When I last wrote, Team Afghanistan had just finished up an inspirational performance in a loss against Japan. The buzz following that game – the team’s first on national television and on the main arena court – was incredible despite the fact that Japan beat us handily. It was the first sign of the Afghan players truly grasping the team concept and beginning to put that together against one of the world’s top teams.
The next day in our game against an equally strong Korea team, however, it looked like the Japan game had never happened. Our communication was nearly non-existent, the players sniped at each other after unsuccessful plays, and the bench – which had provided a major spark in the Japan game by loudly encouraging the on-court players – was silent. It felt like the players had a hangover from the excitement of the previous night’s game. We lost by an even larger margin than we had against Japan. Something had been missing. It was an unsettling feeling for all of us, and one I was determined not to experience again. We had a postgame talk about the importance of brotherhood and support for one another even in the face of poor play and a demoralizing defeat, neither of which had been on display against Korea.
That evening, we were extended an invitation by the team captain and head coach of the Australian men’s team – the defending world champions – for our entire team to sit courtside during their otherwise closed practice session to observe how they prepare themselves for competition. It was the best remedy for a poor team performance I could have asked for. Our guys were fascinated by the tight coordination, total efficiency, and team cohesion the Australians displayed. They got to see a team that practices exactly like it plays – with 100% effort at all times, constant communication between the players, and complete trust and camaraderie among all teammates. My sincere thanks to Australian captain Brad Ness, coach Ben Ettridge, and all the Australia players and staff for showing our team more about how to play together in one hour than I could have explained in years. The Afghanistan team and I had a wonderful talk after the practice, during which each Afghan player took a turn explaining something he had learned from the experience; every one of the 12 players had a uniquely important realization to share. It was encouraging.
In our game the following afternoon against China – another extremely strong team that concluded our four-game murderer’s row of opponents (Thailand, Japan, Korea, China) within our tournament group – the team showed that the lessons they learned from Australia had really hit home. We played our best game of the tournament so far. As with Japan, we lost by a lot, but the team never for one second lost heart or stopped supporting each other. In each successive quarter of the game, the team played better on both offense and defense, the bench shouted constant encouragement, and the players fought with all their might right up to the final buzzer. It was the leap forward I’d hoped we would take following the progress we’d made against Japan, and we got great feedback about our play from coaches and players from other teams (even from the referees) following the game.
After the game against China, our team was set to play the Philippines in our final matchup – our best chance in the tournament to get a victory, especially following the growth we’d shown in the previous game. The Philippines team was much more experienced than we were (as were all the teams we played), but we had an edge in speed that I hoped to exploit by employing a full court press defense. Afghanistan played a strong first half – shooting poorly but using good defense and solid communication to keep the game close. All we needed was to see a few shots fall early in the second half to take momentum and, I hoped, leave with our first victory. Unfortunately, perhaps due to the fatigue of playing in our first international tournament, possibly because of the pressure of the situation – probably a combination of both factors – the team’s defensive communication broke down in the third quarter and the Philippines took advantage, getting a series of easy shots and pushing their lead to 25 points. During a timeout halfway through the final quarter, I emphasized the need to compete hard all the way to the finish – forgetting the score and ending on a positive note that we could build from moving forward. The team did just that and cut the margin to 14 by the end. I was proud of them and knew it was a sign of good things to come.
However, all the future promise in the world couldn’t numb the pain of defeat in the moment for the players. Many were in tears and I had to track them down individually to console them before I could bring the whole team together for our postgame talk. It was a hard moment, though I knew that the progress the team had made through the tournament, and the determination represented by their disappointment, would lead to many victories down the road. It will just take time, as it does for every new team.
The morning following our game against the Philippines was the team’s one extended stretch of free time in Japan, so we took that opportunity to give the players their first taste of the country outside the area of Chiba where our hotel and the arena were located. We chartered an early morning bus to a beach on the Pacific – about an hour away – for the players’ first view of the open ocean. The ones who went Italy last year had seen the Adriatic Sea, and we took a walk to Tokyo Bay on our first night in Japan, but neither of those can hold a candle to the breaking waves and unfathomable expanse of the ocean.
The players were in much better spirits as we left, the night having given them time to process the previous day’s loss and replace their sadness with excitement to see something completely new. As luck would have it, the eight days of beautiful weather we’d experienced up until that point gave way to driving winds, colder temperatures, and persistent rain on the day of our excursion. That didn’t dampen the group’s spirits, though; they pushed their wheelchairs or walked into a strong headwind and rain blowing directly into their faces, across wet, soft sand and, in several cases, all the way into the waves themselves. Even dripping wet and shivering from the cold, everyone had smiles on their faces as they posed for pictures in or near the water. The bus was filled with laughter as we drove away, covered in sand and soaked to the skin, but united in another once-in-a-lifetime shared memory.
A Fond Farewell
After returning from the beach, the team gathered to watch the Chinese women defeat Australia for the gold medal and the region’s sole women’s berth in the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The next day, the Japanese men defeated Korea in a fantastic game to take the bronze medal and the third and final Paralympic qualifying spot for the men. Australia finished the tournament by beating an impressive Iranian team to take the gold medal (both those teams qualified for Rio automatically as the tournament’s #1 and #2 finishers).
That evening, the IWBF held a banquet for all the teams to close the tournament. During dinner, a slide show was projected on giant screens at the front of the hall with beautiful photos from the week’s games. The Afghan players could barely contain their excitement when their larger-than-life images were displayed before the gathered crowd, right alongside photos of some of the world’s best players.
Below are a selection of the photos of our team from the slide show, graciously shared by the IWBF.
Yesterday the team flew back to Afghanistan and I returned home to Colorado. It was difficult to say goodbye after having had such an incredible experience together, but each player had a newfound confidence in his eyes as we wished each other well. We may not have gotten a win in this first tournament, but the entire experience was a giant victory for the team and for disabled athletes across Afghanistan.
Finally, I’d like to extend my sincere thanks to Maureen Orchard and Don Perriman of the IWBF (along with all the IWBF officials who welcomed us into their family at this tournament); to Yurie Miyamoto and her colleagues in the Japan Wheelchair Basketball Federation for being such amazing organizers and hosts; to Hiroki Akahori, our trusted team liason, and all his fellow volunteers for making the tournament run (and somehow making sure we were always at the right place on time); to Shizuko, Shiho and the JTB crew for dealing with our endless requests and questions at the information desk; to Hitomi 1 and Hitomi 2 from the ICRC Tokyo office for organizing media interviews and gamely braving the weather to accompany us to the beach (and for loaning us an iron!); to all the coaches, team representatives, and players from all the other teams for their support, friendship, and for teaching us so much about how to play at the international level; and, most of all, to Alberto Cairo and the late Sergio Sylvestris, without whom none of this would have been possible for Team Afghanistan.