May 2011

I arrived safely back in Kabul last night on the Red Cross flight from Mazar. The trip north was a great success, and I had a blast coaching the teams from Maimana and Mazar. The last day of practice with the Mazar teams went very well. The ladies got over their nerves and did a great job learning proper shooting technique. I then ran them through a scrimmage game, and that’s when they really got going. They wanted to win and were every bit as competitive – and rough – as the men’s team. I wish I’d had a few more days to work with them, but it was a lot of fun while it lasted.

The Mazar men did well too, though they kept insisting on far longer shots than they could make using proper form, so I instituted a new rule during their scrimmage game. Anyone who took a shot outside a certain distance – beyond which no player was able to shoot properly – had to sit out until the next team substitution (every 10 minutes or so). Everyone applauded the new regulation… then at least six guys proceeded to get unceremoniously benched because they just couldn’t help themselves and launched 20 footers with one hand. It was all taken with good humor though, and every guy who took a bad shot looked back at me instantly with a guilty smile before rolling to the sidelines.

In addition to my aformentioned housemates, I wanted to give shoutouts to a few other cool expats I met and spent quality time with in Mazar: Brian from New York, Lucy from London, Anders from Norway, Sanaz from Iran/Germany and Eric from Paris. Thanks for making my brief time in Mazar so memorable, everyone!
This morning I had a great return practice in Kabul, where I showed up unannounced to the team’s regularly scheduled session. They were all excited to see me back, and it was really fun to see them again. Even after just a week away, it felt strangely like coming home to be back on the court at the Kabul Orthopedic Center. It was good to see my physiotherapist friends and training partners Malang, Catriona, Rafiq and Raz Mohammed as well. They’re learning the game right along with the team, and will be in charge of coaching once I’m gone. Keep up the good work, guys.

Following practice, Malang set up a meeting for me with the president of the Afghanistan Paralympic Committee at the Kabul Olympic training center. I had no idea before this trip that there was a Paralympic committee in Afghanistan, but once I heard, I wanted to find out how their basketball program is structured. The Olympic training center, where all Olympians and Paralympians in Kabul go to train, is huge in size but obviously underfunded. The equipment is the equivalent of what you might find at an old worn-down high school in the US. The wheelchair basketball team doesn’t even have basketball wheelchairs! I watched them run through a practice and gave them some notes on things to work on, both individually and as a team. A few of the players were pretty good, but they need proper training just as much as they need new chairs. From what I can tell, the team is mainly cobbled together from athletes that specialize in other sports, but also have some sense of how to play basketball. I’m going to try to help them find some good wheelchairs that they can afford with their meager funding, then will hopefully get a chance to work with them the next time I’m in town. I’d also like to convince the committee to arrange open tryouts so players from around Kabul (and perhaps even a few from outside the capital) can have an equal chance to make the team.

Just two more practices – this afternoon and tomorrow morning – before I fly home. See you all soon!

1. Me and my old buddy Abdul Salom, looking like an Afghan Jack Palance after his solo push from Maimana to Mazar last week
2. The Mazar women’s team waited around for close to an hour of the men’s practice before finally asking Oldoz (far right) if I’d pause to take a picture with them so they could get home before dark
3. Me and Zakhi, the English speaking Maimana player I bonded with on my previous trip, now attending college in Mazar and joining the team there
4. The Mazar men’s team. They were laughing like hyenas the second before this picture was taken. It’s amazing how quick the mean mugs come out in Afghanistan when a camera comes into view.
5. In the rest of the world airplanes have “No Smoking” signs. In Afghanistan they have these.

Yesterday afternoon I coached my first Afghan women’s team (one of only two in the country). I had been really looking forward to this opportunity, as a women’s wheelchair basketball team in Afghanistan is a pretty groundbreaking social step forward in a society where both women and disabled people are very margianalized. If someone had told 19 year old pre-injury me that in 15 years I’d be coaching women’s wheelchair basketball in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, I can’t imagine how I would have responded… but I apologize from the future to the hypothetical person posing that hypothetical situation; you were right all along, and I shouldn’t have reacted with such hypothetical incredulity.

Working with the women was a lot of fun. They were very shy to start the practice and responded to most of my instructions with nervous giggling. After I told them there’s no laughing in basketball, though, they got more focused and really started picking things up quickly. It was very helpful having my friend Oldoz translate for me. Her presence seemed to really set the team at ease even though they were using their new wheelchairs for the first time, were being dictated to by a strange American man and had several dozen people watching their successes and failures intently from the sidelines. The training session only had one small hiccup. I was working with the women on a passing drill where I was also trying to learn their names. One of the girls told me her name as I prepared to throw her a pass, but said it quietly enough that I didn’t quite hear her. I gave it a shot anyway and, when I called out her name while throwing the pass, the rest of the team dissolved into a laughing fit. Oldoz explained that, by accidentally switching the first letter of the girl’s name from an R to an S, I had called her “the heavy one.” Just what you want to yell when throwing a pass to a nervous 17 year old girl in front of a bunch of people. Ouch.

It’s been great coaching the men’s team here as well. Despite being the longest-standing team in Afghanistan, they are just as eager to learn as the other teams I’ve worked with and are very upbeat and easy to work with. The challenge is that the court in Mazar is quite small and there are only three basketballs. The men’s team has 18 players, so I’m having to find creative ways to teach them new skills while still being able to observe each individual player. Luckily my old friend from the Maimana team, Sakhi, is here in Mazar studying and has been coming to practices and helping me by translating and showing them some of the basic fundamentals. It’s been great seeing him and another player I missed while in Maimana, Abdul Salom. Abdul Salom missed last week’s training in Maimana because, according to his teammates, “he wants to find a wife, so he decided to push his wheelchair from Maimana to Mazar by himself.” I’m not exactly sure how the cause and effect logic works in that scenario, but that’s 400 km over nearly all desert on a dangerous highway. Oh, and his wheelchair weighs about 60 pounds (four times the weight of an American ultralightweight wheelchair like the one I use). Abdul Salom is tough.

I’ve met some outstanding non-Afghan people here in Mazar too, as I’m staying in a guest house with four ICRC employees from all around the world. Many thanks to my temporary housemates Chrisu (from Germany), Oldoz (Iran and Germany), Monika (Australia, Ireland AND Sweden) and Lindy (yep, I managed to find a Lindy in Afghanistan too, though this one is a middle-aged Danish man) for making me feel so welcome. I’ve shared fascinating conversations with each of these folks, and went to a cool rooftop party with them and a bunch of other Western NGO employees last night. After being lifted out of my chair and over a Land Cruiser by Chrisu and Lindy in order to get through the garage entrance to the party, I was carried up four flights of stairs to the roof by a group of burly but gregarious Germans. Only in Afghanistan could that situation feel completely normal.

This morning Danish male Lindy and I walked from our guest house to Mazar’s famous Blue Mosque. It was great to get out and see the city a bit, though it was seriously hot pushing my chair over dirt and rock roads and through some insane traffic to get there. I wish I’d had some milk.

Today is my last day working with the teams in Mazar, then I head back to Kabul tomorrow for one more day of training with the two teams there before boarding a plane back to the US on Tuesday afternoon.

1. Showing the Mazar women how to use proper technique when pushing their new wheelchairs
2. Teaching Michael Jordan’s patented eyes-closed free throw style to the Mazar men’s team
3. Pushing through the rough streets of Mazar-e-Sharif in my brand new $2 Afghan sunglasses
4. Visiting the Blue Mosque

I arrived in Mazar-e-Sharif yesterday afternoon after finishing my last practice with the Maimana team in the morning. The four days in Maimana flew by, and it was a fantastic reunion with the team and my friends there. I’m really proud of how far the team has come over the last year and a half, both as basketball players and as people, and can’t wait to hear where their lives take them in the future. I had a great conversation with them after practice yesterday and learned that Shapur, the team captain, hopes to become a powerful (and, he specified, non-corrupt) politician someday so he can play a role in helping Afghanistan and its people recover after so many years of conflict. Those are the kinds of lofty goals I love to hear from the players here.

The pictures below are of:
1. Shapur using proper shooting form (finally!) on a layup.
2. Haroon throwing a picture-perfect outlet pass to Alem to start a fast break.
3. On Bazaar Day people from outlying villages travel to Maimana to buy and sell goods, many of them riding into town on donkeys.
4. Me and the team. They chose to look tough. I chose not to.

Yesterday, one of the employees at the Maimana Orthopedic Center, Niaz, brought his younger brother to see me. His brother, Farid, is about 24 and was paralyzed a couple years ago when he was shot in the back while serving as a policeman guarding a UN convoy that was attacked by insurgents. In addition to being a paraplegic, his left forearm was crushed by a second bullet, shattering the bones and leaving his forearm bent at a pretty serious angle. I first met Farid at his brother’s urging on my last trip, because Niaz said Farid was having a really hard time adjusting to his injuries. At the time, I tried to talk to Farid about taking a positive attitude toward his situation and viewing his disability as a challenge to be beaten, not an insurmountable barrier. I also encouraged him to think about trying basketball since he’s tall and athletically built. Unfortunately, he was just too depressed to really respond much to what I was saying and was convinced that he couldn’t play basketball because of his arm injury. I left feeling like I hadn’t done much to help him. It was one of the few regrets I had following that first trip to Afghanistan.

When Farid came in yesterday afternoon, though, he was a completely new person! He looked much healthier, smiled easily, and told me he had recently gotten married and was expecting his first child in a month. This is huge news, as it’s often very hard for disabled men to convince a family to “give” them their daughter (it’s a country of arranged marriages… this is how things work). I was delighted to hear Farid’s news and see his new attitude, so I introduced him to the guys from the team, who had come to the Center in the afternoon for a film session watching an instructional DVD about wheelchair basketball. I had them explain why they play the game and got him to try out a basketball wheelchair for a few minutes. He seemed to enjoy it, though he’d never played basketball in any context before, and actually started to pick up basic shooting mechanics pretty quickly. He joined us for the film session and I invited him to come to practice the following morning to try playing for real. His response was a bit noncommittal – I think he was a bit intimidated by the idea of being thrown into full practice with an existing team never having done anything athletic in a wheelchair before – so I figured there was a slim chance he’d actually show up, at least this time.

I arrived at practice at 5:30 this morning, though, and Farid was there! He went through the full practice with us and – despite being pretty awkward as he got used to using the new basketball wheelchair and learning basic ball skills at the same time – really started to pick things up after a while. The other players were helpful in explaining how they learned the techniques I had taught them, which sped his progress far more than my translated explanations could have. Farid will be really sore tomorrow, but I hope he enjoyed the cameraderie of playing with the team enough to come back. It was great to see him out of his shell, no matter what happens in the future.

A cameraman from the local news came to film practice today, as did a freelance journalist from Norway who is living in Maimana, so hopefully the team will get some positive press and raise local awareness about what they’re doing. They deserve the recognition.

I arrived safely in Maimana yesterday morning. After dropping my bags off at the house where I’m staying, my friend Vesa drove me to the Maimana Orthopedic Center, where the basketball team practices, to meet the staff for lunch. It was great seeing the folks at the center again, especially Latif, the technician who fixed my badly broken basketball wheelchair with a few simple hand tools the last time I visited. He was glad I had two fully functional chairs with me this time.

After lunch, the players from the team started arriving to discuss the practice schedule for the week. It was amazing to see each of them walk or wheel through the door; they all look so much older than they did a year and a half ago! Most of them were under 20 the last time I saw them, so recently grown beards, mustaches and – in the case of the recently-appointed team captain, Shapur – a subtle mullet, changed their appearance enough that it took me a second to recognize several of them. Each of their faces lit up as they came around the corner and saw me waiting for them, though. They’d been waiting so long for me to come back, and the excitement of reuniting with them almost made me choke up.

This morning we ran our first practice – like in Kabul, beginning at 5:30am to avoid the midday heat – and it was excellent. The players have improved a ton in many areas since I last saw them, but they still all shoot the ball like they’re throwing a football, so we have plenty to work on. Given how young and athletic most of the Maimana players are, this team definitely has a ton of potential. Shapur – who is only 18 – picks up everything I teach extremely quickly, so it’s great that the other players respect him enough to have voted him captain. He will be an invaluable assistant coach as I try to explain concepts in English and struggle to get the others to understand what I want them to do.

Following practice, one of the players – Homayun – brough everyone glasses of warm milk he’d gotten from his cow that morning. According to the players, this was a rare post-practice treat in honor of my return to Maimana. While obviously touched by the gesture, I’ve never been more frustrated to be in the company of people who couldn’t understand the context of a perfect movie quote for the situation. Hopefully someone reading this can appreciate Ron Burgundy’s classic quote even in absentia: “It’s so damn HOT! Milk was a baaad choice.”

In Afghan cities, the local Mullahs begin singing the morning prayer around 3:30am, well before dawn. They all have microphones and sound systems to allow their message to be broadcast to anyone within a mile or so of the mosque. In Maimana, there are three mosques within very close proximity, so I woke this morning to the geographically unique experience of three mullahs singing the same song in slightly different keys at slightly different times. Some Mullahs have decent voices, while others can’t carry a tune to save their lives. The whole situation reminded me a bit of the scene in Spinal Tap where the band tries to sing “Heartbreak Hotel” at Elvis’s grave, but can’t manage to figure out how to sing in harmony. That’s two classic movie references in two paragraphs. You knew there was a reason you read this blog!

Three very cool things happened over the past two days. First, I went to visit Wahidullah’s home and had a two hour conversation with him while his ancient father and mother sat and listened. Wahid was shot when he was 12 years old during the Mujahideen’s overthrow of Kabul in the early ’90s. I’ve already mentioned his crazy demeanor and thrill seeking spirit, but I learned a lot more about the more philosophical side that he has in equal measure underneath the surface. He talked about the fact that he feels it is necessary for him to always show the manic energy he displays at practice because if he doesn’t accentuate his happiness, he fears many of the other players won’t feel happy. I thought that was a very interesting observation, and it made sense given his more subdued, introspective personality while at home. He lives in a very poor residential area that is nearly all mud houses with narrow dirt alleyways connecting them. Even given the completely monochromatic dirt surroundings, there was something peaceful about the back alleyways leading to his home. He also had several small neighborhood children running in and out of the house during our meeting, all of whom seemed to be captivated by him and be constantly angling for his attention. Even though they were regularly interrupting our conversation, he was amazingly gentle and patient with each child. It was a really tranquil scene for someone whom I’d only known as the team’s resident lunatic before the visit.

Second, I had the last practice with the Kabul afternoon team (the rookies) on Thursday afternoon. After only four days, they are a completely different group of people than the ones I met on Monday. This was the group that was much more introverted in the beginning. By the end, when I refereed their first scrimmage game ever, they were delighted to be competing with and against each other and were extremely happy even after the game ended in a scoreless tie. After giving them my version of a motivational speech to close the practice, each player came up to me with his camera and asked to take a photo. Then, after I’d taken one with another player, the previous one would come back to get a shot from a slightly different angle. Afghans love their photo shoots. The picture below is of the team giving a group cheer – something I couldn’t have imagined any of them doing just a couple days ago.

Third, I finished the last practice with the morning team today. It was absolutely phenomenal. Not only did they show amazing aptitude with the individual skills I’d shown them, but they even began grasping team defensive concepts – something so far outside their realm of basketball experience that I hesitated to even approach the subject. I shortened the skill training today so they could play an hour-long game, then ended up extending that by about 30 minutes because nobody wanted to stop playing – this despite it being around 90 degrees by the end of the game with no shade on the outdoor court. The first game they played this week, they may have made two baskets between the two teams combined. In today’s game the winning team scored at least 25 points. They were all elated, and Shir and Wahidullah each gave very nice speeches thanking me for coming to teach them. It was a special moment.

Tomorrow morning I board a UN flight for Maimana. I can’t wait to see those guys again.

1. Me and Wahidullah in his home
2. Wahid’s father
3. The afternoon team giving a big cheer to finish our week working together

I just finished my fourth practice with the morning (more experienced) team here in Kabul. Their progress since I arrived has been stunning. As the week has gone on, their focus and excitement has continued to grow and players who could barely catch the ball on the first day are now making shots, dribbling and passing with confidence. They’re also much more comfortable with me and are laughing and joking constantly. I’m having such a blast working with them. It will be bittersweet to finish tomorrow’s final practice and say goodbye before heading north to reunite with my old friends in Maimana.

I had an amazing experience yesterday when I went with a couple of the ICRC physiotherapists to visit two of the players in their homes. This is the first time I’ve visited an Afghan home, and it was truly eye opening. The first player I visited, Shir Padshah, is a double leg amputee (both well above the knee) AND a paraplegic who was injured when a rocket exploded next to him and his father when he was 12 years old. Shir is a quietly confident guy who is a natural leader and clearly has the respect of his teammates. He lives in a small apartment with a narrow set of curving concrete stairs leading to the front door. Since the stairs and door were too narrow for a wheelchair to pass, I had to hoist myself out of my chair and climb them backwards, then move across the ground into the apartment. Shir has to do the same thing every time he leaves the house or comes home. The inside of the apartment is a single open room with no furniture other than a couple carpets and pillows on the ground, and is no more than 150 square feet. He lives with his mother and two sisters and is the sole provider for the family. Unfortunately, he lost his job when the business he owned selling gas from free-standing barrels went under a couple years ago due to Kabul finally getting 24-hour electricity and people no longer needing to run gas generators in their homes. Unbelievable.

I don’t have time to write everything I learned from our conversation, but I will say that he has an amazing attitude and a clear focus on showing the people of Afghanistan that disabled people like him can be role models and contributing members of society. He has a steep hill to climb to realize his vision given current prevailing attitudes here, but Shir has the charisma and force of will to make it happen if anyone does.

I have to run to visit another player’s home now – the previously mentioned motorcycle-sketching madman, Wahidula – so I’ll have to write more later. Thanks for reading; it’s been great to see your comments whenever I get a few minutes online here.

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