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