Sorry for the dearth of posts lately; my coaching schedule in Kabul has been so intense that I’ve spent every moment not on the court or in the classroom trying to catch up on sleep. Here’s a long recap of the end of my first week here to make up for lost time.

The first week in Kabul wrapped up with an 8-team tournament on Thursday. I have to say, as much as I’ve enjoyed every team and player I’ve worked with since arriving in Afghanistan, that was the most fun week  I’ve had yet. As I mentioned previously, having Alberto and two of the physical therapists/coaches playing with the team in chairs made every practice so much more entertaining for me and the players. Also, the two groups of players just had great energy on their own – they wanted to learn and picked everything up faster than any of the previous groups as a result. Even though most of the Kabul players are paraplegics, and thus lower functional classifications than the leaders of the other cities’ teams, they have the chance to overcome their physical disadvantages at the national tournament in June with better teamwork and superior knowledge of the game.

The day before the tournament, I arrived at the morning practice and saw that the players had already started a scrimmage game between themselves. As I entered the court, I noticed that Alberto was watching and looking a bit upset. When I asked if he was alright, he threw up his hands (a very Italian gesture) and said, “I can’t believe it! They are completely forgetting everything you have taught them and are playing just like they used to. It’s terrible!” I laughed and explained to him that trying to break over a year’s worth of self-taught bad habits isn’t going to happen overnight (or even in a single week of coaching), but told him I would address the team about the issue before practice started. I gave the whole group a stern dissertation on the necessity of their being self-motivated and dedicated to improvement, making the point that I would only be teaching them for one more day, then they would be on their own until the big tournament. I also told them that the Mazar, Maimana and Herat teams were already practicing hard to retain and perfect the techniques I had taught them, so if the Kabul teams didn’t focus on the same things when I’m not there actively teaching them, they would lose for sure.

They took the whole thing with their heads hanging down, but nodded that they agreed with my point and mumbled that they would do better. When we broke for practice, the team showed a new found enthusiasm and we had the best practice of the week. They even learned to properly execute a bounce stop at high speed and shoot with control, something only the team from Maimana had been able to do correctly before them.

The tournament ended up going two days because there were so many players. We had seven teams originally, but, after selecting the teams to make them as equal as possible, we came to the realization that seven teams can’t play a round robin tournament with each team playing the same number of games unless the tournament was 21 games long (and that’s only for the first, non-elimination round). We didn’t have nearly enough time to do that, so we decided to add an eighth team to make the field an even number. Since all the players were already accounted for, that meant Alberto and Malang, a huge, bearded physical therapist, would have their own team. I could tell Alberto was thrilled to get the chance to play in the tournament, especially when I woke up the next morning and found out that he’d told a temporary house guest, my friend Andrea from southern Italy, that he had woken up with a fever, but didn’t want Andrea to tell me because he was afraid I wouldn’t let him play. The guy just turned 60 and he refused to sit out of a wheelchair basketball tournament even though he was legitimately ill!

The tournament – the first played on the brand new Ortho Centre court – was a huge success. The ICRC Kabul delegation even shut down an hour early so everyone could travel to the Ortho Centre to watch. When the crowd arrived after the first couple games, the court was surrounded by the most internationally diverse cheering section imaginable. There were probably 75 people from no less than 35 different countries, all chanting player names, doing the wave, and screaming like crazy any time a player made a shot. I can’t even describe the looks of unadulterated joy on the players’ faces any time they scored and felt the power of that positive reaction from an entirely able-bodied group of spectators. At one point, a couple tourists walking down the street happened to see the action through a gap in the wall surrounding the Ortho Centre campus and asked if they could come in to watch. It was such an amazing thrill for everyone involved and gives me great hope that wheelchair basketball can eventually become a popular spectator sport here in a country where very few of those are available. Considering this was just a small end-of-the-week mini-tournament, I’m really excited to see what kind of crowd we can draw for the national championship in June!

A few of the players had performances or stories worth mentioning specifically:

–          Safi, the best of the Kabul players and a new player/coach, was the tournament’s leading scorer and the captain of the winning team. He’s a quiet guy most of the time, but can get fiery when he’s in a competitive environment, particularly if his teammates are playing sloppily. He had the best post-score reactions of any of the Kabul players, rivaling Shapur from Maimana for pure, unbridled enthusiasm. Any time he’d score, Safi would spin around and look toward the crowd with a nearly blank expression, his hands raised triumphantly, and start shaking his arms back and forth in a sort of spastic version of the “raise the roof” motion. It was awesome every time. Below, Safi watches the tournament action with Sher, one of the two stars of the League of Afghanistan trailer and a fellow player/coach.

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–          Wahidulla, the long-haired player who was the other star of the League of Afghanistan trailer, has the nickname “The Crazy Horse” for his frenetic style of play and boisterous personality. One of his teammates at the tournament, a player/coach named Mirwais who is a great student of the game, was obviously not thrilled to have Wahid as a teammate since, according to him, “Wahid only yells and moves fast, but he doesn’t listen or play the right way.”  When their team actually started playing, though, Wahid and Mirwais were the most communicative players of the entire group and ended up taking second place overall. Mirwais admitted afterward that he had been wrong about Wahid and that he was happy they had been teammates.  It was a great transformation to see. Here’s a picture of Wahid (left), Mirwais (center) and their teammate, Sadiq.

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–          One of the newest players, Husain, who joined the team just a couple months ago, has an amazing background. He’s a paraplegic missing several teeth who was, until recently, a very serious heroin addict. Alberto met Husain about 10 months ago when he came to the Orthopaedic Centre to get treatment for a pressure sore; he immediately took to Husain’s peaceful, sincere nature and decided he had to help him kick his addiction. He found out at one point that someone was smuggling heroin into the Centre and selling it to Husain during his treatment. Alberto spoke to the families of the other patients at the Centre and told them there was a drug dealer in their midst who may very well be selling to other patients (including their loved ones) as well. The family members ended up tracking down the pusher and beating him severely enough that he has never returned. Husain has now been clean for over seven months and has discovered a new life through wheelchair basketball. He’s still very quiet, but he listens well and is picking up the game quickly enough that he’s already one of the 10 best players in Kabul.

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–          When I commented to Alberto the other day that I was having even more fun teaching this group than I had any other, he looked at me seriously and said, “Mr. Jess Markt, do you realize what this means to these people?? Before basketball they had nothing. They felt like nothing. Now they have something that defines them and that they can immerse themselves in. Mohammadulla (a paraplegic player from a conservative Muslim family who is one of the nicest, quietest guys I’ve met here) said to me not long ago, ‘Now that I have basketball, I sleep eight hours every night, straight through. Before I could never sleep. I never have bad days anymore either, because now I always have basketball practice to look forward to the next day or the day after or the day after that. How can I feel sad when I have this?’” It’s hard to put into words what it meant to me to hear that. I just know that impact is exactly why I’m doing this and that I’m honored to have even a small part in that kind of transformation in these players’ lives.

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A few more pics from the week:

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Teaching the Kabul coaches (from left) – Alberto, Malang and Wasiqulla – how to stop their wheelchairs  while executing a bounce stop maneuver.

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Lecturing the Kabul players about something really important while my interpreter, Raz Mohammad, tries to figure out how to translate my blather into understandable Dari.

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Taking a post-tournament photo with Amin, an incredibly shy kid who barely said a word all last year, but who’s blossomed into a confident, mature player over the course of this week.

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Wahid displays the enthusiasm and joy that makes this whole experience so much fun for me.