Late last month I had the opportunity to coach in Bangladesh for the first time. I didn’t know much about the country before leaving; just that it had dealt with some very serious humanitarian issues in the past, is extremely impoverished, and had recently been the destination of the mass exodus of the Rohingya people from Myanmar. I also knew that the ICRC had been supporting a fledgling wheelchair basketball program in Bangladesh for the past couple years, so I was excited to meet them for the first time and see what kind of progress we could all make in a week together.

From the perspective of the upper floor of the Dhaka hotel where I stayed my first night in Bangladesh, the capital city appeared to be an endless expanse of mid-sized apartment buildings. There are around 19 million people living in the greater Dhaka area and it is the second most densely populated major city in the world. Elements of it reminded me of other places I’ve been – Gaza and Kabul, in particular – but on a far more massive scale.

The court where I would be conducting my training camp was located on the main campus of the Center for Rehabilitation of the Paralyzed (CRP) – the ICRC partner organization that provides nearly all of the physical rehabilitation services in Bangladesh for people with physical disabilities – which is located just an hour or so outside Dhaka. Once I arrived at the CRP, it felt like a little village unto itself despite its proximity to Dhaka’s overwhelming press of humanity. Inside its walls I found a fully functioning community, primarily made up of people with physical disabilities, that was permeated by a pleasant, tranquil atmosphere. The grounds are scattered with coconut trees and other subtropical vegetation, adding to the natural, peaceful feeling of the place. At the center of the campus was a full-size, nicely appointed outdoor basketball court. On that court – already playing despite the sweltering heat and the fact that the beginning of the official training session was still over an hour away – were 22 smiling, shouting male and female wheelchair basketball players.

From the first moment of introducing myself to the players, I could tell they were a special group. They had a vitality and excitement about them that was a bit different than what I’m used to experiencing when meeting a new group for the first time. Normally it takes me a day or two to establish a connection with new players, but the group in Bangladesh was 100 percent ready to go from minute one, warmly welcoming me, volleying questions, and asking to get started as soon as possible.

I soon learned one of the reasons why they were so enthusiastic and confident. They’d had the advantage of working with a coach – a young staff member at the CRP named Nahid Tonmay – who had dedicated himself to learning as much about wheelchair basketball as possible over the last two years and passing that information on to the players. I knew of Tonmay from emails and messages he’d posted on my blog over the past year asking for information about coaching and wheelchair basketball strategy as well as any insights that would help him build a sustainable program in Bangladesh.

I was already excited that a young coach would reach out to me of his own volition, but once I got a chance to meet him in person, I found out that he’d also been sending similar requests to coaches all over the world in an attempt to gain knowledge from as many sources as possible. What a go-getter! He told me that of all the messages he sent out, I was one of the only people who responded, yet he refused to give up and kept up his outreach to learn to be the best coach he could.

Tonmay’s dedication has already had a clear impact on the players in Bangladesh, and I was impressed by the level of knowledge he (and they) already had about the game. He is exactly the kind of coach I’ve hoped to develop in all the countries in which I’ve worked – intellectually curious, self-motivated, and interested in both creating opportunities for as many people as possible and helping those who show promise and interest develop into high-level athletes. He’ll be a very important leader for the program as it moves forward.

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Chatting with coach Nahid Tonmay on the campus of the CRP (all photos courtesy of the CRP)

The other participants who joined Tonmay for three-day classroom courses on coaching, refereeing and classification were equally interested, even though it was the first time most of them were learning about wheelchair basketball. Many of the students were either experienced coaches or former players from Bangladesh’s able-bodied basketball federation, while others were physiotherapists or occupational therapists at the CRP learning to become classifiers. The head coach of the Bangladesh men’s national basketball team even took part, as did the coaches of the army, navy, air force and police teams (most of the best basketball players in the country apparently come through its military system). Despite their strong backgrounds in running basketball, all of them were extremely respectful, focused and curious throughout the courses. It was great also that everyone, no matter what their primary area of focus, decided to participate in all three courses. Without me even telling them, they understood that having a broader understanding of all the technical aspects of wheelchair basketball would give them a better foundation from which to grow in their chosen disciplines.

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Being short on business cards led to a good-natured scrum where every coach tried to grab one of my final two

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Teaching the basics of wheelchair basketball classification to students during an on-court session

The one briefly unpleasant moment of the classes was when, partway through the final morning, Tonmay stopped me in mid-sentence to calmly-but-urgently point out a spider that was right behind my wheelchair. I casually turned around to look at it, assuming it would be like most spiders I’ve seen before. When I saw that it was almost as big as my hand, I let slip a few words of… um… alarm. Apologies to the class for my temporary lack of professionalism, but seriously, look at that thing!

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The rest of the week with the players was fantastic. They’re all still relatively new to the game, but Tonmay’s work with them had given them a nice jump start. Their fundamentals were a lot better than most new players I work with as a result. By the time we played an ad hoc tournament between three teams on the last day, they were scoring, defending, and setting picks like old pros. It was a ton of progress in a very short amount of time and, seeing how focused they and their coaches were throughout the week, I’m excited to watch their growth in the coming years.

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The newly-formed Bangladesh men’s and women’s national teams will be traveling to Indonesia for the 2018 Bali Cup tournament in July – the same tournament the Afghanistan women won in their first international competition last summer. It will be a wonderful experience for them culturally and competitively, and I know they’ll learn a great deal. With Coach Tonmay on their bench and the players’ can-do attitudes, I have a feeling they’ll surprise people.

Bangladesh, see you again next year. Until then, keep up the great work and good luck!

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Over the course of seven days last week, the Afghan men’s and women’s national teams were in Bangkok, Thailand competing in the IWBF Central and East Asian Regional Qualifying Tournament for the Asian Para Games. The qualifier included eight men’s and six women’s teams vying for four spots each in the continent-wide summer Para Games, to be held in Jakarta, Indonesia in October 2018. The qualifier was a tournament packed with exciting games, impressive growth and memorable first time experiences for many of the teams.

Joining the field of teams in Bangkok along with the Afghans were my former students from India (both men and women) and the women’s team from Cambodia, all of which are supported by the ICRC Physical Rehabilitation Program. I ran into the Cambodians just as their bus was arriving at the hotel after a day-long journey from Battambang to Bangkok (including getting detained at the border for several hours before being allowed to cross into Thailand) and, almost before I had time to realize who was getting off the bus right next to me, was surrounded by a shrieking, smiling throng of players. Getting to reconnect with all of the Cambodians and Indians – many of whom I hadn’t seen since their first days playing the game back in 2014/15 – and watch them play in international competition for the first time was a truly special experience.

So much happened over the course of the week with so many players and teams, so I’ll tackle it chronologically to hopefully remember all the main highlights.

The Teams
Men
Pool A: China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia

Pool B: Afghanistan, Chinese Taipei, India, Thailand

Women
Afghanistan, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Iran, Laos

The men’s teams played round robin formats in each pool, followed by cross-pool quarter finals leading to semi-finals and placement games. The women’s teams played a longer round robin followed by placement games based on their records.

The Action

After the opening ceremonies on Sunday, March 4th, the tournament kicked off with the Afghanistan men taking on the very strong Thai team on their home floor. Thailand and China were the clear favorites on the men’s side, with those two separated a tier above the rest of the field in international performance. With barely any time to train together before the tournament, the Afghan men had their work cut out for them.

They started the game strong, though, scoring a couple early baskets and playing solid defense to keep the game close through the first five minutes and even leading at one point. However, after waking up (and inserting their starters), the Thai team took over. The game – which I knew would be our hardest of the tournament – was predictably one sided the rest of the way, with Afghanistan playing better strategic basketball on both ends of the court than it had in the past, but unable to finish many of its easy shot attempts. As I reminded the guys after the game, though, our goal (at least mine) wasn’t to come in and shock the world by beating a far superior Thai team in the first game, it was to get better quarter-by-quarter, half-by-half, and game-by-game as the tournament proceeded. They nodded grudgingly and gave a half-hearted shout of “meisha” (“we will do it”).

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Alem of Afghanistan shoots against the Thai defense on day 1 (all photos in this post courtesy of the ICRC)

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Saber looks to attack

The rest of the field would have their first game the following day. The Afghan women’s team opened against India, whom they had played on the way to their championship at the Bali Cup in July 2017. The night before the game, I asked the women’s head coach, Tahera Yosoufi from Herat, if she was confident coaching by herself or if she would like me to join her as an assistant. I’ve been grooming Tahera – the captain of the Afghanistan national standing basketball team – to take over coaching the women’s wheelchair national team for a couple years and, after their success in Bali and Herat’s recent national championship, I hoped she’d be ready to take the reins at this tournament. She answered confidently that she was ready to do it on her own… at least for the first game. I wished her luck and did a silent fist pump as we parted, knowing that she would do well and happy that she was willing to embrace the challenge.

With several years more experience and a much more competitive league back home, the Afghans were too much for the Indians, running out to a big opening victory. It was clear immediately that, while the Afghan women certainly need to train more back home in order to maximize their potential, their competitive experience was at a completely different level than that of the Indian players. Many of the Indian women were relatively new – having started since I was last there in the fall of 2015 – with only a few holdovers from the first days of the programme. It was natural that they’d be at a disadvantage to the Afghans, but it was also obvious that they had been playing basketball more as a social outlet than as a competitive pursuit (not a bad thing when social interaction is the goal of the program, but not enough to prepare them for this level of international competition). The lack of focused training showed on the court and, I think, motivated them to return home ready to get to work in order to improve their performance at future tournaments.

While I was happy for the Afghan women to get an opening victory, I was also concerned. To that point, their entire international experience – starting with the Bali Cup victory – had been against teams at the relative beginning of their development. I was worried that the Afghans would get overconfident and wouldn’t be mentally prepared once they had to play tougher competition later in the tournament.

With the Afghan men having the day off following their loss to Thailand on Sunday, I joined the Cambodian women’s team for their opening game against Laos, their first game ever at an IWBF tournament. What a first game it was! The Cambodians had improved a great deal since I had last coached them – thanks in large part to the aforementioned IWBF development camp last year, followed by a two-day visit from Mike Frogley, Bo Hedges, and David Eng from Wheelchair Basketball Canada that fired them up to improve their skills. Laos was tough, though, using their size advantage to repeatedly score inside against the faster Cambodians. I was sitting behind the Cambodian bench just to give them encouragement, but with the intent of staying out of any strategic decision-making since they had a new coach on the bench. Over the course of the game, though, it became clear that their coach had never been involved in wheelchair basketball before – it turned out he was a representative of the Cambodian Paralympic Committee – an experienced coach of track and field, but with next to no knowledge about wheelchair basketball.

By the time I realized this, the Cambodian team had built a five point lead with just a minute to go. Given the paucity of scoring late in the game, it seemed safe enough that I let it play out, continuing my role as an unofficial cheerleader rather than getting more intrinsically involved. However, right as I made that decision, Laos staged a furious comeback, scoring five points in just over a minute, leading to a tie game at the end of regulation time. The Cambodian players and coach were so inexperienced that they weren’t even sure what was supposed to happen when the game ended with a tie score. I explained that they would play an additional five minute overtime period, which brought cheers as they realized they could still pull off a victory against their neighbors to the north.

The first overtime followed a similar script, with Cambodia racing out to a quick lead, then Laos fighting back to tie the game at the end, sending it to a second overtime – this in the first IWBF tournament game for either team. What a classic!

The Cambodian team went out in the second extra period and, in spite of their exhaustion, kept their composure and executed perfectly. Laos didn’t score in the second overtime and Cambodia came away with a hard-earned, well-deserved victory in their first game ever. They celebrated like they’d just won the world championship, screaming and hugging each other with complete abandon.

One of my favorite stories from all my time coaching overseas has been that of Sila, a Cambodian player with cerebral palsy that affects both her legs and completely incapacitates one arm. Despite such a massively challenging set of obstacles – playing wheelchair basketball with one arm has certainly been done, but not by many people at the international level – Sila approached the game with a positive, can-do attitude and never made excuses; she knew there was a way to make this sport work for her and she wouldn’t give up until she found a way to play at the highest level. As a result, she made the first Cambodian national team and, in the game against Laos, played key minutes that helped her team get its first win. Her smile and enthusiasm – whether she was on the court or cheering from the bench – was nothing short of life-affirming for me to see. After the game, when I was giving all the players congratulatory high fives, Sila threw out her one good arm and gave me a huge hug. While she grinned from ear to ear, I struggled to hold back tears. I’m beyond grateful that I was able to be a part of that moment with her and the rest of the team.

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Sila cheers her team on to victory against Laos

The next day, the Afghan men lost a tough game against Chinese Taipei – an experienced and talented team that had added their strongest player to a roster that had beaten Afghanistan in Beijing last October by a narrow two point margin. The Afghans played a strong first quarter, but succumbed again to inconsistent shooting and passing, leading to a 23 point loss. Again they were disappointed in the result, but again they took a step forward, getting a bit better and playing well for a bit longer than they had against Thailand.

The Indian men and women both lost their second games in a row as well against more experienced competition – the men to Thailand and the women to the tournament favorites from Iran. The Indian men showed notable improvement despite playing a better team (they had lost to Chinese Taipei) than on the first day, and gave themselves a game from which to build.

The Cambodian women came back to earth in their second game, losing by a wide margin to a very solid Thai team. They came to me that night at dinner – I hadn’t been able to watch their game since it was at the same time as the Afghan men’s – and were very disappointed. I told them not to get down, that they needed to learn from a loss just like they build from a win.

The next day the Cambodians were slated to play the Afghan women, and I was torn about how I should approach the game. The Afghans were more experienced and, by all previous results, considerably favored. They also had a knowledgeable coach in Tahera, while the Cambodians were doing their best with an inexperienced coach and a player-coach assistant who were both getting their first tastes of international competition. Even if they lost by a lot, it was important to me that the Cambodians – both coaches and players – learn from the experience, so I asked Tahera if she would be opposed to me helping the Cambodian coaches out as a sort of consultant on loan. I thought it might also help to give the Afghans a bit more of a challenge than the games they’d played previously, something they desperately needed as they got ready for the harder games in their schedule against Thailand and Iran. To her great credit, Tahera was completely open to the idea and said it was the right thing to do for both sides. So, as the two teams lined up for their third game, I was sitting behind the Cambodian bench as a temporary Afghan defector.

The Cambodian players and coaches were surprised and delighted when I offered to be on their side for the game, and they carried that enthusiasm onto the court. Their approach was disciplined, their speed was an advantage over the Afghans, and they truly believed that they could win a game that everyone else in the gym assumed wouldn’t be close. They looked like a completely different team even than the one that had narrowly beaten Laos.

The Afghans were shocked as the Cambodians played them to a draw at the end of the first quarter and kept the game close throughout the first half. In the third quarter, Afghanistan finally hit its stride and started to pull away, building a double digit lead, but Cambodia never gave up. In the fourth quarter they went on a run that closed Afghanistan’s lead to three points as the end of the game neared. Tahera called a smart timeout to compose her team and lay out a strategy, while I helped the Cambodian coaches put a press defense in place that we hoped would lead to a couple turnovers and easy baskets. The Afghans were smart, though, and used their size advantage to pass over the speedy Cambodian defense, leading to a couple late baskets that put the game away. Still, a 7 point difference at the end was far closer than anyone expected. Anyone except Team Cambodia, that is. It was a wake-up call for Afghanistan – they couldn’t just steamroll the competition after all – and a huge leap forward for Cambodia. Despite not getting the win, they – and everyone else – saw their true potential in the performance.

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Somaya and Kamela of Afghanistan – the team’s two best players in the tournament – race for the ball against Cambodia

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Sinet of Cambodia tries to drive against the tough defense of Afghanistan

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Coach Tahera Yosoufi diagrams a play for Team Afghanistan at the end of the game

Later that afternoon, I had another meeting of opposing students, as the Afghan and Indian men played each other. India was coached by Tom Kyle, an experienced Australian coach who joined India’s men’s and women’s teams just before the tournament for the first time, and assistants Thayumana and Pererra, both of whom I had worked with in my visits to the country. Since the Indian men were in knowledgeable hands – and had shown themselves to be formidable opponents against Thailand – I repatriated and returned to my spot as the head coach of the Afghan men’s team.

In their third international tournament, this was the first time Afghanistan’s men had played a less experienced team than themselves, and they knew it was an opportunity they couldn’t afford to let slip away. Playing ferocious defense and sticking to the game plan with their offense, they played their best game ever. Despite some great play by a few of the Indian players – particularly Partha, a young class 4.0 whom I first met in 2015 and who was immediately apparent as an up-and-coming star – Afghanistan kept its foot on the gas and parlayed a team-wide effort into a resounding victory. It was the team’s first win in IWBF competition and, expected or not, was a huge weight off their collective shoulders. Both teams played their best game and Afghanistan got its first win – the perfect outcome from my perspective.

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Improved play by Team India kept Afghanistan focused throughout the first half

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Indian star Partha (in white) showed his full potential in a great performance against Afghanistan, scoring 24 points to lead all scorers

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Taking a big second half lead against India let Nazir (11), assistant coach Qawamuddin, and Assad (14) finally relax and have fun during an international game.

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Mohammadullah and Safi share in the accomplishment of finally getting their first victory

Unfortunately for both the Afghan teams, their success was to be short-lived. The following day the men lost to a very strong Malaysian team despite playing excellent first and fourth quarters, knocking them out of the top four qualifying spots for the Asian Para Games. They would go on to play a great game – their best ever – against Hong Kong the following day, but would lose in a close battle to finish sixth.

The Indian men, however, built upon the things they learned from their early losses and finished the tournament with a win – their first in IWBF competition – over Indonesia to capture seventh place. It was great for them to end the tournament on such a high note.

The Afghan women lost their first international game ever to Thailand (a team they had beaten just a week earlier in a friendly pre-tournament game), then played Iran to decide whether they would make the championship game or play for third place. Iran had clearly been the women’s tournament’s best team, winning all of its games by over 20 points leading up to its final round robin game against the Afghans. They were a better-shooting, taller, more consistent team. But Tahera saw that the underdog Afghans had one potential advantage – their speed.

With me and the men’s team sitting across the court cheering them on, the Afghan ladies came out with a vicious full-court press defense that caught the Iranians completely off guard. Before they knew what hit them, Afghanistan had taken an 18-8 lead at the end of the first quarter and looked completely in control of the game. However, Iran was not prepared to go so quietly, and fought back with a surge in the second quarter that gave them a 10 point lead at the halftime break. It was clear that, while the Afghans had surprised them, Iran’s superior depth, size, and conditioning was going to be too much to overcome over the course of a full game. After an even second half, Iran came away victorious, earning a championship game appearance that they would ultimately win over Thailand.

This meant Afghanistan and Cambodia would meet again for 3rd place in the tournament. I joined the Cambodian bench for a second time, as coach Tahera from Afghanistan wanted to give her players the best challenge possible to finish the tournament. She did a wonderful job motivating them, and they played a very strong game even with the Cambodians matching their previous best effort. Afghanistan got the victory, but both teams were winners in the end. As the third and fourth place finishers in the qualifying tournament, the Afghanistan and Cambodian women are going to Indonesia in October for their first ever Asian Para Games! Congratulations, ladies. You earned it.

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The teams from Cambodia and Afghanistan will see each other soon in Indonesia

Congratulations also to the Chinese men, who beat an ascendant Thai team by a narrow three point margin to take the men’s championship.

This was the most enjoyable, exciting wheelchair basketball tournament I’ve ever experienced at any level. The growth of the women’s game in countries across Central and East Asia was phenomenal to witness. The leaps forward that the men from Afghanistan and India took were extremely promising. Getting to be a part of so many of these players’ journeys – and seeing them take the next major steps in their development – is a gift I’ll keep with me always.

Women’s wheelchair basketball in Afghanistan has been growing steadily since we started the first teams in 2012. We’re now up to nearly 150 female players across the country – a pretty remarkable number given the social barriers to women (especially women with physical disabilities) playing sports. However, all of the players are currently concentrated in just three provinces – Kabul, Balkh (in the capital city of Mazar-i-Sharif), and Herat – as compared to 9 provinces currently fielding men’s teams. We’ve tried starting teams for women in a few other provinces, but haven’t been able to sustain them due to a combination of player/family reticence and deteriorating security in certain areas. The good news is, we currently have a new women’s program getting started in Bamyan province in the center of Afghanistan, and are hopeful that we can start a team in Faryab (in Maimana city) soon as well. It would be a huge step forward to get one or two new provinces on board with women’s teams.

Last Friday, we held our ninth Afghanistan Women’s National Wheelchair Basketball Championship. In the first eight tournaments, either Mazar or Kabul won every title. Herat had made one final but, having started over two years later than Mazar and Kabul, they’d never quite been able to make up the experiential deficit to catch up to them – a source of persistent frustration. On top of that, their team leader had to leave the team last year to have her first child and hasn’t yet gotten back to playing.

With just three teams playing in the tournament, the structure was a three-game round robin  followed by a final between the two top finishers – all in a single day. In their first game of this year’s tournament, it didn’t look like things were likely to change much from previous years. Herat lost a close game to Kabul immediately after Kabul had looked surprisingly weak in losing the tournament’s opening game to Mazar. As a three-time defending champion, it looked clear that Mazar would sweep the other two teams in the first round, leading to the inevitable rematch with Kabul in the finals.

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Freshta of Mazar, defending league MVP, looks to shoot against Kabul

Herat had other ideas, however. After taking their lunch break to regroup, they came out strong against Mazar, using a disciplined approach on defense to force the more experienced team to make repeated errors. Herat capitalized on these opportunities to pull out a four point upset victory. The team (and packed gymnasium) went crazy after the victory.

Due to the awkward situation of each team beating one other team in the round robin, the tie-breaker to decide the two finalists came down to scoring differential (how many points each team scored minus how many their opponents scored in their two opening round games). Because of their close loss to Kabul and narrow win against Mazar, Herat edged out Kabul to make it to only their second tournament final ever. That meant, after such a tense game, Herat and Mazar would immediately have to play each other again for the championship!

Even with the fatigue of playing in their third game of the day, both teams came out just as strong as they’d finished the previous game and played another classic. Once again it came down to athleticism (where Mazar had the advantage) versus precise execution. Herat used its system and balanced scoring to wear down their opponents for the second game in a row and, after a back-and-forth fourth quarter, came away with its first women’s title. It was like seeing a massive weight lifted off their collective shoulders. The entire team was hugging and crying and laughing all at once. It was a special moment of arrival for their team. And not only was it the first championship for the Herat women, it meant that Herat swept the top honors for men and women at this tournament- a huge accomplishment for the teams and the province.

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Mazar and Herat brought their uniform A-games to the championship (yes, for the longtime reader(s) of this blog, Mazar’s sweatpants do say Jordon… spelled just like that)

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Team Herat celebrates its first championship

While the men had shown real growth in their grasp of the game and ability to incorporate more advanced strategies into their tournament performances this year, the women did not seem to have made the same leap. They haven’t been playing as long, nor has the women’s national team had as many international experiences from which to bring back new ideas and approaches to the game, so that disparity isn’t completely surprising. But it was also clear that many of the women hadn’t trained as hard or as consistently as they had in years past. I think the combination of playing amongst the same three teams year-after-year combined with the national team running the table against the field in the Bali Cup last summer in their first international competition led to a bit of complacency for many of the players. They have yet to face teams better than them, so it’s hard to conceptualize the next level of development and build the motivation to reach it.

One player, however, stood out from the rest in this regard. Jamila is a young player from Herat – one of the newest and youngest on the team. She started playing two years ago at age 16 and, as a small class 1.5 player with limited balance and athleticism, didn’t seem like someone who would become more than a complementary piece on the team. However, Jamila immediately jumped into training and took to the game quickly. She was named to the women’s national team – as its youngest player – last year, and traveled to Thailand and Indonesia. Since then, she has clearly worked as hard as anyone on maximizing her ability.

In this tournament, Jamila stood out for the first time as the one player that has a clear vision of how to achieve international success. For her, that doesn’t mean scoring a lot of points. What it means is playing excellent defense, communicating constantly with her teammates, and finding every opportunity to help her team make the plays it needs to be successful. Sometimes that means setting a great pick for a teammate (lots of times, actually). Sometimes it means throwing a great pass. When needed, it means taking a shot that she knows she can make consistently. Jamila was emblematic of Herat’s consistent approach and was the engine that made the team run – very rare for a low classification player in Afghanistan.

At just 18 years old, Jamila was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player to an eruption of cheers from all three teams. After growing up as a severely disabled child in an extremely poor family, it’s hard to imagine how much that acknowledgement must have meant to her. All I know is that her eyes filled with tears the second she heard her name announced. It was a dream come true for a young player who truly earned the honor, and I’m guessing it is just the first in many recognitions Jamila will receive.

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The Herat players wait for the announcement of the tournament MVP. Jamila (front left) has no idea the trophy will be awarded to her.

Thailand

I’m now in Chon Buri, Thailand with the Afghan men’s and women’s teams preparing for the Central and East Asia qualifying tournament for the Asian Para Games this fall. We’re all having a great time so far – it’s the first tournament the men’s and women’s teams have ever been to together – and I’m excited to see how they perform against some great competition next week. The men open the tournament on Sunday against the (very strong) Thai men. I’ll keep everyone posted on our progress. Zindabad Afghanistan!

I arrived in Kabul a week ago after nearly a year since I was last in Afghanistan – the longest I’ve been away from the country since 2013. It’s been a hard year for Afghanistan – even by recent standards – and I missed the place and its people a great deal. It had also been a year and a half since the last national men’s wheelchair basketball championship trophy was awarded (regular readers may remember that we attempted to hold a tournament in the spring of 2017, but unfortunately didn’t manage to finish). Having coached the men’s national team in October at the IWBF Asia-Oceania championships in Beijing, though, and knowing how those players had improved, I was excited to see how the quality of play across the league had evolved in the time I’d been away.

It didn’t take long to get my chance; just 15 hours after landing at Hamid Karzai International Airport, I was back in the ICRC Orthopaedic Centre gym, ready to referee 22 games between nine teams over the course of a six day tournament. It was an epic experience that saw new ground broken by several of the teams, some incredible individual achievements, and a fantastic league-wide redemption following the aborted 2017 tournament. Since the league has grown so much over the past few years and it’s been a while since I last wrote about a tournament, it’s probably best to start with a quick introduction to each of the teams.

Parwan
The league’s newest team, participating in its first Afghanistan national championship, the team representing Parwan province is actually composed of players living in Kabul whose families originally hail from Parwan. A couple of the players have competed on Kabul teams in the past, but most were playing in their first ever tournament.

Badakhshan
Formed in 2016 in the provincial capital of Faizabad, Badakhshan is the second-youngest team in the tournament and, in the two tournaments in which it had taken part, had yet to record its first victory. A few of its players took part in a national team selection camp in December, though, which I hoped would give them some keys to raising the level of play for the entire team.

Wardak
Another relatively new team made up of Kabul-based players originally from the neighboring province of Maidan-Wardak, this team entered the tournament a step ahead of Badakhshan in terms of past performance, but was missing one of its best players – Rafi – who suffered a broken leg a few months ago that hadn’t healed in time for him to play in the tournament.

Kandahar
The only team from the South of Afghanistan, Kandahar has always been a wild card. They have a bruising roster of some of the toughest players in the country, but play a more free-wheeling, unstructured style that has seen them finish everywhere from second overall to dead last in previous tournaments. Their coach, Ahmad, a Canadian transplant, has helped the team to build some consistency into its game and has developed two promising young players into genuine offensive threats in the past couple years.

Jalalabad
A team with great potential that has been on a rollercoaster of inconsistency since entering the league in 2013, Jalalabad went from winless in its first two tournaments to third place overall in the fall of 2014, then back to relative mediocrity ever since. Only one of its players – Haidar, a class 2.5 guard – has played on the national team, and it is relying on a host of young players to develop quickly in order to give it a chance to be competitive.

Mazar
Mazar has been an ascendant team the past few years. After losing three of its top players to defection on a 2013 national team trip to Italy, it has rebuilt around its one remaining national team player – a class 1.0 point guard named Basir – and recruited a couple young players who have joined the ranks of the league’s best. It is now an annual contender for the national championship. Maimana The team I first came to Afghanistan to coach and the smallest city (or, more accurately, town) in Afghanistan to boast a wheelchair basketball team, Maimana has won two national championships and made it to several finals. Like Mazar, Maimana overcame the defection of its best player in 2013 and saw three of its players – Sakhi, Ramazan, and Alem – blossom into stars afterward, with all three representing Afghanistan on the national teams that competed in Japan in 2015 and China in 2017.

Kabul
The host of the tournament, Kabul has been – along with Maimana – Afghanistan’s most consistently successful team over the years, having won two titles itself. Kabul came into this tournament missing one of its top players – former tournament MVP Bilal – who was out of the country for the past several months and unable to train with the team in time to join the tournament. Kabul boasts the deepest roster in the league, though – with four additional national team members – so it was well positioned to overcome Bilal’s absence and contend for the championship.

Herat
For the league’s first several years, Herat was its most consistently underachieving team, always boasting a talented group of players, but rarely performing consistently enough to make a real run at the title. That changed in the fall of 2016 though, when the team broke through and won its first championship. No Afghan men’s team had managed to capture two titles in a row coming into this tournament though, so Herat came in knowing it would have to play even better than it had previously if it wanted to defend its first place finish.

Opening Round Highlights (Days 1-3)

With Parwan joining the tournament field and pushing the total number of teams to nine, we had to add an additional game each day in order to complete the Pool A/Pool B round robin first round (if that string of words was confusing, don’t worry; it doesn’t really affect the story), meaning a 7am tipoff each morning. Despite the early hour, though, the tournament got off to a rousing start, with the incoming league doormats from Badakhshan showing massive improvement since last year in their matchup with Kandahar, gutting out the team’s first ever win in the tournament’s opening game! The players exploded in cheers at the final buzzer, piling on each other like they’d just won the national championship. It was a great moment and a huge step forward for a team that had clearly worked hard to earn it.

Just an hour and a half later, in another shocking development, Jalalabad opened its tournament by playing an extremely close game against the defending champions from Herat. Haidar, previously a complementary offensive player limited to fast break layups for his scoring output, had clearly put in a lot of hours practicing his shot since our trip to China in the fall, and led his team with a barrage of long range twos in a back-and-forth second half that saw Jalalabad pull off a huge upset victory. The Herat players and coaches were stunned and left wondering if this was a sign that their championship in 2016 was just a temporary respite before a return to frustrating mediocrity.

After a second day of predictable outcomes, with each of the top teams playing against a clearly overmatched opponent, the third and final day of the opening round brought more surprises. The day began with the world beaters from Jalalabad facing off against a winless Kandahar team, ready to clinch the top seed in their pool. Kandahar had other ideas, though, and came out swinging from the opening tip. Jalalabad didn’t know what hit it, and Kandahar went on to put them away behind the dynamic scoring duo of 24 year old, Sanaola, and 17 year old Bismillah – both role players in previous versions of the team who stepped forward to take on the leadership of the team’s offense this year. Jalalabad left the game stunned. They would need to recover quickly with a game against a very strong Mazar team looming later that afternoon to close out the first round.

Following Kandahar’s surprising win, Maimana and Kabul faced off – each team undefeated to that point – in a rematch of the 2017 game that led to a gym-wide brawl and the cancelation of our last tournament. The rivalry between the two teams had been building for years, and with the calamitous end to their previous matchup, I brought both together before the game to talk to all the players about the importance of always retaining respect for your opponent even when you are trying with every fiber of your being to beat them. The players agreed with somber, focused faces, and I opened the game hoping beyond hope that their competitiveness wouldn’t completely overpower their brains this time. The game was tense and extremely close, but everyone kept their composure, even helping their opponents off the floor on a few occasions after the speed of the game led to some nasty falls. In the final 20 seconds, after a banked three pointer from the top of the key by Kabul’s Arsalan tied the game and sent the huge pro-Kabul crowd into a frenzy, Maimana’s Sakhi found Alem with a beautiful pass over the defense for a layup in the heart of the defense that clinched the win with just seconds to play.

The victory clinched the top seed in Pool A for Maimana, with the Pool B top seed coming down to the day’s final game between Jalalabad and Mazar. Jalalabad recovered well from its disappointing loss to Kandahar, and the game was another electric affair. Haidar shot the lights out again and, with great support from its two young bigs – Niamatullah and Fazel Malek – Jalalabad managed to outduel a Mazar team that was missing one of its biggest threats, Shah Wali, who was forced to miss the game with a sprained elbow. Jalalabad captured the top seed and a near-guaranteed trip to its first semifinal in four years.

Second Round Highlights (Days 3-6)

The quarterfinals went mostly to script, with Jalalabad avenging its loss to Kandahar in the opening round by beating them when it mattered, Maimana easily handling Badakhshan, and Mazar dispatching Wardak. The only truly competitive game of the quarters was Herat against Kabul – a game that would send the winner to the semifinals and the loser out of medal contention. After losing its opening game of the tournament to Jalalabad, Herat had played better the rest of the first round, but still dropped a second game to Mazar, which led to its tough quarterfinal matchup with the hometown heroes from Kabul. Even with the court ringed by screaming Kabul supporters, though, Herat finally found its higher gear and played its best game yet. By halftime, the outcome was no longer in doubt, as Herat turned in a shockingly dominant performance and rode into the semifinals full of confidence that it had finally found its form.

The semifinals pitted Herat against Maimana and Mazar against Jalalabad. Both games were extremely close, coming down great play down the stretch to decide the final outcomes. Behind a balanced attack led by star big man Said Nazir, Herat made just enough plays to continue its remarkable run back to the final. Jalalabad rode Haidar’s 22 point offensive clinic and a two clutch baskets by its oldest player, Amanullah, including a three point play with under a minute to go and the game sealing breakaway layup, to take down Maimana and punch its first-ever ticket to the final game.

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    Amanullah of Jalalabad, the unlikely hero of the semifinal win over Mazar (all photos in this post by Omid Haqjoo)

In the third place game between Mazar and Maimana, the remarkable slate of down-to-the-wire matchups continued. After the two teams that started wheelchair basketball in Afghanistan joined together in a show of brotherhood before the game, they put on their game faces and treated the gathered crowd to a classic battle. Clutch scores by both teams punctuated the final minutes and, in fitting style, after Maimana took a 1 point lead with just five seconds left, Assad of Mazar threw a length of-the-court pass to Basir – the aforementioned tiny class 1.0 pillar of Mazar wheelchair basketball – who snuck behind the Maimana defense to hit a layup as the final buzzer sounded, winning the third place trophy and sending the Mazar bench into an explosion of joy.

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Maimana and Mazar players let out a group cheer of “long live Afghanistan!” before their 3rd place game

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Mazar’s Shah Wali (left) and Basir attack the Maimana defense

In the final, Herat and Jalalabad played another outstanding and competitive game, though Jalalabad took a full quarter to shake off the jitters of its first championship game, falling behind by 10 points early. Though it recovered to play a solid game, it was never able to claw all the way back from the early deficit as Herat kept its foot on the gas and held on for a seven point victory. Herat pulled off its complete comeback from the opening day loss to Jalalabad, beating them in the rematch and securing the first repeat championship in the history of the Afghanistan men’s national tournament. Congratulations, Herat. You really earned this one.

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Haidar (left) and Farhad lead their combined teams to the court under the Afghan flag before the championship game

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Herat and Jalalabad players exchange fake flowers before the game… this needs to become a tradition worldwide

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Mohammad Amiri of Herat looks to shoot in the final against Jalalabad

Despite losing in the final, Jalalabad’s Haidar was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player, an award no one would have ever expected him to win even six months ago. It’s a true credit to the hard work he and his team have put in over the past year that they have all come so far. At just 21 years old, the sky is the limit for Haidar, both as a player and as a leader.

Haidar’s improvement was emblematic of the league’s growth as a whole since I last saw them. This tournament was, without a doubt, the best we’ve ever had. The parity across the league is growing and it’s wonderful to see the high level that all the teams are starting to reach. My goal since I first started building this program with Alberto Cairo and the ICRC has been to eventually see the knowledge within Afghanistan grow to the point that its evolution is internally driven – not requiring my semi-annual visits to take its next steps forward. That’s finally starting to happen. The players who traveled with the national team to China clearly had a major influence on the rest of their teams in terms of the implementation of offensive and defensive strategy and structure. I don’t feel like I’m watching beginners anymore. These players finally understand the key concepts of the game and are constantly pushing themselves to reach the high level of play they’ve seen from some of the great national teams they’ve had the opportunity to face.

Women’s National Tournament

The women’s tournament took place the day after the men’s concluded and was equally exciting. I’ll be writing a separate recap of that in the next day or two, so stay tuned.

On to Thailand

This week, I’ll be traveling with the Afghan men’s and women’s national teams to Thailand for the qualifying tournament for the 2018 Asian Para Games. Four men’s and two women’s qualification spots are up for grabs among teams from across Central and East Asia (including the players I got started in Cambodia and India!), and it’s sure to be an amazing experience. Check back soon for more updates!

What does it mean to achieve success? That can be a complicated question depending on the aspect of life to which it’s applied. One of the things that’s so compelling about team sports, though – and one reason being a fan is so much fun – is the relative ease of answering it. Generally speaking, if your team wins in competition, you consider that a success. If it loses, you don’t. Simple.

From a coach’s perspective, however, things are a bit more complicated. Success is more a measure of progress than of victory or defeat. If a team I’m coaching plays its best basketball in a loss, to me that is still a success. If it plays poor, uninspired basketball but wins against a weaker opponent, it’s not.

As I prepared to coach the Afghanistan men’s national team in its second-ever international competition – the 2017 International Wheelchair Basketball Federation Asia-Oceania (IWBF AOZ) Championships in Beijing, China in late October – I spent a lot of time trying to determine how our team should measure whether or not it was successful. The IWBF AOZ Championships were the qualifying tournament for the IWBF World Championships, to be held in Germany in 2018, and brought together the 14 best national teams from across Asia, Australia and New Zealand. Given that Afghanistan had gone winless in its first international tournament – the AOZ qualifier for the Rio Paralympics, held in Japan in 2015 – and had only had the chance to train together three times in the two years since, capturing one of the four men’s qualifying positions at this tournament was probably not an achievable success metric.

The team would be dealing with an added challenge in that the players would all be using brand new wheelchairs – the first custom-fitted basketball chairs any of them have ever played in – which only arrived two days before they left Afghanistan for the journey to China. The chairs, produced by the head of Thailand’s wheelchair basketball program, are made of aluminum and are of excellent quality; they’re significantly lighter and faster than the steel chairs the players have used since they began playing the game. Those attributes – combined with the better fit and positioning given by the chairs’ customized builds – are normally a huge asset… unless the players haven’t had time to learn how to harness their newfound speed and maneuverability. The team would be able to do more athletically in these chairs, to be sure, but I knew there would likely be a plenty of crashing and unforced turnovers as they went through the process of learning to control themselves in their new equipment.

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Mohammadullah models his brand new basketball wheelchair the day before departing for Beijing

At the end of my last entry, I mentioned that I was unable to travel to Kabul to train the team as originally planned due to a security incident in which one of my (and a few of our players’) ICRC colleagues, Lorena, was tragically killed. Since that incident, the ICRC Orthopaedic Centre in Mazar-i-Sharif, which housed the basketball court used by four of our national team players for training, had been temporarily closed. That meant that none of those players had been able to get on the court for nearly a month and a half leading up to the trip to China. As anyone who plays basketball – or any competitive sport – knows, that long away from training makes it extremely difficult to jump back into the game, especially at the sport’s highest level. Luckily for us, the Chinese tournament organizers generously allowed the team to come to Bejing five days early so I could hold a brief training camp to help them prepare. I knew it wouldn’t make up for the months I would have wanted them to be working out daily in their new chairs in order to get as sharp as possible before the big competition, but we were determined to make the most of it.

When we got on the court for the first time, rather than rolling out the basketballs, I spoke to the team about how we would approach our training and the competition from a mental perspective. We are ready to take a big step forward, I told them, but that can only happen if we pull together as a single unit and commit to supporting one another throughout this experience no matter what happens. The cheer we would use to break every huddle would be “mushte wahed,” which loosely translates to “one fist.” That’s how I wanted the guys to think of themselves when they were on the court – five individuals bonded together tightly enough to play as one. The team-as-a-fist concept was something I read in a book by a well-known U.S. college coach, and it seemed tailor made for a group of Afghans, each coming from different tribes, different regions, different cultural backgrounds, but needing to cast all those differences aside in order to maximize their collective talent.

I also posed a question to them that would help all of us gauge how successful our tournament would be – something much more esoteric than wins and losses. “What do you want the rest of the teams here to leave Beijing thinking about Afghanistan wheelchair basketball?” Each player answered in turn, and all the answers were insightful and deep. The common themes among them were:

  1. We want everyone to see that Afghanistan wheelchair basketball is no longer weak, but that we are now a real team ready to compete at the international level, and;
  2. We want them to see that Afghanistan is not just war and poverty and extremism; it is a country full of good people. People like us.

They were perfect measures of success.

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The Tournament

During the training camp, we had the opportunity to play a series of “friendly” games against the Chinese men’s and women’s teams (the Chinese women were the defending AOZ champions and would go on to defend their title in their home country), as well as the men’s teams from Thailand and New Zealand. The practice games were very challenging – we lost each of the games against the Chinese teams and the Thais by at least 25 – but with each game, our team got a little better and a little more comfortable in their new chairs. By the time we played New Zealand the day before the tournament officially started, we led the entire game and went into the final three minutes of the game with a five point lead.

At that point I had a difficult decision to make. I knew I could leave our starters – who were playing very well – in the game and have a good chance to pull off the victory, but in the spirit of our “one fist” motto, I wanted to see if the bench could hold a lead under such pressure. I needed to know how various combinations of players would perform in tight situations before we got to the real games, and I wanted everyone to have a chance to confront stress and play through it in case they needed to be called on to do it in a future game. So I put four new players into the game as an experiment. It didn’t work. New Zealand’s starters seized on the opportunity and came back to win. While it was frustrating to the Afghan players not to finish off the win that they felt they had in hand, they understood when I explained to them why I’d made the change, and everyone stood behind the reserves who had given up the lead at the end of the game. They expressed confidence in each other and in the team. That’s all I wanted.

The next morning, following the opening ceremonies, we played China in front of their home crowd to kick off the tournament. In spite of the series of warm-up games we’d played, the pressure of the moment led to some serious first-quarter jitters for the Afghans. We scored one point and trailed by over 20 at the end of the first period. I told them to forget about the score and focus on doing the things we’d worked on in practice the past several days. Remember, all we care about is improving each quarter, each half, each game, I said. They took the words to heart and came out looking like a different team for the rest of the game, even outscoring the Chinese team in the third quarter, 18-15. The final score was still lopsided – we lost by 53 – but that was 25 points closer than the practice game we’d played against the same China team just four days earlier. Progress!

Our second game, against an excellent Korea team, was even harder – the Koreans ran a suffocating full court press defense the entire game – but still the Afghans cut the margin of defeat by 17 from the game we’d played against them in Japan two years prior. Korea would go on to finish fourth in the tournament, capturing the zone’s final qualifying position at the world championships and joining the world’s elite class of teams. There was certainly no shame in losing to them as long as we could maintain our focus throughout the game, which we did.

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Ramazan and the Afghans gamely picked themselves up off the floor again and again against Korea, an elite team that played a merciless press defense throughout the game

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Wasim – a rookie player on the national team – swishes a long three pointer near the end of the game against Korea

In my mind, all the games to that point – practice or official, win or lose – were in service of preparing our team for its third game of the tournament against the United Arab Emirates. UAE had beaten us in Japan in our first ever official international game, but we felt at the time that we would be ready for them the next time we played. This would be our last game in the group stage of the tournament and we knew that a victory would put us in a winnable game in the first playoff round with a chance to finish as high as 9th in the tournament. The players, though they expressed confidence, definitely felt the pressure as they took the court. Playing against a slower, more methodical team rather than at the fast pace they were used to in the other games we’d played led to our team playing a choppy, disjointed style, resulting in a series of missed shots, bad passes and offensive fouls as they pushed their new wheelchairs past the limits of their control. It was clear that we had the advantage in athleticism and probably in talent, but the UAE team knew its strengths and played within its limits, making very few mistakes. The game was close throughout, and the Afghans fought hard until the end, but by the end the more experienced UAE team took control and came away with the victory.

The loss was a difficult pill for the team to swallow. The guys knew that they’d improved a great deal –their opinion had been corroborated by several coaches and officials who had seen us play in Japan in 2015 and were astounded by how different they looked now – and they’d really expected to get the win. I was disappointed as well; I couldn’t stop thinking about what else I could have done to better prepare them to play under the pressure of a game they knew they had a chance to win – the first time they’d ever been in that position. Ultimately, though, I knew it was just another step in the growth process. What mattered in that moment was shaking off the melancholy and getting mentally prepared for our final game against Saudi Arabia – a bigger, faster version of the UAE team we’d just lost to – the next morning.

After letting the team process the loss on their own that evening, I brought them together early the next morning to prepare for Saudi Arabia. It was certainly not a game we would go into expecting to win, but I knew that if the guys played their best basketball, we could all leave feeling like we’d accomplished something. To their great credit, they shook off the disappointment of the UAE loss and played the best half in their history, with every player giving his best effort – whether on the floor or cheering from the bench – on the way to a five point halftime lead. I wish I could have captured the feeling of that halftime huddle in a bottle. I’d never seen the team so confident or so excited.

Unfortunately, the exhaustion from a ninth consecutive day playing against superior competition took its toll in the second half. Saudi Arabia – like the UAE team had the day before – leaned on its experience, got our best player to foul out, and came back to claim the victory. The feeling after the game was nothing like it had been after the previous loss, though. The team had seen its potential come alive in the first half, and despite the final result, it knew – as did I – that all that potential was finally ready to come to fruition.

On the final day of the competition, the team from Taiwan – which had finished 9th out of 14 teams in the tournament (the spot I’d hoped we would play for before the tournament) – invited us to play one more friendly game. It was a chance to get one more dose of invaluable international experience against a well-balanced, fast team, so we eagerly accepted. While the game didn’t count on the official books, our team clearly showed that it was ready to build on its encouraging first half against Saudi Arabia. Once again, we took a narrow lead into halftime. The second half was a back-and-forth battle where Afghanistan held its own and, after Taiwan scored on consecutive possessions to take a 2 point lead with 10 seconds to go, we had two shots to tie on the final play. Sadly, both shots rimmed out, leading to another agonizingly close loss. But to play a game so tightly with a team that finished six positions higher than us was a major step forward. Once again, the guys were proud of their performance and were able to see the game in the context of their continued improvement and future success.

Both the men’s and women’s teams from Afghanistan will have a chance to build on their recent tournament experiences soon. We will travel to Bangkok the first week in March to play in another Asia-wide tournament made up of many of the same teams we saw in Beijing.

The Wall

The day before we left – the team and Alberto to return to Afghanistan and me to come home to Colorado – we had a free day that gave us our one chance to absorb some Chinese history and culture. Alberto and I decided that we’d charter a bus to take the team to the Great Wall of China, a section of which had been made wheelchair accessible for the first time in advance of the Beijing Paralympics in 2008. Everybody knows about the Great Wall – even Afghan wheelchair basketball players – so everyone was excited for the experience.

After a long bus ride through Beijing and up into the hills, we pushed our chairs (or hobbled, in most of the players’ cases) up a series of steep stone streets to reach the gondola that we would ride up to the Wall. The weather was perfect and the leaves on the trees blanketing the hills had turned all colors of orange, red, and yellow. When we reached the top (after a few more treacherously steep ramps), everyone was awestruck by the view from the top of the only man-made structure that can be seen from space. To stand atop the Wall and feel how massive it is, then look at it crawling along the hills into the distance – knowing it reaches 5,500 miles (8,852 kilometers) across the north of China – is almost unfathomable.

The highlight of the trip came after the players had been exploring along the wall for 30 minutes or so and had reconvened at the broad landing area. The three players from Maimana – Sakhi, Alem and Ramazan – each of whom I had coached as teenagers when I first came to Afghanistan in 2009, had brought a tabla (traditional hand drum) with them to China. Sakhi, who is a skilled player, sat down on the top of the wall and started playing a lively rhythm while Alem danced. Soon our group was surrounded by a throng of clapping (mostly Chinese) tourists, one of whom even joined Alem and danced along in the center of the circle. The energy in that crowd of different nationalities and ethnicities was so joyful and accepting that it almost brought tears to my eyes. That a group of 12 disabled Afghans could be cheered and photographed like celebrities atop the most famous structure in the world is such a remarkable thing; something I never could have imagined when I first met them.

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Haidar, like many of his teammates, was treated like a celebrity at the Great Wall, being repeatedly asked to pose for photos with strangers

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Sakhi (seated) plays a beat on his tabla while Alem performs a traditional dance alongside an outgoing Chinese tourist atop the Great Wall (not pictured: the throng of multinational tourists enthusiastically clapping along)

So it turns out that the measures of success at an international wheelchair basketball tournament can be multifaceted. Maybe we didn’t win a game, but the team certainly achieved its goals of showing the international wheelchair basketball community that it is for real and introducing everyone with whom they interacted to the beautiful, joyous side of Afghanistan. For that, they should be very proud.

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“Mushte Wahed!” (One fist)

Earlier this week, I completed my first coaching trip to Ethiopia as well as my first official foreign mission in my new job as the International Committee of the Red Cross’s Disability Sport and Integration Advisor. It was another wonderful experience meeting a large group of brand new wheelchair basketball players, coaches, referees, and classifiers as well as reuniting with some of my favorite colleagues in a new context.

I’d been planning this trip for several months in partnership with Solomon Berthanu, an Ethiopian ICRC physiotherapist with whom I’ve shared missions to Afghanistan the past two springs (in addition to his regular job in Ethiopia, Solomon also teaches wheelchair fitting to physiotherapy students in other countries). Solomon did a tremendous job setting up the program in advance of my arrival, pulling together around 25 coaches (all of whom had previous experience coaching either standing or wheelchair basketball), 15 aspiring referees, and 10 physiotherapists and would-be classifiers, along with 30 players from six regions of Ethiopia, some of whom traveled many hours to attend the courses. It was a tremendous group of highly-motivated, passionate people that I can already tell will take Ethiopian wheelchair basketball well beyond its current infant stage in the very near future.

In addition to reconnecting with Solomon, I also had the pleasure of working again with Prem Siggurthi, the former ICRC physical rehabilitation (PRP) manager in Gaza with whom I shared my first mission there in 2015, and Venkat Packirisamy, who, before coming to Ethiopia, was the PRP manager in South Sudan when I visited in January of this year. It’s a very strong team, and the well-organized structure of the whole program spoke to their collective vision for expanding the scope and efficacy of disability sport in Ethiopia.

I arrived in Addis Ababa on the 28th of September and was told by Solomon on the short drive from the airport to my hotel that the timing of my trip was excellent because the rainy season ends on September 27th every year. Perhaps not coincidentally, the country’s tourism marketing slogan is “13 months of sunshine in Ethiopia.” Weather forecasters in Addis seem to be very… aspirational.

Imagine my surprise, then, when day one of my introductory courses on wheelchair basketball coaching, refereeing, and classification the following day was interrupted for a solid 20 minutes by rain hammering so hard on the metal roof of the gymnasium that students five feet away couldn’t hear me shouting at the top of my lungs. Maybe next year, Ethiopian meteorologists. Luckily the rain did finally cease on the last day of our three-day theoretical courses, giving way to sun and perfect mid-70s temperatures for the on-court week of player training.

It’s really exciting to see how much my collective past experiences teaching (and observing others teach) classes in the various disciplines of the game have begun to accrue into a pretty efficient program that can be implemented anywhere wheelchair basketball is still relatively new. For instance, I incorporated several elements of the practical training structure used by Esahn Idkaidek in his classification course in Gaza this past May and found that it brought a new level of understanding to the versions of the course I’d given previously. With the referees, I stepped back for the first time and didn’t referee any games myself – choosing instead to simply observe and correct the novice officials as necessary while they did the lion’s share of the work themselves. Similarly to the classifiers, they showed remarkable growth, confidence, and knowledge after just a few days. The coaches also did great work and showed true passion for the game even though many of them were new to the wheelchair version of it. All together, the collection of talent Solomon brought together for these classes should serve as a very solid foundation from which this program will grow in the coming years.

The players, as is always the case, were absolutely delightful to coach. Many of them have been playing casually for two to three years, and several actually had a chance to work with my new ICRC colleague, Mina Mojtahedi (a former University of Illinois player who is now the Disability Inclusion Coordinator for the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement, including the ICRC) when she visited Ethiopia last year and spent several weekends putting on voluntary clinics in several regions. The other advantage they had over beginning players in countries where I’ve coached previously is that several of them are competitive wheelchair racers as well as basketball players. I was blown away by the speed they put on display the first day we worked together. The other edge of that sword, however, is that they haven’t developed wheelchair or ball control skills that are commensurate with their raw power and speed, which led to some dramatic (but thankfully non-injurious) crashes in the first few days.

Teaching the players wheelchair skills was actually the biggest physical challenge for me. Every time I demonstrated one of the drills, which feature hard sprinting and quick turns that build chair facility as well as endurance, I felt every inch of Addis Ababa’s 8,000 feet of elevation. Apparently basketball and offroad handcycling in Colorado (Denver/Boulder are at a mere 5,000 feet) didn’t have me in quite the shape I thought!

The week proceeded as well as I could have hoped, with each group of trainees equally interested in mastering the basics of their chosen discipline. It was also a new and fun experience for me to have men and women practicing and learning on the court together. We split the 30 players into two groups based on experience, but without regard for gender, and it worked beautifully. However, at the end of the week, when we planned to conclude with two days of games, the women decided that they’d prefer to play amongst themselves in order to best display their newfound skills. I gladly granted them the request, as they’d spent five days playing physically demanding scrimmage games alongside their bigger, more reckless male counterparts. I think playing with the men for the better part of the week sharpened their skills for the competition portion, though, and they played better than I think even they expected. One of the top female players in the weekend games was Burtay, a tiny but highly competitive player who really blossomed over the course of the week. She led her team to three straight victories, scoring consistently (and fist-pumping exultantly afterward) despite being the smallest player on the floor. She and the rest of the female players made me (and hopefully themselves) extremely proud with their level of improvement and the display they put on for a sizeable gathered crowd on the final day.

The men also showed remarkable growth during the week, though they’d had a bit more time to ingrain previous bad habits borne of training for a couple years without much regular supervision. I told them (and their coaches) repeatedly that they’ll only reach the next level of their development if they force themselves to go through the rigorous process of practicing only with proper technique from now on. They’re really trying, but, as they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day. When it came to game time, their enthusiasm (and probably excitement about playing in front of so many people) led to a few adrenaline-fuelled high speed collisions and wild shots, but eventually they calmed down and put on an impressive show. Those in the audience who had watched them before expressed amazement at the change in their play and their improved coordination with each other. There are athletes on both the men’s and women’s side that show a lot of potential for future growth, as long as their coaches keep them honest with their training habits. Africa is fairly wide-open in terms of international wheelchair basketball, with only two countries – Algeria and South Africa – having competed at the Paralympic and World Championship level, so Ethiopia and other countries like it with fledgling wheelchair basketball programs have a great opportunity to create a broader competitive environment across the continent.

With support from the ICRC, the Ethiopian Basketball Federation, and the Ethiopian Ministry of Youth and Sport, I can’t wait to see the heights wheelchair basketball can reach in Ethiopia. My plan is to return in a year, and I hope to see a real transformation among all the participants with whom I had the pleasure to work over the past week and a half.

Special thanks to my deputized translator for all the sessions, Henok Masresha, who is a university teacher with a master’s degree in basketball (how come nobody ever told me that was a thing when I was in college??), and who showed incredible facility in all the technical aspects of wheelchair basketball even though it was his first time experiencing them. It’s hard enough to learn one of these disciplines, much less all three while translating. Henok was such an instrumental part of the program’s success that the other participants all pitched in to buy him a new coaching shirt as a thank you gift. They presented it, along with an outfit of traditional Ethiopian clothing for me, at the final celebration on Sunday. They also gave me a set of ornamental Ethiopian coffee cups in honor of the “teacup” defense I taught the players over the course of the week. It was a special moment.

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Henok (with ball), with me, player/coach Nezaned, and referee extraordinaire Habte (Photos courtesy of Solomon Berthanu)

Tragedy in Afghanistan

About a month ago, an ICRC physiotherapist in Afghanistan, Lorena Enebral Perez – with whom I’d struck up a friendship during my visit to Kabul in May of this year, and who had worked for the ICRC in Ethiopia before moving to Afghanistan – was tragically shot and killed at the ICRC Orthopaedic Centre in Mazar-i-Sharif. It was a devastating blow for all of us who knew Lorena – she was one of the most vivacious, colorful, magnetic people I’ve met in my years doing this work – and for the ICRC itself.

Such a shocking and terrible event forced the ICRC in Afghanistan to make some difficult decisions about staffing in the country, and the mission I’d planned to conduct there following the one in Ethiopia had to be canceled. My plan had been to hold a week-long training camp for the Afghan men’s national team in advance of our trip to Beijing to compete in the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation (IWBF) Asia-Oceania Championships, the qualifying tournament for the IWBF World Championships in Germany next year.

Hard as it was to think about anything basketball-related in the immediate face of such grief, I knew I couldn’t take the team to such a huge competition (the biggest wheelchair basketball tournament ever held in Asia, with 14 men’s and 4 women’s teams) without preparing them properly. Alberto Cairo and I reached out to the Chinese tournament organizers to see if they would allow our team to come to Beijing a week early so I could conduct a training camp there in lieu of the one I’d planned in Kabul. The hosts were gracious and accommodating given the situation and granted us our request. So, after just a few days at home, I’m leaving for Beijing tomorrow morning to meet the team and get to work preparing for our second-ever international tournament. Our hearts will be a little heavier than usual during such an exciting event, but we will honor Lorena’s memory by trying to play with the same joy and exuberance with which she blessed the world during her life. Rest in peace, Lorena.

There have been exciting developments on several fronts since my last blog post three months ago. I spent two weeks in Gaza helping the Palestinian Paralympic Committee lead their wheelchair basketball program to the next level, spent a week at the United Nations in New York engaging in my first round of multilateral diplomacy, supported the Indian men’s and women’s national teams in experiencing a fantastic training camp under the guidance one of the world’s top player/coaches followed by them playing – along with the Afghanistan women’s team – in their first ever international competition, and I started an exciting new job with the International Committee of the Red Cross that will see the sports program we’ve spent the last several years building take a big leap forward in the coming years. There’s a lot to catch up on, so tuck in for the highlights of the summer (so far!).

Gaza
Back in May, after having spent time in Thailand, Afghanistan, and touring the East Coast of the U.S, I flew back across the Atlantic for my annual spring coaching trip to Gaza. I focused the two weeks on training each of the eight men’s and four women’s club teams that are now practicing in Gaza, as well as helping the Palestinian Paralympic Committee (PPC) develop a strategy for making its wheelchair basketball program a stronger, more efficient vehicle for stimulating social inclusion for people with physical disabilities while setting it up to give its top players opportunities to represent Palestine in international competitions soon.

The players and coaches in Gaza have been working hard on improving their games over the past year, and have gathered increased motivation through watching one of their own – Fadi Deeb, a player I’ve been coaching since my first trip to Gaza in 2015 – earn a professional contract to play for a team in Turkey, which boasts one of the top leagues in the world. Fadi’s story is remarkable, and I’ll tell it in more detail in a separate post soon, but suffice to say that a player from Gaza playing professional wheelchair basketball in a league as renowned as Turkey’s was just the type of achievement the program needed in order to see its own potential for great collective achievement.
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Fadi leading the fast break in a Turkish league game

The other breakthrough that helped move the bar in Gaza was a visit from Ehsan Idkaidek from the West Bank, my old friend and an expert in the technical field of wheelchair basketball classification. While I was teaching the players and coaches, Ehsan was educating a group of 20 classifier candidates from around Gaza, who were studying in the hopes of being named to the five-person classification panel that would lead this discipline for all Gaza. Ehsan is a tremendous resource and a fantastic teacher, and was very impressed with the quality of the students taking part in his course. While only five were selected for the panel, all the classification trainees will be instrumental in helping the club teams accurately classify new players.

On the back of Fadi’s success and with a new cadre of expert classifiers, the PPC and I selected the first men’s national team for Gaza, with the intent of those 12 players working with two of the top coaches – Ibrahim and Mohammad – to create a new level of technical competency within Gaza, from which all the other teams and players can learn. The eventual goal – hopefully in the not-distant-future – is to have the Gaza national team compete against the national team from the West Bank and, following the competition, form the first truly Palestinian wheelchair basketball national team that will (hopefully) represent the country in international competition. We’d hoped to schedule such a competition last year, but were blocked by the relevant authorities refusing to issue the necessary permits for the players from the West Bank to cross into Gaza. We will find a way to make this happen somehow; as challenging as the situation is in Gaza, nobody is giving up.

Speaking at the UN
A week after I returned home to the U.S. at the beginning of June, I was back on an airplane, this time to represent the ICRC at the UN Conference of the States Parties to the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (UN CRPD) at the UN General Assembly in New York. It was a fantastic opportunity to meet UN representatives and many other key figures in promoting rights for people with disabilities around the world, as well as engage in discussion about ensuring people with disabilities are actively engaged in planning and participating in humanitarian action in situations of violence, conflict, and other emergencies. I was given the opportunity to give three separate addresses during the Conference, covering the ICRC’s stance on the importance of enabling inclusion in humanitarian action as well as discussion of the work the ICRC has been doing to promote inclusion for people with disabilities through sport in countries dealing with conflict. No one booed, which I took as a good sign.UN 2017 1UN 2017 2

India’s National Teams Get a Crash Course in Wheelchair Basketball from Brad Ness
Soon after returning home from Gaza, I got an email request from Madhavi Latha, the President of the Wheelchair Basketball Federation of India (WBFI). The WBFI was planning to send men’s and women’s national teams to the Bali Cup – an international wheelchair basketball tournament being held at the end of July (at which the Afghanistan Women’s National Team would also be making their international debut) – and needed an experienced coach to give their top men’s and women’s players a two week training course to prepare them for their first international competition.

The challenge Madhavi was facing was that the training camp was being funded by the Australian Consulate in India, but they would only pay for a foreign coach to fly in if the coach was an Australian. She asked if I knew anyone who might be willing to undertake the mission as a volunteer with the camp scheduled to take place just two weeks later. It was a tall order, but I  immediately had an idea. Brad Ness, the captain of the Austrailian national team and a multiple time Paralympic medalist who had shared inspiring words with the Afghanistan men’s team at their first tournament in Japan in 2015, and who had told me when we met in Brazil at the Paralympics last year that he was willing do whatever he could to support the work the ICRC and I are doing with wheelchair basketball in developing countries, was the first call I’d make.

Amazingly, but not surprisingly, Brad agreed right away. Two weeks later, his plane was landing in Chennai for two weeks of coaching in the sweltering heat and humidity of Southeast India. The players took to Brad’s gregarious personality immediately and learned a great deal from his vast experience and knowledge of the game. At the end of the camp, he helped the WBFI to select their first men’s and women’s national teams to compete in the Bali Cup.
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Brad Ness teaches coaches and women’s national team hopefuls in Chennai

The Bali Cup
I met the organizer of the Bali Cup tournament – Rodney Holt, another Australian who has been working for several years to build sport programs for people with disabilities in Indonesia – when I was in Thailand with the Afghanistan and Indian women’s teams for the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation’s (IWBF’s) training camp for developing women’s teams in April. Rodney was excited to be offering a women’s wheelchair basketball competition in Bali for the first time and was able to recruit Thailand’s women’s team as well as Afghanistan, India, and the hometown Indonesian team. It was a perfect first opportunity for the Afghans (as well as the other competing teams) to get their first taste of international competition.

Unfortunately, due to a scheduling conflict, I was unable to go to Bali with the team. Sad as I was not to be able to experience their first competition with them, I saw it as an important opportunity for their young coach, Tahera Yosoufi of the Afghan women’s able bodied basketball national team, to take on the leadership role for which I’d been grooming her over the past year and a half. Tahera was assisted by Wasiqullah Sediqi, captain of the Afghanistan men’s national wheelchair basketball team, so I knew the team would be in good hands.

Instead of showing up with first tournament jitters, the team coalesced around their shared first experience and played their best basketball yet. They won each of their games by over 30 points on their way to the tournament championship! According to Coach Tahera when I asked her how the team had interacted with her and each other during the tournament, “the players all played together and were happy and relaxed on the road, and this helped me to be focused and positive. This championship has had a great impact on us all!” It was music to my ears.

I wasn’t the only one who was excited to follow the team’s remarkable success from afar, though; the Afghan media splashed photos and video of the players all over their print and TV coverage upon their return home, hailing them as heroes for representing their country so proudly. The international media took notice as well, with NPR running an article on its blog about the team’s big victory, and several outlets having asked for interviews in the couple weeks since the tournament. The players even got invited to share tea with the first lady of Afghanistan, who was fascinated to hear their story.

Rodney summed the experience up perfectly when he told the IWBF newsletter, “This was the Afghanistan women’s first overseas tournament and they quickly became the crowd favorites with their cheerfulness, passion and skills. They presented a personal face to a country that most of us know just from the news, and unfortunately news which is mostly negative. They were great ambassadors for their country.”

It’s truly phenomenal to think back to just five years ago, when the first few female players in Afghanistan (several of whom are now on this team) started by practicing in strict privacy to keep from being observed and judged for their new hobby. What a transformation they’ve made in such a short time.

The men’s and women’s teams from India also did their country proud, bringing home bronze medals in both tournaments. They got similarly ebullient coverage of their success in the national news, and should be equally proud of the progress they’ve made in just three years of playing.
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Team Afghanistan, led by Coach Tahera Yosoufi (right) takes the court in Bali

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Mulkara took home the trophy as the tournament’s top scorer

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Sumaya, despite being the youngest player on the team, was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player

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Shabona and her teammates honored the Afghan flag with their performance in Bali

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Nadia (left) and Kamela brought their best games to Indonesia

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Freshta (left), Farzana, Nadia, Sumaya, and the team celebrate their first title

More Excitement is in Store for the Afghans
Even with the continuing electric buzz about the Afghan women’s team’s success, the men’s team is already looking forward to its next international challenge. In late October, they will compete in the Asia/Oceania qualifying tournament for the 2018 World Championships. The qualifying tournament, even bigger in scale than the Paralympic qualifier in Japan in 2015, will take place in Beijing, China and will be the men’s team’s first chance since Japan to test themselves against the best teams from Asia, as well as Australia and New Zealand. I’ll be coaching the men’s team at the tournament and am so excited to see them represent Afghanistan just as proudly as their female counterparts.

A New Job and a New Era of Possibility
In July I signed a full time contract as the ICRC’s Disability Sport & Integration Advisor, the first position of its kind. By creating this role, the ICRC is committing itself fully to supporting the growth of disability sport and disability inclusion initiatives as a core part of its global Physical Rehabilitation Program. It’s wonderful to see all our work together in Afghanistan, India, Gaza, Cambodia, and South Sudan culminate in such a commitment, and I’m thrilled to be taking on what is sure to be a massive-but-fulfilling challenge in expanding the ICRC’s sport programming to more and more countries around the world.

This new, enhanced focus on sports and inclusion for people with disabilities is also a direct result of a partnership the ICRC has engaged in with Adecco, the largest staffing firm in the world and an instrumental player in helping Olympic and Paralympic Athletes transition from their careers in elite sport to the professional world. Adecco sees the potential in what the ICRC is building through its sport initiatives and agreed to be a major funding and strategic partner moving forward.

My first official duty in my new role was to join Adecco for its first annual Global Sports & Inclusion Day in the Swiss town of Nottwil, home of one of the most famous rehabilitation facilities in the world for people with spinal cord injuries. I had the chance to coach Adecco and ICRC staff in wheelchair basketball for an afternoon – along with a great Swiss player/coach, Nicolas Hausmann – and was elated to see how much fun everyone had. Working with the ICRC and Adecco to grow this program further over the next few years is going to be an incredible experience, with what we all hope will be a huge impact.
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A photo with Max, the young son of an ICRC colleague, in front of a giant poster of the Mazar women’s team celebrating in Afghanistan