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

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

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

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

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

The Spring 2015 Afghanistan Men’s Wheelchair Basketball Championship Tournament just concluded after four days of incredible competitive intensity, camaraderie, occasional comedy, and inspiring performances from all involved. Once again, the tournament pitted teams from six cities – Herat, Jalalabad, Kabul, Kandahar, Maimana, and Mazar-i-Sharif – at the ICRC Orthopedic Center gymnasium in Kabul. Even with these tournaments now being held on a regular semi-annual basis, the tension and drive for each team to win a trophy for their home cities hasn’t lessened a bit.

Mazar

In my last post, I wrote about the Mazar men’s team’s recent influx of promising new players and how, following our three day training camp leading up to the tournament, they were hoping to improve on their winless performance in November’s tournament (following the departure of their three best players last June). While I was hopeful that Mazar could put some of their new skills into practice right away, I was nervous that their experience deficiency would still prove too much to overcome against the other five teams, all of which had shown marked improvement over the past six months.

In the tournament’s two-and-a-half day first round, during which the teams each played one another to determine the match-ups for the quarterfinals, semifinals, and medal games, Mazar shocked last year’s surprise success story, Jalalabad, winning a tight contest. They pulled off the victory behind strong play from several of their brand new players, who showed amazing composure in their first-ever tournament. The relief in showing themselves – and the other cities – that they could win again, was overwhelming for Mazar. I think they were more excited after that opening round win than they were when they won the national championship in 2013. I was particularly excited for Basir, Mazar’s lone remaining national team player who had recently taken over coaching the team while playing as well. I know firsthand how challenging those dual roles can be, and he was so proud to finally notch his first win as a player-coach.

Despite getting their first win since the departure of their three best players last summer, Mazar still finished as the sixth and final seed coming out of the first round, which meant they had to play a very strong third-seeded Herat team in the quarterfinals. The team from Herat had recently traveled to play a series of games against an Iranian wheelchair basketball club team (Iran has a very well-developed program), which was a tremendous learning opportunity for them and one I could see paid off in their three impressive wins in the first round. Heading into their quarterfinal matchup, it was clear that Herat was the heavily favored of the two teams. Once again, though, Mazar’s new players showed confidence and a refusal to be cowed by a bigger, more experienced opponent, even after Herat built what appeared to be a commanding lead in the first half. Mazar stormed back and took the lead, building their momentum and stunning the suddenly-tentative Herat players. The wave of energy carried Mazar the rest of the way to a remarkable upset, sending them to the semi-finals against the defending champions from Maimana.

Mazar came out strong in the semi-finals and gave Maimana all it could handle in the first half of their semifinal game, but eventually the superior speed and teamwork of Maimana proved too much, and the defending champs pulled away to send themselves back to the title game in a rematch against a to-that-point undefeated Kabul team. Mazar would go on to play for Kandahar for third place.

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Four members of Mazar’s youth movement (first four, r to l) – Mati, Assad, Yasdan, and Shahwali (all photos by Marc Zlot)

Kandahar

Kandahar was, to this point, the only team that had never played in either the championship or third place game. Therefore, their matchup with Mazar for the third place trophy represented a huge accomplishment for both teams.

Kandahar has taken a leap forward since the last tournament, with one of their newer players, Ghafar, having grown into one of the biggest post scoring threats in the country in just his first year playing with the team. Ghafar is huge, immensely strong, and probably the sweetest player in the entire Afghanistan wheelchair basketball community – a true gentle giant. He also sports a curly hair/mustache combination that makes him look a bit like massive, Pashtun Lionel Richie. The fans making up the tournament crowd – even those partial to other teams – couldn’t help but cheer for Ghafar.

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Ghafar (far left) and the Kandahar team prepare to take on Mazar in the 3rd place game

Ghafar’s dominant rebounding and inside scoring were an unstoppable combination against Mazar and led Kandahar to the third place victory. The team was unhinged after the win, and Ghafar didn’t stop smiling for hours. While Mazar was obviously disappointed to come up just short of a medal, both teams should be very proud of what they accomplished in this tournament. They represent the ever-growing parity between the teams here, and will be forces to be reckoned with in future tournaments.

The Championship Game

In the last two national tournaments, Kabul has taken first (spring 2014) and second (fall 2014) place, and is the deepest team in the country. They have a wide range of skills and their team-wide balance is very difficult for other teams to beat. This balance has also been problematic at times, though, as the team has never had a single alpha player to whom they could turn at the end of close games. This year, though, one of their top young players – Belal – stepped forward to be that focal point. Belal has only been playing wheelchair basketball for two years, but he is an incredible natural athlete who has been a star skateboarder for the famous Skateistan program for several years. In this tournament, Belal’s basketball skills finally caught up with his natural physical gifts and he became the player Kabul needed to take the next step in its development.

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Belal controls the ball for Kabul during the championship game

After cruising through the opening round with an undefeated record and beating Kandahar in the semifinals, the stage was set for Kabul’s rematch against Maimana for the championship. By game time the gym was packed to the gills with fans and players. The crowd numbers were hugely in favor of the hometown Kabul team, but the Maimana team was supported by two dozen of the loudest fans (accompanied by a tabla drummer) I’ve ever heard in any sport. The metal-walled gymnasium was a thunderous cacophony from the first seconds of the game to the last.

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Wasiq of Kabul (orange) and Rafi of Maimana battle for the opening tip of the title game

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The cheering section joins the team huddle during a Maimana timeout 

Kabul stormed out to an early lead, but Maimana countered with a dominant second quarter, and the teams fought back-and-forth for the rest of the game. The lead changed several times in the second half, with momentum (and noise) surging like a wave from one team to the other. With under 10 seconds to play and Kabul holding a slim three-point lead, Belal broke away for what looked to be the game-sealing layup. However, Ramazan, last year’s tournament Most Valuable Player for Maimana, raced at top speed to make a last-ditch effort to stop Belal from scoring. As he reached to knock the ball away, Ramazan’s wheel collided with Belal’s, sending both speeding players tumbling over each other and onto the ground in a heap. Everyone immediately rushed to their aid while they lay on the floor, eyes closed, for several agonizing minutes.

Thankfully, both eventually recovered their breath enough to be helped back upright and Belal went to the free throw line to shoot the two biggest shots of his young basketball life. In what might be the most clutch performance we’ve seen in a tournament yet, Belal shook off the effects of his crash and swished both free throws, throwing his arms wide to embrace the deafening chants of the crowd and his teammates. Those points proved the deciding margin and Belal was named the tournament MVP as Kabul won its second national title.

Congratulations to both teams for putting on the most impressive championship final we’ve seen in Afghanistan yet.

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Belal’s teammates and fans hoist him above the crowd during the championship celebration

Tomorrow the men’s national team convenes for its spring training camp, with battered, bruised, exhausted players from all six cities joining together to prepare for their next international adventure in representation of their country.

Over the course of the last week, I’ve held training camps for the Afghanistan Women’s National Wheelchair Basketball Team and the Mazar-i-Sharif men’s team, as well as a course for coaches and referees. It’s been a hectic schedule, but a wonderful experience working with three very different groups.

The Women’s National Team

This was the second time we’d convened the first Afghanistan women’s national team – which includes players from Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif, and Herat – for a training camp to build unity amongst a group that is used to competing against, rather than with, one another. The 15-player team includes an intriguing mix of personalities and experience.

The Mazar contingent (five players) has been playing together the longest of the three women’s teams – about five years. They are a fast and aggressive group, but are also a bit entrenched in an individualistic, unpolished brand of play that can make the transition to higher-level team concepts and coordination a bit challenging. Their team had won two national championships in a row on the virtue of physical superiority and individual dominance, but were bypassed by superior team play by Kabul and Herat in the most recent tournament, dropping to third place out of the three teams.

The team members from Kabul (seven players) have been playing for between two and three years and tend to approach the game with more finesse than their Mazar counterparts. While this has led to most of them having more technically sound games than the Mazar players, it can often come at the expense of physical and mental intensity, keeping them from being as dominant (they won the championship last week, but by the narrowest of margins over a much less experienced team from Herat) as they might be.

The three players from Herat are the team’s youngest in terms of basketball experience, all of them having played for less than a year, but have made up for lost time by being eager and fast learners. They don’t have quite the physical strength and fire of the Mazar players, nor do they yet have the polished technique of those from Kabul, but they balance the power and finesse of the other two teams and add to it a focus on understanding team play that nearly won them a championship in just their second tournament.

Finding a way to get these various styles and backgrounds to coalesce into a highly functioning team that will be able to compete (hopefully soon) against more experienced national teams from around the world was my challenge.

Despite the players coming into camp mentally and physically fatigued from their tournament (and for the Herat players, a three day camp preceding that), we made a great deal of progress. The Mazar players committed to reworking some of their long-held habits to improve their efficiency, the group from Kabul stepped up their intensity, and those from Herat fought through their exhaustion to make further progress on increasing their knowledge and physical skills. As always, it was a joy to teach all of them and see the lightbulbs of understanding go off over the course our time together. The team still has a ways to go before it’s going to be ready for top international competition, but the potential is there and they’re one step closer to realizing it.

Blog 3The Afghanistan Women’s National Team 2015 (not pictured: Shakila, Zeynab, Sumayei, Khatera)

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The herat members of the women’s national team: Zeynab, Sumayei, Shakiba, and coaches Quwamuddin and Ayub


The Mazar Men

The Mazar-i-Sharif men’s team – the first ever formed in Afghanistan, several years before I first came – has been through an epic series of successes and disappointments as the country’s wheelchair basketball league has evolved.

When I met them in 2009, it was after I had spent a week teaching the brand new men’s team from Maimana – my first experience in Afghanistan – and had driven across the north of the country with the Maimana players to play a game between the two teams. Mazar thoroughly dominated Maimana in an extremely rough game (from both a technical and physical perspective).

When the two teams met again in 2012 as part of Afghanistan’s first national wheelchair basketball tournament, though, Maimana shocked everyone by beating Mazar in the finals to win the country’s first official championship. Mazar had come into the tournament as the clear favorites and were stunned by the loss.vIn 2013, Mazar bounced back and dominated the rest of the competition on its way back to the top of the Afghanistan wheelchair basketball mountain and the league title. The team’s confidence was restored.

Just a year later, however, Mazar suffered its biggest loss yet when the team’s top three players fled to Europe as refugees. The remaining Mazar players fought gamely in the fall 2014 national tournament, but were unable to compete at the level of the rest of the rapidly-improving teams and finished a distant last place.

Mazar’s fall from the top has had one silver lining, though. As a result of its loss of established players, the team has recruited a large group of new players over the past six months, many of whom have the potential to make a major impact. With all this new, untrained talent coming on board, I decided that they would be the one provincial men’s team I would coach in advance of the upcoming national tournament as they try to fight their way back into contention. It was a true pleasure working with the team (the first time I’ve trained them as a group in over two years), and the new players were fantastic first-time students, drinking in every bit of information I could squeeze into three days. They have a huge challenge ahead of them catching back up to the rest of the league, but their future is bright.

In the Classroom

I spent the past three days teaching a class for all the coaches and referees here in Afghanistan (twenty in all). It was a lot of fun to get them all in a room together and delve into the finer points of leadership, practice planning, and in-game coaching techniques as well as walking them through all the rules of wheelchair basketball. Everyone was very engaged and they asked lots of questions that showed how far they’ve come in their understanding of the subtleties of the game. Tomorrow morning we start the four-day spring 2015 men’s national championship tournament, which will give them the immediate opportunity to apply what they’ve learned. Good luck to all the teams!

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Coaches (from left): Abdullah (Kandahar), Ramazan (Maimana), Quwamuddin (Herat), Sakhi (Maimana), Ahmad (Kandahar), and Ayub (Herat)

I arrived for my seventh trip coaching in Afghanistan on Thursday, May 7th, and it feels a bit like I never left. I’ve written before about how this place feels strangely comfortable after being so shockingly foreign on my first visit. At this point, the comfort has become so normal that that even that is ceasing to feel strange.

Spring is my favorite season here. The weather vacillates between days-long rain storms that turn the city temporarily into a swampy, muddy mess and gorgeous sunny stretches where the landscape turns a beautiful, subtle shade of green as it dries out. There is still a cap of snow on the mountains to the west and north of Kabul and, on clear days, the views down city streets can be breathtakingly beautiful. It’s good to be back.

Training the Women of Herat
The Herat team is the newest of the small-but-growing women’s wheelchair basketball league in Afghanistan that currently also includes Mazar-i-Sharif and Kabul. They were just formed in August of 2014 and I had my first chance to train them a few months later. Since our initial meeting, the team has been joined by a new coach – Tahera Yousofi, the captain of Herat’s able-bodied women’s basketball team, recent winners of the Afghanistan national championship for women. Tahera is going to be a fantastic resource for the team with her strong basketball knowledge and easy rapport with the players. Though she’s new to the wheelchair game, she is extremely bright and dedicated to learning its intricacies, and I can tell she will be an important role model for the players in Herat. It’s always exciting to see people from outside the disabled community here getting involved and discovering the joy of working with these athletes.

While the team had made significant progress since the fall, they came into their training camp a ways behind the much more experienced Mazar and Kabul teams, who have been playing together for several years. They are astute students, though, and were devoted to squeezing as much new knowledge out of our three days working together as possible. By the end of the third day, they were exhausted and nervous, but very excited to put their new skills to work in the two-day tournament against Mazar and Kabul for the Spring 2015 Women’s National Championship.

The Tournament
The women’s national tournament was held over the course of two days, with each team playing a game against the two others in a round robin format to determine the two teams that would play for the championship on the afternoon of May 12th. Herat and Kabul played in the first game and, while both teams showed typical first game nerves, Herat played far above its experience level and was within two points at halftime. Kabul used its superior strength and height to overpower the younger team in the second half, eventually winning by 11. After the game, Herat’s team captain, Shakiba, came up to me with a look on her face that combined bewilderment and regret and said, “Mr. Jess, we don’t know what to do. We tried and tried, but we couldn’t win!” I called their team together and explained to them that they showed in the first half that they have the ability to play up to the level of the more seasoned teams and that now they just needed to find the focus and consistency to play that way for an entire game. They nodded their agreement and promised to try.

The morning of the tournament’s second day had Herat and Mazar (the two-time defending champions) playing to determine who would meet Kabul in the championship game that afternoon. Mazar were obviously the heavy favorites, but Herat learned from their loss to Kabul the previous day and came out with intensity and purpose, surprising the Mazar team by jumping out to an early lead behind the speed and scoring of their youngest player, 18 year-old Sumaiye. Mazar shook off their shock to fight back, however, and the game was neck-and-neck for the last three quarters. The score tied with under a minute to go when Shakiba went to the free throw line for two huge pressure shots. She closed her eyes for several seconds before receiving the ball, trying to calm her nerves, then proceeded to make both shots to win the game for Herat – their first win ever – sending her team to the title game! I have never heard ten people make as much noise as the Herat team did after that game, screaming for a solid ten minutes in utter jubilation.

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Herat celebrates its first victory and a trip to the national championship game

Herat came into the final again playing the role of the underdog. They started off much more slowly this time, obviously feeling the physical toll of their victory that morning and the pressure of playing in front of a few hundred spectators, with a large contingent of television cameras and photographers surrounding the court. They dug deep, though, and after several baskets in a row coupled with tough defense erased Kabul’s early lead, the two teams again played very evenly for the rest of the game. With 20 seconds to go and Herat clinging to a one point lead, Kabul’s Nilofar missed a potential game-tying free throw, but her teammate, Humaira, was able to tip the rebound back to her and Nilofar hit a huge layup to give her team the narrowest of victories.

In spite of their amazing performance, Herat was disconsolate following the loss, with players and coaches (many in tears) demanding an explanation – from me, from the other referees, from the scorekeepers, from anyone – for why they didn’t win. Just hours after feeling the thrill of victory for the first time in their lives, they couldn’t process how it could evaporate so quickly. I truly felt for them and wished I could give an answer that would ease their pain and help them realize how far they’d come and how proud they should have been of their performance, but I knew they just needed time to let the emotions fade.

During the post-tournament awards ceremony – which was joined by the President of the Afghan Olympic Committee (the highest ranking sports official in Afghanistan) along with several other members of the Afghan sports community – I was tasked with presenting the Most Valuable Player trophy after all the team trophies and medals had been given. Herat’s players had barely raised their eyes from the floor to that point, with expressions of blank disappointment on all their faces. However, when I announced Sumaiye’s name (the first time a player from the non-winning team has ever been awarded the MVP in Afghanistan), their sadness turned to euphoria in the blink of an eye. Their screams in support of their teammate’s award (joined by all the players from Mazar and Kabul) were every bit as loud as those that had followed their first victory. It was a heartwarming finish to what had been an emotional roller coaster ride of a tournament for Herat. As I told them and their coaches afterward, if they can come within a single point of winning the national championship just nine months after learning to play wheelchair basketball for the first time, they are going to taste victory many times in the years to come.

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Kabul (in black) and Herat (in orange) fly down the court in the championship game (photo courtesy of Els Hekman)

In Other News…

  1. Afghanistan has finally been granted membership in the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation (IWBF), giving its men’s and women’s national teams the opportunity to play in official international competitions all the way up to the level of the Paralympic Games. This is a huge step forward for Afghanistan’s program and we are honored to be a part of the IWBF community. We don’t know yet when or where our first competitions will be, but I will announce it here as soon as we do.
  2. Jalalabad is ready to form a women’s wheelchair basketball team for the first time. This will bring our women’s league to four teams and is a tremendous addition to the Afghanistan wheelchair basketball community. Welcome, Jalalabad!

Al Jazeera published a video vignette focused on Saber, one of the players on the Afghanistan men’s national team from Kabul. It’s great to see outside coverage of the program and this kind of profile on one of the players. Congratulations, Saber!

The second half of my two week trip to Gaza began with one men’s tournament and ended with another, book-ending days packed start-to-finish with training clinics in Gaza City – these following a first week spent teaching in the southern city of Khan Younis. In the relatively few moments off the court during the second week, I had the chance to meet several fascinating people and have great conversations about the future development of wheelchair basketball in Gaza.

Following the final set of training sessions for the first two club teams – those from Khan Younis and Shijaya – we held a competition with three teams made up of players mixed between the two clubs. It was an opportunity for the male players – like their female cohorts a few days earlier – to put into practice the new concepts and skills they’d worked hard to learn over the course of their two days of intensive training. The competition featured far better play than I would have expected from such raw players – they showed that they had retained much of what they’d learned over such a short time, utilizing offensive and defensive strategies that had been completely new to them just a day or two earlier. The result of the players’ collective focus was two of three games being decided by two points or less, with one going to overtime. Following the conclusion of the afternoon’s games, the players were all smiles and laughter – even those who suffered close losses were elated to have been a part of a higher level of basketball than they had played before.

After the tournament, I was graciously invited by one of the players – Fadi – to join him and his family at their home for dinner. This was an extremely rare opportunity for me; I haven’t been able to visit players’ homes in Afghanistan since 2011 due to tight security regulations, and had only been to one other when I last visited Cambodia in January 2014. Fadi’s wife prepared the most amazing couscous and chicken I’ve ever had – my first taste of homemade Palestinian food – and we all sat, played cards, and chatted through the evening following the meal. The visit was fantastic, and I can’t thank Fadi, his wife, and his brother and brother-in-law enough for being so welcoming to me. Thanks also to his adorable one year-old daughter, who provided endless entertainment by trying to push and climb into my wheelchair throughout the night while we sat on floor cushions laughing.

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Fadi and his adorable daughter

The second two club teams I had the opportunity to train – Al Jazera and Al Salam, both from Gaza City – were slightly less experienced than the first two teams, but every bit as enthusiastic about learning the game. Several of the players were playing wheelchair basketball for the first time, but had backgrounds in other adaptive sports, such as powerlifting or track & field. Their athletic histories allowed them to learn quickly, and I was happy to see so a great deal of potential throughout the group. There were also a few players who were very newly injured as a result of the most recent war between Israel and Palestine. It was amazing for me to see people playing with such vigor and joy, only learning later that they had just lost a limb or been otherwise disabled only seven months ago. It was a true testament to the resiliency of the people in Gaza; I will never cease to be awed by it.

Following one of the days of training, I was invited, along with my ICRC colleague, Greg, to meet with the Gaza Paralympic Committee. It was a very bright and motivated group, and one I feel confident will do well in shepherding Gazian wheelchair basketball forward now that it has established a firm base from which to grow. Between their commitment and the newly-formed link between the Gaza Paralympic Committee and that from the West Bank – headed by my friend and colleague, Ehsan – Palestinian wheelchair basketball should be ready to take big steps forward in the coming year.

My tentative plan is to return to Gaza in September. Before that, though, I will go to India in late April for a week, followed directly by a month in Afghanistan. It’s going to be a busy spring!

A little over a week ago, I arrived for two weeks of coaching in the Gaza Strip – my first time visiting the westernmost part of Palestine. My coaching schedule since arriving on February 12th has been absolutely non-stop, so this is my first chance to sit down and chronicle the experience thus far.

My only previous experience in Palestine was a brief clinic I conducted in late June 2014 in the West Bank city of Ramallah. One week after I returned home at the beginning of July, the most recent war between Israel and Palestine erupted. The intense fighting last summer was focused largely in Gaza, so I was very curious (and a bit nervous) to see how the area was affected, how its people were recovering, and what their attitude would be toward a visiting American. I found that, in spite of the widespread destruction across the region, the people have been wonderfully welcoming to me (the quote I’ve gotten from so many of the locals upon first meeting them is, “welcome to your second home!”) and seem committed to moving forward and persevering.

Two interactions upon arriving made me feel instantly at ease and comfortable in this new environment. First, I was met at the Tel Aviv airport by an old friend and ICRC colleague, Greg Halford, an Australian whom I’ve known since meeting him in Kabul, Afghanistan in 2013. Greg is an ICRC orthotist and prosthetist who was very supportive of the wheelchair basketball program in Afghanistan and who was there to witness two years of the players’ and teams’ growth. Greg had just left Afghanistan when I last traveled there in October and November last year, so it was exciting to learn that he is now one of the core people promoting development of a similar program here in Gaza. Amazingly (or perhaps not so much, given what a small world the ICRC always seems to be), I have three other colleagues whom I’ve met in Afghanistan over the past few years that are now based here. It’s been great to see some old familiar faces.

The other friend and colleague I had the chance to immediately get reacquainted with was Ehsan Idkaidek, the head of the West Bank Paralympic Committee and my host when I traveled to Ramallah last year. Ehsan is a certified international classifier for wheelchair basketball players who has a deep knowledge of key technical components of the game, so he agreed to come to Gaza a couple days before I arrived to help educate the new coaches and managers on classification as well as to give preliminary classification evaluations to many of the existing players. Ehsan is a real leader in advancing adaptive sports in the West Bank, and it was wonderful to get to see him again as well as see him connect with the Gaza contingent in beginning to consider a way to combine the efforts of the two parts of Palestine in the ongoing growth of Palestinian wheelchair basketball.

In the two days immediately after my arrival, I conducted workshops for coaches and referees to help prepare them to take the game and the local players forward once I finish my two weeks of teaching here. Both groups were fantastic and were half made up of members of the non-disabled basketball community – including a member of the Gaza national basketball team and several well-schooled able-bodied referees. It’s always exciting for me to see wheelchair basketball being supported and pushed forward by experienced, knowledgeable people from outside the player population, and to know that this will be the case from the beginning here in Gaza makes me feel very optimistic about the game’s potential for rapid growth.

During the ensuing week, I have conducted two-day training clinics for two of the four men’s club teams here as well as a clinic for a group of the first 22 women’s wheelchair basketball players in the country. The trainings have been held at a gymnasium run by the Palestinian Red Crescent Society in the southern city of Khan Younis, about a one hour drive from Gaza City, where I’m staying. Both the men and the women have been eager students, ready to learn every new skill and technique they can during my brief time here. For the men, some of whom have been playing for a few years, though without much proper training, this means reeducating themselves and breaking bad entrenched habits that they’ve developed learning on their own (much like their Afghan counterparts when I first started going there!). However, they have shown a real desire to improve and are willing to take constructive criticism and do their best to make changes.

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With (from left) Hamed of team Khan Younis, Ehsan Idkaidek, and Jehad, my first interpreter in Gaza (photos courtesy of ICRC photographer, Mohammed)

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Teaching fundamentals to the players from Team Shijaia

The group of women, conversely, had never played a sport in their lives and were starting at the most basic level possible; it was the first group with which I’ve worked where most of the players had never even pushed a wheelchair, much less touched a basketball, before. Their lack of experience and physical stamina notwithstanding, the women were all absolutely focused on learning how to play this game. After our three training sessions were complete, the female group engaged in a highly competitive series of games – the first time they’ve ever played in any type of competitive environment. The scoring may have been relatively low (although one player found her groove and ended up scoring all 12 of her team’s points during the two games they played, much to everyone’s delight), but the intensity was sky high. They barely know how to play yet, but these women all wanted to win! It was so much fun to be a part of their first-ever sports experience. In a powerful moment after I addressed the group following the final game, telling them how proud I was of them and how much effort they put into our time together, one of the players came forward and insisted to the president of the Gaza Paralympic Committee and all her compatriots, “We must have the opportunity to continue this. We must keep playing and learning!” The president’s response that he is 100% committed to seeing the growth of female wheelchair basketball in Gaza continue brought cheers of approval from all the players.

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Training the group of women with the help of my amazing blind interpreter, Dalal (standing in center)

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Yesterday, a storm blew in across the Mediterranean Sea and has soaked Gaza in rain – an uncommon amount for this area, from what I understand – battered it with high winds, and deposited a few brief-but-impressive hail storms. Roads are covered in water, the inside of the metal gym is cold enough that the players and I wore jackets during yesterday’s practice, and the roof has been leaking a bit. The crazy weather is supposed to continue through tomorrow night, but I’m hoping it won’t force us to miss any time together – we’re having way too much fun to let a winter storm get in our way.

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