The Herat mini-tournament was this morning, marking the end of my week here. I had been a bit concerned about a subtle lack of leadership and energy from the Herat team earlier in the week, a problem I made every effort to remedy by repeatedly emphasizing the importance of the four player/coaches and the need for the other players to follow their lead. I also prompted them to cheer their teammates’ successes during practices, even during mundane drills – something they finally started doing of their own volition at the final practice.

There were close to 100 spectators (Afghans and expats from the ICRC, representatives of other organizations like the UN, family members, etc.) in the cavernous Herat gymnasium to watch the tournament – at least 90 more than the players had ever been watched by at once before – so I really hoped the team would put its best foot forward and show the community how exciting wheelchair basketball can be. I’m proud to say the guys really came through! They played relatively under control, used the techniques I’d taught them and didn’t even take too many ridiculous prayer shots. When one of them scored, though, it was pandemonium. The members of the crowd (and the teams on the sidelines) were chanting player names, clapping and yelling throughout. My housemates, none of whom had ever seen wheelchair basketball before, came to lunch buzzing about what an amazing experience it had been. Way to go, dudes!!

Unfortunately, the tournament ran a bit long, causing two problems. First, all but a few members of the crowd had to leave before semi-final round of the tournament to return to work. Second, the soccer team that was slated to take over the gym for practice after us was a bit impatient when we asked for 30 extra minutes to finish the tournament. At first, one of them agreed to the extended time, but when all his teammates arrived, they started arguing about the fact that it was their time and demanding that we finish in five minutes (this at the beginning of the second semi-final game). When the negotiations between the Herat coach and the soccer players didn’t seem to be going in our favor, I finally asked who their captain was and negotiated a truce myself. They would give us 30 minutes to finish our tournament and the basketball team would give up part of its practice time on Saturday to the soccer team to make up for it. Problem solved. After the agreement, the soccer hooligans were very supportive and cheered on the last two games as though there had never been an issue.

The best part of the result was the fact that the two teams who finished the opening round in 3rd and 4th place (out of four teams), ended up beating the top two teams in the semi-finals and playing each other for the Herat city championship. This had all the guys grinning from ear to ear and, when the 3rd ranked team won the title, everyone cheered mightily. We then met up at the ICRC Orthopaedic Centre for a traditional post-tournament feast of cookies, tea, interminable speeches (only one of which was by me) and an arm wrestling match between the team’s two strongest players. Party!

Tomorrow I head back to Kabul on the ICRC plane to prepare for three consecutive weeks of camps there (back to two-a-day practices as well!) leading up to the national tournament in mid-June. I may also make a brief trip to Jalalabad, a city in the east of Afghanistan that I’ve never visited, to work for a few days with the brand new team the ICRC just formed there. More updates on that later.

In the meantime, here are a few random pictures from Herat (tournament photos will have to wait until Michael can send me a few pulled from his video footage).

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A typical street scene in Herat – lots of motorcycles and cars, with pedestrians and bicyclists effortlessly dodging them while enjoying the surrounding greenery. Those are the towers of the previously pictured blue mosque in the distance.

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One more shot from the Herat Citadel – this one with League of Afghanistan Director Michael Glowacki and the strongest tour guide in Herat, Nasir Ahmad.

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Teaching wheelchair basketball rules and regulations to three of the four player/coaches – Habib, Halim and Eqbal – with the help of my great interpreter, Farzan.

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Saying goodbye to Halim – player/coach, captain of the second place team and winner of the post-tournament arm wrestling match. Check out the mitts on that guy!

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Farhad, captain of the winning team and one of the player/coaches, asked for a picture with the team’s championship trophy and the bouquet of multi-colored roses the team presented me as a thank you gift. It takes a very secure man (or in this case, group of men) to give another man flowers after a sporting event, but I don’t think anyone’s about to question the toughness of Afghan wheelchair basketball players.