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.