each of the club teams – men’s and women’s – and their coaches for a day apiece, followed by some competitions and other events next week, as well as the arrival of the team from the West Bank. Things are off to a great start here, and I’m excited to see the momentum continue to build.

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Coaches (l-r) Ibrahim 1, Ibrahim 2, and Wahil (Gaza photos by Mohammad Sukhar)

Blog 2Getting started with coaches and players at our first practical session

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Coaches Ahab (left) and Mohammad (nickname “Cashtop”) instruct a new player while I observe and Tamera translates

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“You’re seriously all yelling at each other about whether it’s possible to use two timeouts at once? Really??”

The 2016 Afghanistan Men’s Spring Championship concluded this morning, and it was an unbelievably wild ride. All the sports-related drama you could possibly ask for – underdog triumphs, falls from grace, comebacks, established stars living up to their hype, unknown players turning into stars, tears, joy – this tournament had it in spades.

With two new teams joining the fold, our pool of teams expanded from six to eight, necessitating a change to a twin bracket format and extending the tournament to five days of games with one rest day in the middle. This was the first time we’ve had a tournament format where each of the teams didn’t play each other in the opening round – with eight teams, we drew randomly to create four-team A and B brackets, with each of the teams playing only the teams in their own bracket. Based on their performances in the opening round, the teams were ranked 1-4 in each bracket, and began a playoff round where the top team played the fourth team from the opposite bracket in the quarterfinals, then the winners of those games moved on to the semifinals, third place game, and championship game.

To set the stage for the unfolding of the tournament and all the surprises that came along the way, I’ll give a brief overview of each team and its history.

Badakhshan
The newest men’s team, formed just three months ago in the city of Faizabad, the team from Badakhshan Province was made up of four players new hometown players who were joined by six Kabul-based men’s players to fill out its fledgling roster. I wrote a post about my time training the team from Badakhshan shortly after arriving in Afghanistan. There was little chance that they would be competitive in their first tournament, but just joining the league was a great accomplishment in itself.

Herat
Coached by my assistant men’s national team coach, Qawamuddin, and boasting a strong and deep roster, Herat has underachieved in its last three tournaments. Last year they finished a disappointing fifth out of six teams and came into this tournament looking for a way to turn things around. I’d heard that their players had been training hard in hopes of finding a way to get their first ever championship, so I was excited to see whether they’d put their talent to work and make a deep tournament run.

Jalalabad
The surprise of the Fall 2014 Men’s tournament, Jalalabad went from never having won a game in its previous two tournaments to a shocking third place finish. In 2015, however, the team regressed and finished last. Their best player, Wasim, has since left to join the Kabul team where he now lives, so they faced long odds for success this year.

Kabul
The defending champions and Afghanistan’s deepest team, Kabul has won two of the last three national titles. Entering this tournament, its roster boasted four of the 12 men’s national team members, with a fifth – Fahim – having recently left to lead the new team from Maidan Wardak (see below). The last three years, Kabul has come into the tournament as the favorites, and this year was no exception.

Kandahar
Last year’s surprise team, Kandahar took third place after never having finished in the medals before. They’re led by Ghafar, the national team’s biggest player who, with his huge size and shy smile, is a favorite of fans and players from all different provinces. The Kandahar team’s previous coach, Ahmad, recently returned to his native Canada, leaving them in the hands of assistant coach Abdullah.

Maidan Wardak
The league’s other new team, joining Badakhshan as a first-time tournament participant, Maidan Wardak was created by a group of former Kabul players whose families are originally from the neighboring province. Fahim, a longtime Kabul-team starter and national team member, is playing and coaching while leading a collection of former Kabul reserves and second-level players.

Maimana
Along with Kabul, Maimana has been the country’s most consistent team, also having won two national titles and having finished second two other years (including 2015 in a down-to-the-wire championship game against Kabul). Three national team starters – Sakhi, Ramazan, and Alem – form the core of the Maimana roster, but due to the small size of their home city, the team lacks depth and is challenged when a starting player needs to be replaced.

Mazar
The team that seen the most marked ups and downs in the brief existence of Afghanistan wheelchair basketball, Mazar won the country’s second national championship and sent four players to Italy in 2014 with the first version of the men’s national team. Only one of those players returned, however, with the other three defecting to Germany along with the former leader of the Maimana team. Following the debilitating loss of its three best players, Mazar began a daunting rebuilding process led by its lone remaining national team member, Basir – a class 1.0 player (meaning he is in the most disabled category of wheelchair basketball players) – who gamely struggled through Mazar’s ensuing Fall 2014 last place finish and its surprising jump to fourth place last year behind a cast of new, inexperienced-but-talented players that I had the pleasure of training for the first time.


The First Round

The Spring 2016 Tournament opened with a slate of intriguing first round games. The first day began with the new team from Badakhshan matching up against the bruisers from Kandahar. While it ultimately lost the game, Badakhshan showed the promise it hopes to realize in the coming year. The team’s founding member, Baset – whom I wrote about in my previous post on training the team – displayed competitive fire even in the face of defeat. Once he and his teammates have the time to get a bit more training under their belts, it is obvious that they will progress quickly and soon reach the level of the rest of the teams here.

The second game was between Kabul and Herat. The history between these two teams has seen a dominating performance by Kabul, which came into the game undefeated against its rivals from the west of Afghanistan. However, despite a strong and confident start by Kabul, Herat was unintimidated and fought its way back during the second half behind excellent play by its center, Nazir. Herat took its first lead late in the fourth quarter and held on behind some shrewd coaching moves by Qawamuddin to pull out a one point victory – its first ever against the team from Afghanistan’s capital. After the final buzzer sounded, Nazir melted into tears, exclaiming, “it has been five years!!”

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Nazir of Herat lines up a free throw against Kabul (Photo by David Constantine)

Following Herat’s inspirational win, Jalalabad opened its tournament bid by notching another first – beating Mazar for the first time in its history. After suffering through such a disappointing finish last year and losing its best player to an already-loaded Kabul team, it was the best start Jalalabad could have hoped for. While it had to stomach a close loss, Mazar’s team looked like it had improved significantly, with its newer players haven taken a big step forward and Basir of the old guard having made his own leap in just the six months since I coached him in Japan.

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Amanullah of Jalalabad scores against Mazar (Photo by David Constantine)

The remainder of the first round saw Maimana easily dominate its side of the bracket, which featured both new teams along with Kandahar, while Herat edged out Kabul, Jalalabad, and Mazar to take the first seed out of the other, more balanced side. While Maimana seemed to be clearly the strongest team in the field, it was clearly anybody’s game going into the playoff round.

The Playoffs

With Maimana and Herat taking the top positions in their respective brackets, it set up a cross-bracket quarterfinal lineup that matched Herat with the newcomers from Badakhshan while Maimana would have to play their oldest rivals, the resurgent Mazar team that had demonstrated increased confidence and improved play in each of its first round games. While it finished last in its first round bracket due to the fact that it had lost to Jalalabad in its first game, there was no question that Mazar was a dangerous team heading into the second round.

Like an overmatched boxer with nothing to  lose, Mazar came out and threw haymaker after haymaker against Maimana, the two teams battling at top speed and with little regard for their own (or their opponents’) safety. Mazar shockingly came out with a full court press against the faster team from Maimana and, while the strategy was very risky, it worked. Maimana was thrown off its game and ended up committing some uncharacteristic fouls and giving up a lead to Mazar in the early going that it would have to fight and claw its way to recapture late in the game. Once Maimana finally retook the lead, however, Mazar refused to give in. It pushed the action and attacked the Maimana defense until the Maimana team’s starting class 2.5 – Alem of the national team – was whistled for his fifth and final foul. Because of Maimana’s paucity of depth, they didn’t have a viable substitute to put into the game, leaving them with no option but to finish the final minutes of the game with just four players against Mazar’s five. Mazar kept its foot on the gas the rest of the way and stunned the heavy favorites with a huge upset, meaning they would move on to the semifinals while Maimana – just an hour earlier looking like the tournament favorites – would have to settle for playing in the fifth place game. The Mazar team exploded in cheers after the landmark win, with the team piling on top of each other in their euphoria and the Maimana players grudgingly applauding in the face of their shocking defeat.

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Basir of Mazar looks to pass against the defense of Maimana (Photo by Michael Glowacki)

In the other quarterfinals, Kabul and Herat easily dispatched the new teams from Maidan Wardak and Badakhshan, while Jalalabad fought out another amazing win, this time against Kandahar, to make their way to the semifinals – sweet redemption a team trying to bounce back after hitting bottom the year before.

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Mukhtar of Badakhshan drives against Herat in the quarterfinals (Photo by David Constantine)

In the semis, Mazar continued its ascent, swarming Jalalabad with lightning quick defense and tremendous offensive teamwork, while Kabul eked out a close win against Herat, avenging its first round loss.

In the third place game that opened this morning’s final day festivities, Herat was an efficient machine, dismantling Jalalabad from the opening tip and capturing its first tournament trophy in three years. While it wasn’t quite the championship they had hoped for after six months of hard training, the team was definitely happy with such a marked improvement from their previous two years’ results.

That led us to the championship game – a rematch of the Kabul vs. Mazar final pairing that had previously yielded Mazar’s only championship back in 2013. It was hard to believe a team that had lost its three primary scorers a year later and rebuilt itself around a short, slightly pudgy (no offense, Basir!) class 1.0 point guard could possibly have made it all the way back to the finals in just two years. It was a true story of overcoming all obstacles and never accepting defeat. But Mazar wasn’t interested in being a feel good story. It believed in its ability to take on all comers and its players showed absolutely no fear as they lined up across from the defending champions from Kabul.

As it had done against Maimana, Mazar came out swinging. It built an early lead that Kabul, no matter how hard it pushed, seemed unable to cut down. Every time a Kabul player would make a great play, Mazar would push the pace and set up a scoring run of its own. By the beginning of the fourth quarter, Mazar led by seven points and had controlled the pace of play throughout the game. Basir had led a balanced scoring attack and had even swished a three pointer near the end of the third quarter to push his team’s lead to its current level. All the momentum was on Mazar’s side; they were 10 minutes away from realizing their improbable dream of coming all the way back to the top.

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Shah Wali of Mazar drives baseline to score against Kabul in the final (Photo by David Constantine)

In the fourth quarter, Kabul snapped out of its funk and – behind the outstanding play of its star player, Bilal – fought back to tie the game. Basir hit another unbelievable three pointer for Mazar halfway through the quarter, but Kabul continued its assault, ultimately prevailing by two points and repeating as champions. It was the first time a men’s team had won back-to-back titles; ironically, just a week after the women’s team from Mazar had accomplished the same feat in the women’s tournament. Congratulations to the team from Kabul and its new head coach, Khalid, for pulling off such an impressive accomplishment against such a talented field of teams.

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Bilal of Kabul saves the ball during his team’s fourth quarter comeback against Mazar (Photo by David Constantine)

Every tournament, during the awards ceremony, I follow the presentation of the team trophies by naming the Most Valuable Player of the tournament. Every previous year, the winner of the MVP was the top player from the winning team and always a higher classification player, either a 3 or 4. This year, however, I knew before the final game ended who had been the most valuable to his team. Basir from Mazar, physically one of the least-likely wheelchair basketball stars anywhere, had led his team back from its lowest point. He had served as the team’s coach until this tournament, had coached the Mazar women to back-to-back titles, and had recruited the stable of players that have so quickly grown into some of the country’s brightest young talents, and all the while had continued working on his own game to maximize his own limited physical resources. He scored 18 points in the final despite being the smallest player on the court. He made huge shot after huge shot when his team needed them the most. Maybe it wasn’t quite enough to win the championship, but it was more than anyone could have expected and, with the talent he now has around him, I have a feeling he’ll have many more chances to win the championship trophy. Basir, you’re the man.

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Basir, MVP of the 2016 Spring National Championships (Photo by Michael Glowacki)

It’s hard to believe it’s already been a week since the end of the women’s national championships; there’s a lot to catch up on! Today we’re on a break in the middle of the six-day men’s national tournament, which I’ll cover in a separate entry once it concludes on Saturday. For now, let’s go back to the final day of the women’s tournament after Mazar had won its second consecutive women’s title.

Following the awarding of the championship, second place, and third place trophies, as well as a special trophy welcoming the women’s team from Jalalabad to the league, it was time to name the second iteration of the Afghanistan Women’s National Wheelchair Basketball Team (the first was named in October of 2014). Being the one to select the players of the national team is always something of a double edged-sword for me. On one hand, it is a great feeling to reward the hard work of the players who make the team by recognizing them with the honor of representing their country. On the other, the team only has 12 roster spots, and with the player classification system used in wheelchair basketball (meaning players of a wide range of different severities of disability are needed to comprise a team), that means there isn’t enough roster space to include all the players who played very well for their teams in the tournament and who have worked hard to improve their games over the past year and a half.

The naming of the team began with a euphoric first few players being announced and the gym reverberating with cheers, but the excitement gradually lessened as each successive name was announced and the named players realized that not all of their high-performing hometown teammates would be joining them on the roster. By the time I read the 12th name and a crowd of photographers began snapping pictures of the newly-anointed Afghanistan Women’s National Wheelchair Basketball Team, nearly every player had her eyes downcast, with a few even in tears over the fact that some of their friends wouldn’t be staying with them for the team’s training camp or whatever adventures are to come over the next year.

After the excitement of the tournament’s championship game and the delirious cheering of the Mazar players after their win followed by the elation of the first few national team players’ names being called, the sudden switch to sadness over the few deserving players who weren’t named to the national team was a bit of a stomach punch for me (and for the players who were left off, I’m sure). I spent the next hour trying to console individual players about why they or one of their teammates weren’t named to the team. It’s not the first time I’ve had to deal with this situation, so the disappointment from those who didn’t make it wasn’t unexpected, but with the greatly increased competitive level the women have reached since the last team was announced, the reactions were much more visceral. It gave me a real appreciation for the coaches I’ve played for in the past who had to handle these questions from me and my compatriots and who were so patient in explaining the difficulty of making decisions about who makes the team, who is on the traveling roster, who starts, who gets the most shots, etc, etc, etc. It’s a very difficult part of the job, and it’s hard knowing that there’s no contextualizing their disappointment when it comes to having their dreams of reaching the top level put on hold for one more year.


Training Camp

By the following morning’s opening training session, the outlook of the group had improved only slightly. Between the exhaustion from the tournament they’d just finished and a lingering preoccupation over the faces who weren’t among them, the dynamic was several notches of excitement below what I would have hoped for. As I released the team for their midday break, I called over one player who had been particularly morose and uncommunicative throughout the session, and had a talk with her about leadership and focus in the face of outside challenges. She was angry that one of her teammates hadn’t made the team, which I told her I understood. I explained that she will deal with disappointments like this for the entirety of her basketball career, and she needs to be able to put the grieving process on hold in order to effectively learn and show her new teammates the kind of positive outlook they need from one of their leaders.

She told me she understood and that she would come back ready to play in the afternoon. She made good on her promise, and the smile she brought to the second practice had a huge impact on transforming the attitude of the entire team. Suddenly the girls were following her lead by joking with each other and yelling encouragement when one of their teammates made a mistake; it elevated the level of play and focus for all of them, and made our final three training sessions highly productive and fun. By the final session, which we concluded with an extended scrimmage game, the players were playing great basketball and were smiling and laughing while doing it. It was a wonderful way to conclude the week.

When we named the first women’s national team a year and a half ago, the players were all very new to the game and still a long way from being ready to play internationally. This time the experience was totally different and the progress they made in just two days was excellent. It has been a challenge for me, Alberto, and the other board members of the Wheelchair Basketball Federation of Afghanistan to find a suitable international competition for the women’s team to join. We’re working hard to make it happen, though, and I’m excited to see that they’re finally at a collective level of readiness that will allow them to compete once that chance presents itself (we’re shooting for this fall – fingers crossed).

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The 2016 Women’s National Team!

IMG_4271Women’s National Team assistant coach, Tahera – one of the top able-bodied women’s basketball players in Afghanistan – showed up to the first day of training camp wearing a faded Denver Nuggets jersey (the team I play for back home). Nice choice!

IMG_4274We were joined at women’s national team training camp by the team’s newest fan – Marya, a patient at the ICRC Orthopaedic Centre where we practice…

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Marya found a new friend in Michael Glowacki, director of The League of Afghanistan, who’s back in Kabul to finish his filming

The Spring 2016 Afghanistan Women’s Wheelchair Basketball National Tournament is a wrap after three days of amazing performances by all four teams. As has been the case every time we hold one of our semi-annual tournaments, the teams each took their level of play to new heights and showed greater competitive intensity than they ever had before.

The first round of the tournament saw fairly predictable results, with the defending champions from Mazar-i-Sharif winning all their games (though Kabul gave them a run for their money in the first game of the tournament), and Jalalabad gamely struggling through their first-ever competition with their cobbled-together roster of brand new Jalalabad players and dedicated fill-ins from Kabul’s second tier. Jalalabad gradually improved with each game of the first round, but only managed to score two points in each of its games before finally clicking in its semifinal against Mazar and putting 8 points on the board. It was a great way to end the newest team’s first two days of the tournament and gave them hope and confidence that they would be able to grow quickly in the coming six months and come back ready to compete with the rest of the teams at the next tournament.

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Zeba of Jalalabad takes in her first competitive wheelchair basketball experience (all photos in this post courtesy of Michael Glowacki)

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Jelwa of Jalalabad goes all out chasing down a loose ball…

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…and bravely picks herself up afterward.

The surprise of the first round for me was seeing how much the team from Herat had improved. They took their last place finish in the fall championship very hard and clearly used it as motivation to prepare for this tournament. Despite its best efforts, Herat narrowly lost to both Mazar and Kabul in the first round, setting them up for a semifinal matchup with Kabul, a team they had never beaten in the year-and-a-half since their team was formed. The semi-final was an incredible game – very low scoring due to the great defense played by both teams, yet captivating the entire time. It felt more like a soccer match than a basketball game, with the crowd cheering wildly when a player would finally break free for a shot, even if she didn’t manage to score. The gymnasium was so deafeningly loud at points that none of the players could hear my referee’s whistle, leading to plays continuing for several seconds after fouls – twice resulting in scores that I had to waive off – while I tried in vain to get the players’ attention over the deafening cacophony. In the end, Herat gutted out one of the hardest-fought victories I’ve ever seen, with its young star, Sumaya, converting a layup with under 30 seconds to play that iced a four point win. Their celebration after the game was as joyous as any championship celebration. Even the Maimana men’s team joined in, leading a spirited dance circle that had the entire gymnasium clapping along. The huge smiles on all the Herat players’ faces showed the clear relief that they had finally beaten a Kabul team that had been so untouchable to them for the entirety of their existence. They would play Mazar for the championship the next day and they were positively beaming with excitement and anticipation of that matchup.

Between the third place game and the final this morning, the ICRC held an exhibition futsal match between two teams of disabled children playing on prosthetic limbs built here at the ICRC Orthopedic Center along with kids with polio and cerebral palsy. The players ranged in age from around 6 to 12, and their play was unbelievable! I’d seen a bit of futsal (soccer played in a gymnasium on a pitch the same size as a basketball court) played by adults here, but it was my first time watching players this young. They were dribbling, passing, and shooting with incredible skill – some on above-knee prostheses! It was so much fun, and the kids were elated to be playing in front of such a large and vocal contingent of new fans.

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Young futsal stars wow the crowd

As the time for the championship game arrived, the magnitude of the moment was showing clearly on the faces of the Herat players. Mazar, which has won two championships and played in two other finals, was much more calm and jumped out to a dominant first quarter performance. Mazar built an early 15-2 lead, and the gathered crowd started to sense that they would run away with the championship.

No one told that to the Herat players, though, and in the second quarter they came out with a new determination. They slowly chipped away at the Mazar lead behind fantastic defense and unselfish team play on offense. By the end of the third quarter, they had taken a two-point lead and the team bench was jubilantly chanting “HER-AT! HER-AT!” along with most of the 200 fans across the court.

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Sumaya of Herat drives to the basket against Nadia of Mazar

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Shabana of Herat basks in the glow of leading her team’s comeback

In the fourth quarter, Mazar leaned on its experience to shake off the torpor it had fallen into during Herat’s stirring comeback. The two teams battled back-and-forth throughout the final frame, but Mazar’s players made multiple clutch plays on offense and defense to just edge the by-now-exhausted Herat team, finally winning 30-24.

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The Mazar players and coach Basir huddle during a timeout before staging their game-winning rally

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Khalida cheers from the bench as her Mazar team pulls off its second consecutive championship

This was the first time an Afghan team – male or female – has managed to defend its title and repeat as national champions. The Mazar players and their coach, Basir, celebrated wildly their well-deserved victory. Congratulations to all on a truly amazing tournament. The momentum of women’s wheelchair basketball in Afghanistan is only going to continue to build with these types of performances.

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