Yesterday was the men’s tournament to conclude my two weeks of basketball camps here in Mazar-e-Sharif. We ended up with eight 3-on-3 teams – two from Maimana and six from Mazar – and played a total of 15 games to decide the local championship. As the only referee, I felt like I’d been run over by a truck after four hours of running up and down the court in the hot sun, but it was a lot of fun.

Despite several reminders to the players that this was not a Maimana vs. Mazar competition, but just a chance for them to learn the full court 3-on-3 tournament format in preparation for the nationwide tourney in Kabul in June, there was obviously a lot of pride at stake for each city. Several of the players were so into the moment that they reacted like lunatic European pro soccer players anytime they made a shot, letting out primal screams and gesticulating wildly toward the crowd. I should probably work the “act like you’ve been there before” lesson into future camps so nobody has an aneurism during the Kabul tournament.

While it’s great to see the passion and intensity these guys play with, that also tends to have a negative impact on their ability to remain focused on using the techniques and strategies I’ve been teaching them over the last two weeks. I had been focusing on getting them to play solid position defense and work with their teammates on offense to get good quality shots on every possession. The second the first jump ball went up, though, most of the players reverted to their ingrained Afghsketball tendencies and immediately began fouling each other like crazy and throwing up 30 foot hook shots that had no prayer of going in.

The two Maimana teams – while they each had more than their fair share of ill advised plays – adhered more closely to what they’d learned this week than did the Mazar teams. As a result, they ended up as the top two seeds heading from the round robin first round into the single elimination playoff round. Shapur, who I’ve mentioned as being possibly the most talented player I’ve seen in Afghanistan, carried his team and, despite having to battle with being a bit too intense at times (he had at least five offensive fouls because he was always moving so fast he’d smash headlong into defenders without a hint of control), was easily the MVP of the tournament. His team made it to the championship game without too much resistance. 

In the other semi-final, the second Maimana team, led by Ramazan and Haroon, was down by six points with only two minutes left in their game against the Mazar team led by 18-year old Mujeeb – a future star if he keeps working on his fundamentals – but rallied at the end and pulled out an improbable victory to set up an all-Maimana final. I was really proud of the Maimana teams, but felt bad for the Mazar players – they had a Maimana/Mazar final in their grasp and let it slip away with several blown opportunities at the end of the game. Ah well, as I told the group after the finals were over (Shapur’s team won), this was just a warm-up tournament, with the Kabul tourney being the true battle for nationwide bragging rights. Whichever team manages to play “real” basketball the most will definitely win, so hopefully they’ll all spend the next month working on the things they’ve been learning these last two weeks.

After the games were over, the Mazar team presented me with two gifts – a traditional Afghan pakol hat and a handmade carpet featuring a map of Afghanistan. Jamil, the interpreter, also gave me a neon yellow lycra t-shirt that will definitely enhance the color diversity (and tightness) of my wardrobe. All three will be great keepsakes from the trip.

I just got the photos of the men’s and women’s tournaments from Fadi, so I’ll try to get some posted in a separate entry today. Uploading photos on the spotty Mazar internet connection has been very challenging so far, though, so I may have to wait until I’m back in Kabul tomorrow to get them up.