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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I spent two days this week working with the new women’s team from Jalalabad for the first time. The most experienced of the players have only been playing since January, so they are all very new to the game. As I mentioned previously, I didn’t think forming a basketball team for women (much less a team for disabled women) in a place as socially conservative as Jalalabad was a realistic possibility – at least not yet. I was thrilled to be proven wrong, however, and am proud of the ICRC leadership and coaches in Jalalabad for pushing the envelope and giving their disabled women the chance to join the league.

Before the Team Jalalabad training camp – and their participation in their first women’s national tournament – could take place, we ran into a few challenges. First, many of the families of the players decided that, even though they had given approval for their sisters and daughters to join the weekly practices at home in Jalalabad, sending them to Kabul to play in front of large groups of strangers in the big city was an entirely different matter. Even after the coaches pleaded for the reticent families to reconsider, only five of the 15 players were given permission to make the trip.

Then, while I was in Badakhshan training the new men’s team last week, there was a tragic Taliban attack in Kabul that killed over 70 people and injured over 350 (thankfully none of the players or my colleagues were affected). As a result, another of the players’ families decided that Kabul was not a desirable destination right now and pulled their daughter from the traveling roster, dropping the number of team members to just four. The family’s decision in light of the attack is completely understandable, of course, but it’s eye-opening to think that people living in a place as volatile as Jalalabad would see Kabul as comparatively unsafe; no differently, I suppose, than how my own family and friends back home must feel when they see war-related news from this part of the world, particularly when I’m here. I was sad to hear that I’d have one less player to work with as a tangential result of more senseless violence, but I focused on giving the four that would be coming the best experience possible to get them excited about dedicating themselves to their new sport.

Luckily, the pool of female players in Kabul has grown to a point that there were many who were happy to join the Jalalabad contingent as surrogate team members, both during the training camp and in the tournament. Six additional players were selected – most of whom I hadn’t had the chance to coach previously, which was great – and I had a fantastic two days teaching the combined group the basics of the game. It had been a while since I’d had the opportunity to coach a brand new group of players here – the last was the team from Herat over a year and a half ago – and, as always, it was both challenging and fun to try to find engaging ways to get them to learn as quickly as possible.

I hope I’ve made some progress as a teacher since my first days coaching the team in Maimana over six years ago(!), but each group of new players comes with their own unique personalities and ways of learning that constantly keep me on my toes. The Jalalabad women were no different, but they made great progress in just two days and left the training feeling as ready as they could be for their first leap into competition. They’ll have all they can handle trying to keep up with the much more experienced teams from Mazar, Kabul, and Herat in the tournament, but they’ll learn so much and, I hope, come away even more excited to continue their journey and bring their teammates who stayed behind in Jalalabad along for the ride next time.

Good luck to Ferishta, Jellwa, Zeba, and Ghul Rukh and their coaches Taj and Inam this week!

After a one day postponement due to my flight getting canceled and further delays the next day as we waited out another set of spring storms, I finally made it to Faizabad in Badakhshan Province. It was my first time training the new men’s wheelchair basketball team on their freshly-built outdoor court at the ICRC’s new Faizabad Orthopedic Center, and the experience, while all too brief, was wonderfully memorable.

I was joined in Badakhshan by two Kabul players and longtime pupils of mine – Safi, who had spent the previous three weeks coaching the new team in their first practices, and Ashraf, who served as my interpreter on the trip – and had a lot of fun getting to spend some quality time with both of them. It was so gratifying to see my former students – now full-fledged players in their own right – doing their part to bring the game to Afghan wheelchair basketball’s next generation.

As I mentioned in my previous post, this was also the first chance I’ve had to travel outside Kabul since the spring of 2013. A combination of heightened security precautions and rapid growth in the number of players and teams around the country have conspired to keep me rooted in one place to maximize the limited time I have here each year, with the teams I’ve coached each coming to Kabul for training rather than me traveling to teach them in their home cities. It’s obviously very exciting to have seen the league expand so rapidly, but I had really missed my experiences absorbing the distinct cultures and meeting the vibrant people in each of the provinces I had visited earlier in the program’s development. As a result, I was thrilled to have the chance to go to a brand new province, particularly one as famously beautiful as Badakhshan.

Baset

The birth of Badakhshan wheelchair basketball actually started way back in 2012, when a young paraplegic from the province named Baset was visiting the ICRC Orthopedic Center in Kabul. The timing of his visit allowed Baset to be a spectator during our first men’s national wheelchair basketball championship tournament in Afghanistan, and he was instantly bitten by the basketball bug. He’s traveled to Kabul to watch several subsequent tournaments and has been asking each time when he can start a team himself. When Alberto Cairo managed to secure a land grant to expand the site of the new orthopedic center the ICRC was building in Faizabad last year, there was finally a place to build Baset his home court and start the team he’d been waiting four years to be a part of.

Baset hadn’t been able to come to the last couple national tournaments, so I was surprised when he greeted me upon my arrival to see how much he had matured over the previous year and a half. Now 24, he’s handsome, tall, and muscular, with a light beard that completes the striking transformation from the baby-faced kid my wife Lindy found so endearing when she met him during her 2013 visit to Afghanistan (Lindy has lent her voice to Baset’s cause ever since, regularly asking me when he was getting his team in Faizabad; she was understandably thrilled when I told her it had finally happened and that I’d be going to coach them). When we hit the court for the first time just two hours after our plane landed, it was clear that Baset has grown into a natural leader as well, having taken on the role of managing the team while also showing early signs of becoming one of its best players in spite of his relatively high injury level.

Seeing how invested Baset already is in his new passion brought home to me again the impact wheelchair basketball is having on the ever-growing group of players across Afghanistan. I have no doubt that getting to see him take the next step in his journey when he returns to Kabul in two weeks to participate in his first national tournament as a player is going to be one of the all-time highlights of my ongoing Afghanistan experience.

Scenes from Badakhshan

Below are a few photos of my time in Faizabad to give a sense of what may be the most visually stunning place I’ve seen yet in Afghanistan (not that my limited photography skills can do it justice) and to capture some of the memories I’ll take from my two days there.

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I can confidently say I’ve never played on a basketball court with a setting as gorgeous as the one in Faizabad

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I went out for lunch with a few players and colleagues – my first meal out in Afghanistan in 3 years. Where did we go? KFC: Kabul Faizabad Chicken. The logo may have been familiar, but the menu items were… different.

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Enjoying the mountain scenery with (l-r): ICRC colleague Maryam, Faizabad players Baset and Basir (standing), and Kabul player/coaches Ashraf and Safi.

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Baset, Ashraf, and Safi take in the view of Faizabad and the surrounding hills.

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An afternoon drive in a Land Cruiser up a steep dirt track led to a chance meeting with a group of young Afghan goatherds and their charges.

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Wildflowers grow up through the rusting metal runway left behind by the Russians next to Faizabad Airport.

 

I arrived in Kabul on Saturday for my annual spring trip coaching in Afghanistan. I’ll be here for a month, then will travel to Palestine to spend three weeks coaching the players in Gaza I first worked with a little over a year ago. I’m excited to see all my players and colleagues in both places and to get a chance to work with new teams and players as well.

Today I’m at the airport preparing to fly to the Northeastern city of Faizabad in Badakhshan province, where I’ll be teaching a brand new men’s team that was formed about a month ago. Faizabad is situated in a steep mountain valley and yesterday saw thunderstorms looming over the top of the city, so the ICRC flight I was supposed to take was canceled. While missing a day training the team in Faizabad was unfortunate, it gave me the chance to stay in Kabul and work with another new team – this one from the province of Wardak to the immediate south. The team is made up of players of varying levels of experience who live in Kabul and have, until now, been training with the ever-growing pool of players in the capital city. All the players’ families are originally from Wardak, though, so they petitioned to start a team of their own. I know all the players from previous training sessions, and it’s great to have yet another new solid group that, coupled with Faizabad, will bolster the number of men’s teams this year from six to eight.

Today we are still at the mercy of the unpredictable spring weather, but I’m hoping to take off soon with my old friend and longtime interpreter, Ashraf, on a United Nations flight north to Faizabad. This is the first time I’ll have traveled to train a team in a city outside Kabul in nearly three years and it will be my first time ever seeing Badakhshan Province. It’s a famously beautiful part of Afghanistan, so I’m excited to finally experience it firsthand.

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Day 2 of waiting in the airport with Ashraf

Following two days teaching the new team in Faizabad, I’ll return to Kabul, where I’ll get to coach another new team – this one a women’s team from Jalalabad. Jalalabad sits alongside the Pakistan border east of Kabul and is a socially conservative city that I didn’t think would be a realistic place to form a women’s team in the near future. The fact that they have already succeeded in establishing the fourth women’s team in Afghanistan is a great credit to the wheelchair basketball program leadership and coaches there, and certainly to the female players who are willing to take a huge leap in being the first women to play wheelchair basketball in an eastern province. I can’t wait to meet them for the first time.

After training the teams from Faizabad and Jalalabad, they will join the rest of the existing teams in national championship tournaments for the women and men, following which we will select new national teams for each, whom I’ll train to further prepare them for their next international competitions.

I’ll be joined in late April by Michael Glowacki, the director of The League of Afghanistan documentary, for what should be his final filming session before the film is completed. We will also be joined by David Constantine, the founder and president of Motivation UK, the wonderful organization that designs and builds all the basketball wheelchairs used in Afghanistan. This will be David’s first visit to Afghanistan since 2012, when he was here to witness the first ever national wheelchair basketball tournament held in the country. David is a very accomplished photographer, and I’m excited to see and share some of the images he will capture during his time here.

It’s going to be an exciting seven weeks. Much more to come soon!

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

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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 Challeath.com)

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

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.

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Habib

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Ramazan

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Alem

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Wasiq

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Bilal

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Basir

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Sabir

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Sakhi

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

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

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
Alem

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

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

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

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
Fahim

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
Nazir

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

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

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
Ghafar

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
Mohammadullah

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.

Team serious
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

Team laughing
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.

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