I’ve now finished three days of practices here in Herat. The team is doing well, though it’s a bit hard to move them through skills as quickly as I have the other teams since they have more limited practice time (because they play at a public gym instead of an ICRC orthopaedic centre court). Still, we’re doing the best we can and they’re good students. Offsetting the time challenges is the fact that Herat has hands-down the best basketballs of any team in the country. Check these bad boys out.

Image

Where do I even start with this?? You’ve got the implied “Jodan” (not Jordan) endorsement. Apparently “Jodan” wore number 28 (not 23) and went by the nickname “Fly Man.” The Chinese company that made these basketballs clearly went the extra mile to get Nike’s and Michael Jordan’s (sorry – Jodan’s) official stamp of approval. Well done, folks.

At the end of my first practice with the team on Thursday, I had just finished teaching them the basics of good shooting technique. I asked the players to close their eyes as they were getting ready to go to sleep that night and picture themselves shooting the perfect shot, the idea being that visualizing perfect technique would help them execute it physically the next day. At the beginning of the second practice I asked each player who actually remembered to do this to raise his hand. Only a few players did so, and the others looked around with a mix of embarrassment and amusement. When I asked what the problem was, my interpreter, Farzan said, “Last night was Thursday night, Mr. Jess. Today is their weekend.” I said, “Oh, ok. So they were up really late? Is that it?” He chuckled and replied, “No, they had… ah… ‘programs’ with their wives.” I burst out laughing and said, “Ok, say no more! That is a totally excusable reason for not thinking about shooting technique before you fall asleep.” Programs!

This afternoon I met with the group of four player/coaches I identified on the Herat team to go over rules, regulations and concepts like functional player classification. As I mentioned when I was in Mazar, I’m establishing player/coaches like these in each of the cities in order to build a base of technical knowledge among a few leaders on each team to ensure the correct rules are carried forward once I head back to the States. The session this afternoon went almost two hours and featured lots of great questions by the player/coaches. Every once in a while, though, they come up with a question that’s so out of left field that I’m not quite sure how to answer it. Today we were discussing the rules surrounding the ball going out of bounds and how to determine which team gets possession. At one point, Eqbal – one of the more promising players on the team – asked the following through Farzan the interpreter: “What if I’m inbounding the ball and I throw the ball off a defensive player, then catch it when it bounces off him while I’m going to the hoop and make a basket? Is that legal?” For anyone who hasn’t played basketball (wheelchair or otherwise) before, I can tell you the degree of difficulty of a move like this is pretty much off the charts. The only person I can remember ever doing such a thing and succeeding was Larry Bird. Definitely not in a wheelchair. I patiently explained to Eqbal exactly what would need to happen for this to be done legally, but summed up my answer by saying, “Passing to a teammate is a much better move, Eqbal. Always. Just pass. Please.” Still, you have to admire him for thinking outside the box.

Today after practice, Nasir the security guard/tour guide took Michael, Vincent (my French ICRC colleague) and me to visit the ancient citadel in the center of Herat. The citadel was built by Alexander the Great around 300 AD and was renovated about 10 years ago, leaving it in amazing condition. Unfortunately, the refurbishing didn’t do a whole lot for the wheelchair accessibility of the place. My three companions ended up carrying me up and down countless sets of extremely steep stone stairs as we explored the interior of the citadel (it was closed to the public, but Nasir has a special letter that allows him to bring ICRC personnel inside). At one point we were below the upper causeway at the top of the highest wall. Nasir was adamant that I needed to see the view from the top of the structure and was equally convinced that the only way to get me up there was for him to carry me on his back. This struck me as very ill-advised given the treacherous footing on the dirt at the base of the stairs and the steepness of the stairs themselves (not to mention the fact that I’m probably 8 inches taller than Nasir and could picture my legs dragging on the ground behind him – or that I’d never had anyone carry me that way, ever), but he wouldn’t take no for an answer. Who was I to argue? It was just our lives that were at stake. With my arms locked around his neck, Nasir lurched forward, almost fell down a dirt embankment, recovered, stumbled toward the staircase, and proceeded to climb on his hands and feet up the steps. Somehow we both made it to the top alive and I got to see the panorama of mountains extending beyond the northern border of Herat – a view that it’s fairly unlikely any other person in a wheelchair has ever laid eyes on before. It was totally worth the brief moments of terror.

A few pictures of the citadel experience:

Image

Just getting into the citadel was a bit of an ordeal – I had to remove both rear wheels from my chair and go hand-over-hand across these narrowly spaced entry railings (added a bit after Alexander’s time, if I’m not mistaken) while Nasir moved my chair frame forward with me.

Image

After climbing up two absurdly steep stone ramps (and with a lot of help from my friends), I arrive at the upper courtyard of the citadel.

Image

Nasir surveys the walls around the top of the citadel, figuring out the most dangerous possible way to get me up there (you can see the stone steps he climbed with me on his back a couple hundred feet beyond him – they’re a lot steeper and more treacherous than they look from the angle of this picture, trust me).

Image

The view from the top of the wall. The mountains in the far distance separate Afghanistan from Turkmenistan in the north.