April 2012


Yesterday afternoon the Mazar women played a 9-game tournament (10 minute games of full-court three-on-three), with the men following this morning. It was incredible. I’ve had an amazing time teaching and getting to know these players over the course of the week, but I was completely unprepared for the unadulterated joy that playing in a competitive environment – even when it was just against their own teammates! – would inspire. I refereed all 18 games over the course of about 5 hours, and I don’t think I stopped smiling the entire time (no mean feat when you’re pushing a wheelchair around the court at high speeds with a whistle in your mouth).

I sat down with the Afghan coaches yesterday morning to go through both groups and divide them up into the most equal teams of three (four teams for the women and four for the men) we could come up with. We then created a basic tournament format where each team would play each other team once in the opening round to determine seeding for a quick three-game tournament (the best team plays the worst team from round one, the two middle teams play each other, then the winners of each of those games play for the championship). I was worried that the women, no matter how much time we put into picking equal teams, would make a lot of noise about not being on the team they wanted (see my last entry for why this was a concern), but they were delighted across the board! Either my speech the day before about being a good teammate actually sunk in or we just got really lucky with the player groupings.

My housemate, Fadi, came along to watch the games and take pictures, never having seen wheelchair basketball before (much less Afghan women’s wheelchair basketball). The ladies agreed that it was ok if he took their pictures as long as he didn’t sell them to any magazines (Really. They said this in complete seriousness), so he spent the entire tournament sprinting up and down the court capturing the action. Fadi is from Lebanon and is generally a very low key, understated guy, so it was hilarious to watch him laugh uproariously each time the women did something dramatic, whether it was celebrating a made shot by screaming their heads off or yelling disgustedly at one of their teammates for making a mistake. I cannot describe the level of enthusiasm, pride and happiness the women showed throughout their games (occasional displays of disgust aside). It was one of the best experiences I’ve had in any of my trips to Afghanistan. Fadi, as we were driving home, said very demurely, “I haven’t been to too many sporting events in my life, but that was definitely the best one I have ever seen.” I’ve been to a ton of sporting events in my life, and I think I might honestly say the same.

The men played their tournament this morning and it was every bit as competitive and fun as the women’s. While they might not exhibit quite the same level of precociousness as the ladies, the guys make up for it in complete reckless abandon. The best thing about their tournament was when a player would make a basket, the two teams on the sidelines would immediately start chanting his name and hollering like crazy. It felt like all the energy of a European soccer match being created by eight Afghan guys in wheelchairs. They also had the exciting scenario of the bottom seeded team (which had lost all three of its opening round games) knocking off the undefeated top seed in the first round of the playoffs and making it to the championship game. The underdogs ended up losing in the finals, but they were so happy to have gotten the upset win that I don’t think it really mattered.

Seeing the energy of both tournaments has me really excited to move into my second camp here in Mazar. This week will feature the team from Maimana – the ones who first sent the request for a trainer from the U.S. that started this whole crazy experience – and a second group of Mazar men. I’m pretty exhausted after the first week, but I can’t wait to see what the second week has in store.

I’ll be sure to share a few of Fadi’s photos from the tournaments as soon as he gets them loaded.

Saturday morning marked the final training session for the Mazar men’s team, with Friday afternoon having been the final day for the women (once again, this post has been delayed over a day by internet connectivity issues). The last two practices, fittingly, were in the rain on a soaking wet court with standing water in some areas. There are no rain delays in Afghanistan! I can’t think of a team I’ve ever played on – wheelchair or otherwise – that would voluntarily practice basketball outdoors in the rain. It’s a testament to the toughness and dedication of the players involved. It was a surprisingly fun experience despite the discomfort of being drenched the whole time.

Each group will now play its own mini 3-on-3 tournament (these actually just finished this morning – recap to come soon) to finish out the week. I’m hoping to get some good pictures of the action to share. It’s been a blast coaching and getting to know both groups of players, and I have a few funny stories that have happened over the last couple days.

First, the women’s team is getting even more headstrong and fiery by the day. Yesterday I broke them up into teams of three, and several players starting vociferously complaining that they weren’t grouped with the people they wanted to play with. I had to give them a long talk about being good teammates and being prepared to play with any combination of players – and about being happy and supportive no matter which teammates you have on the court with you. One of the players just couldn’t get over her pouting, though, no matter how much cajoling I did. At a bit of a loss after using all my best psychological tricks, I resorted to telling her I’d have to throw a basketball at her if she didn’t start smiling. This got the whole team laughing – her included – and the disagreement was instantly forgotten.

One of the lessons I tried to teach both teams on their final training days was how to play team defense and the necessity of communicating with your teammates. “Talk on D” is a mantra that every coach in the world drills into their players’ heads. This concept was so foreign to the Afghan players, though, that no matter how many times I reiterated and demonstrated it – and no matter how many times they insisted that they understood – not one person said a single word on defense at any point during the practices. I would insert myself into a demonstration group and tell them, “just do what I do,” followed by my yelling the name of the player I was guarding (the simplest form of talking on defense). They would then say through my interpreter, “Yeah, we got it. It’s easy. Let us try it.” Every time they followed by playing a practice possession in complete silence other than one or two players on the offensive side constantly yelling, “PASS ME THE BALL!!!” Amazing. I’m not sure this is a battle I can win, but I’ll keep trying.

Other than these few cultural challenges, though, the players have made remarkable strides during the course of the week. From a basketball skills perspective, they are night and day better than they were on when we started. All the players can dribble confidently, throw several types of passes, shoot with reasonably good technique close to the basket and play decent one-on-one defense. The men even learned how to successfully execute the bounce-stop maneuver – where a player moving fast with the ball bounces it high off the court, stops his chair while the ball is in flight, then catches the ball once his chair is stopped so he can take a controlled shot at the basket. Not an easy skill for for most intermediate players to master, so putting that level of coordination together at this beginning stage was very exciting to see.

No matter how much common ground we find, sometimes the Afghans observe the world in a way that is completely baffling and hilarious to me. I was meeting with the coaches after practice this morning and showed them a few photos of home. One of them – Khaled – started scrolling through all the pictures on my phone and came to a shot of me in Times Square with a black guy dressed in a full Batman costume, dramatically spreading his cape (the guy, who was posing for all the tourists in the area, had stopped me as I rolled down the sidewalk and asked if he could get a picture with me – quintessential New York moment). I’m wearing a stocking cap and wool coat in the shot. Khaled’s sincere (and entire) reaction: “Oh, it’s winter in this picture!”

I’ll do my best to get a recap of the men’s and women’s week 1 tournaments up soon.

In other news, the Huffington Post ran an interview with the two producers of “The League of Afghanistan” yesterday. Check it out: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/28/league-of-afghanistan-wheelchair_n_1461413.html

Sorry for the delay in getting a new post up – the internet in Mazar-e-Sharif is a lot less reliable than in Kabul, and I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to post this evolving entry for a day and a half.

I’ve now had three practices each with the Mazar men’s and women’s teams, and things are off to a great start. The players have obviously been working on some of the skills I taught them in my visit last year, while having reverted to their more “Afghstketball” style in other elements of the game (namely shooting). Since I only had three days with them last year, this isn’t too surprising, and I’ve been impressed with how quickly they’re picking up and implementing proper technique this week. 

I’ve recruited four player/coaches on the Mazar men’s side, whom I’ve been meeting with after practices to discuss technical aspects of the game like functional classification for players and the finer points of wheelchair basketball rules. They’re all very bright and I think will really help to move things forward by serving as leaders teaching existing and new players in the community once I’m gone. Developing this kind of local leadership is going to be critical to making a league and national program sustainable.

During a lengthy post-practice rules discussion today, I discovered that the head coach of the men’s and women’s teams – an older man named Nazuk Mir who helped start the first wheelchair basketball team in Mazar over eight years ago – has  had absolutely no experience with basketball of any kind. His sole coaching qualification was that he had watched quite a bit of soccer. The players’ lack of any awareness of rules or technique makes a lot more sense now. They are all very happy to be learning the right way to play, though, and even asked to practice on Friday, normally a day dedicated to worship in the Muslim faith.  

Working with the women’s team has been a lot of fun as well. They’re starting to grasp the core components of the game, and several are showing a lot of competitive fire (aka attitude!). This can be funny to observe because, even though the women are all fairly young – 18 to 22 or so – they have no problem voicing their opinions, even if it means arguing with me or getting on the case of one of their teammates. I’m making an effort to get them to be supportive of their teammates, but in the end it’s good to see that they’re competitive and want to succeed. I should probably just back off and let them fight it out.

As I saw in my return visit to Maimana last year, a few of the players on both sides are starting to stand out as natural athletes who are putting the mental and physical pieces together. This is exciting to watch and gives me a lot of hope for the eventual possibility of a competitive Afghan national team. I and the ICRC will convening a meeting of international and local stakeholder organizations – some sports focused, some disability focused, some governmental – in June to discuss how to take wheelchair basketball (and disability sports in general) to the next level of organization and competitiveness in Afghanistan, so hopefully these players will have an official national team tryout to work toward in the not-too-distant future.

Pictures:

  1. Three of the four new player/coaches: Tawab, Khalid and Reiza. They were all adopting the standard Afghan mean mug pose until Alberto threw a basketball at Khalid right as I snapped the picture. Perfect timing.
  2. Giving Nasrullah a thumbs up on his demonstration of shooting form.
  3. Nazir, on the left, recently got engaged to one of the players on the women’s team, Hanifa. Hanifa is a real pistol. Nazir has his work cut out for him.
  4. The women’s team learning to throw baseball passes (or “handball passes” since they’ve never heard of baseball).
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I just found out my flight to Mazar-e-Sharif is canceled due to flooding on the Mazar runway (despite the rain having stopped over 24 hours ago). Apparently the drainage system at the Mazar airport is such that all water runoff pools on the runway itself. Since Mazar is in a desert where rain is fairly rare and its airport features one “gate” where passengers wait outside in a gravel lot ringed by coiled razor wire, I probably shouldn’t be too surprised by this minor engineering oversight.

Ah well, I came into this trip knowing that, no matter how much advanced planning I did, things would rarely happen quite the way I expected. I kind of hoped I’d make it through at least the first day of the first basketball camp without some unforeseen circumstance getting in the way, but I suppose it’s better to get the unpredictability established right off the bat. Now I’ll be starting with the Mazar women’s team tomorrow afternoon, which will be a fun way to kick things off, in any case.

Since I have some additional downtime with nothing interesting to report on the basketball side yet, I’ll post some pictures I took yesterday driving through Kabul after the three day rain storm had just finished.

1. It’s a bit hard to tell from the picture, but the mountains around Kabul are tinged green with low grass right now – the first time I’ve seen them any color other than dirt brown – and, with their rocky outcroppings, they look like they’re straight out of the Scottish Highlands.

2. In my past two visits, the Kabul River has been a 15-foot deep dry bed of dirt and garbage – for anyone I went to college with, it makes the Millrace look like an alpine stream – but after the storm it was a rushing torrent of chocolate milk-colored (but probably not flavored) water that came within a couple feet of flooding over the bridges that cross it.

3. The new basketball court at the Kabul ICRC Orthopaedic Centre is under construction and is looking like a massive improvement over the previous court. It should be completed within the next three weeks, just in time to start the Kabul basketball camps, and will definitely be the nicest court in the country.

4. Alberto recently adopted a stray kitten, missing one hind leg, who hobbled into his office at the Orthopaedic Centre and demanded attention. Her name is Rita 5 and she’s a hilarious ball of three-legged energy. I’m going to push for one of the ortho technicians to build her a prosthetic cat leg so she fits in with the rest of the patient population at the Centre.

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Thanks to a delayed case of jet lag, I didn’t sleep a single second last night. As frustrating as that was, however, I got some amazing news when I opened my laptop at 2am to see that the documentary Michael Glowacki, Aaron Cooley and Danny Alpert are trying to make about Afghan wheelchair basketball – The League of Afghanistan – hit its Kickstarter.com fundraising goal to move the project forward. Not only that, but they reached the goal with 15 days still left before the deadline for contributions, so there’s time for them to raise an even bigger budget to make an even more complete film! I still wasn’t able to sleep, but at least I was awake and happy.

Congratulations, guys – I’m looking forward to working with you on this great project! Thanks a million times over to all the people from all parts of my life who contributed to making this happen. I can’t begin to tell you how much I appreciate and am humbled by your support.

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1550578903/the-league-of-afghanistan?ref=live

 

I arrived in Afghanistan today after traveling from New York to Geneva for a day and a half of meetings at ICRC headquarters, then from Geneva to Istanbul to Kabul. I traveled from Geneva with two new acquaintances who are on their first ICRC missions to Afghanistan – Charles, a prosthetist from Kenya and Philip, an IT systems engineer from Switzerland.

When we got to Kabul, both wheelchairs were waiting for me at the baggage claim (no panic trying to track them down for the first time yet), and with only minor damage to one of them, so… victory? When they didn’t show up at the airport in Istanbul as I’d requested and no one there could definitively tell me where they were, I was worried they’d be left sitting on a runway somewhere, so one slightly dinged up chair – which the Afghan technicians will be able to fix without breaking a sweat – is no big deal as long as they both made it to the country in one piece.

It’s pouring down rain in Kabul today – the first rain I’ve seen in any of my trips to Afghanistan – so it’s a bit reminiscent of a spring day back home in the Northwest, just with a LOT more mud. It’s supposed to keep raining through Saturday, so, while it will be great for the local water supply and agriculture, it could get pretty messy in a city where the vast majority of the streets are unpaved. People here are generally happy to see the rain, though. I arrived at the ICRC delegation to fill out my arrival paperwork and was greeted by a rousing game of volleyball being played by the Afghan ICRC staff on their lunch break. Outdoors. In the rain. Nobody cared at all.  

After the administrative processes were done, I was greeted by my friend and colleague, Alberto Cairo, who is graciously hosting me at his home again during my time in Kabul. It’s great to be reunited with Alberto and his family of two cats, two small tortoises and his wonderful 80 72 year-old chef, Fatah-jan, again.

It’s strange how familiar everything here feels now. As I was driving through Kabul from the airport, I thought back to my first trip down the exact same streets in 2009 and how I was frantically trying to take pictures of everything to capture the crazy, manic energy of this very foreign city. This time I just smiled at how normal it all felt.

I’m in Kabul for the next couple days before flying up to Mazar-e-Sharif on Sunday to conduct my first two basketball camps over the next two weeks, one of which will be with my old friends from Maimana. Stay tuned!

Here it is, Spring 2012 – about two and a half years since I made my first journey to Afghanistan to spend a week teaching a team of 12 Afghan men in a little town called Maimana the basics of wheelchair basketball. Since that initial trip, the sport has seen tremendous growth in several cities across Afghanistan, with new men’s and women’s teams having been formed – and many new players joining existing teams – following the delivery of 120 brand new basketball wheelchairs to the country in January 2011. Last May I made a return trip, this time working with about 70 players in three cities over the course of three weeks and seeing first hand the enthusiasm and excitement that wheelchair basketball is creating amongst the Afghan disabled population. Momentum has continued to build since my return to the U.S. last June, both within Afghanistan and abroad, and several significant developments have come to pass that are bringing a new level of excitement and legitimacy to this rapidly accelerating effort.

On April 15th I will embark on my third Afghanistan expedition, this time for two months. On each of my first two trips I went as a volunteer, working closely with NGOs based in the country, but essentially operating independently. The biggest difference this year is that I will be traveling on an official mission as a consultant to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), leading their first ever disability sports program. This is a huge step forward for wheelchair basketball in Afghanistan, as the ICRC’s reputation, resources and embedded presence throughout the country will be critical to growing the effort further by promoting it in new communities and providing the equipment and facilities the growing population of basketball players will need to see their competitive dreams realized. The person who has led the push within the ICRC to make disability sports a priority is Alberto Cairo, my Italian friend and colleague who has spent the last 21 years establishing the ICRC’s physical rehabilitation and orthopedic programs in Afghanistan. Alberto is every bit as passionate about seeing wheelchair basketball succeed in Afghanistan as I am. He recently gave a TED Talk in Geneva, Switzerland, where he describes the early years of starting the physical rehab program and the future he sees ahead, which includes sports like basketball as a core focal point for the ICRC.

In addition to the support of the ICRC, I have received invaluable assistance from a few other amazing organizations in recent months. Motivation UK, which designed and produced all the basketball chairs that were delivered in 2011, has offered to help me start a dialogue with the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation and the International Paralympic Committee to begin the process of establishing an officially recognized – and internationally competitive – national team program in Afghanistan, something that I could barely have imagined after my first visit in 2009. Another huge assist came from coach Mike Frogley and the University of Illinois wheelchair basketball program. Coach Frogley, one of the most widely recognized wheelchair basketball educators in the world, invited me to spend a few days in February at the U of I campus observing his coaching techniques and working with him to build a curriculum for my upcoming trip. It was a tremendously useful experience and I will be an immeasurably better teacher to the Afghan players as a result of the time spent learning from Coach Frogley and his staff.

One last development I’m excited to share with all of you is an effort by three filmmakers – Michael Glowacki, Aaron Cooley and Danny Alpert – to produce a documentary about the growth of wheelchair basketball in Afghanistan. Michael, a documentary director, captured footage during the my last trip and recently completed a wonderful film trailer that their production team is using to garner support for developing the full length documentary. You can see the trailer at their Kickstarter site (which has already been sponsored by the Sundance Film Festival!) to get a great sense of my experience thus far and learn about a couple of the players. Michael hopes to join me again for the last month of my upcoming trip to capture more footage and continue to build the Afghan players’ stories. A film like this will be an incredible awareness-building tool if completed, so I’m excited to see where the team can take it.

My plan for the next two months is to put on six week-long basketball camps (the first two in Mazar-e-Sharif, the third in Herat and the final three in Kabul) to give every current player in the country equal access to focused instruction. I will also work with the ICRC to gather potential coaches, referees and administrators to begin putting in place the building blocks for a true national wheelchair basketball league in Afghanistan. At the end of the 2 months, we will bring teams from around the country to the newly constructed court at the ICRC Orthopedic Centre in Kabul to stage a national tournament.

Finally, I’d like to say a very sincere thank you to my wonderful wife Lindy, the rest of our family, and my friends, colleagues and other great people for being so supportive of my work in Afghanistan. It’s a crazy time in a very unstable part of the world right now, but I feel that makes it even more important that I take this opportunity to bring something positive to the table, and I truly appreciate the interest everyone has shown in seeing this become a success. More to come soon!