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!