June 2012


The week of the national tournament has come and gone and I’m writing this on my first morning home in New York. I was hoping to give daily – or at least semi-regular – updates during the tournament, but I was so physically exhausted during the brief moments I wasn’t either refereeing or planning the next day’s events that I just couldn’t keep up. So instead, I’ll be hitting all the highlights from the week in a post-tournament wrap-up.

As I mentioned in my previous mini-post, day one of the tournament went incredibly well. It was honestly everything I hoped it would be. Seeing all the players I’ve taught and built friendships with over the last few years together in one place was a huge thrill. Seeing the nervousness and passion with which they approached the tournament was even better.

Every single player wanted desperately to play well and, even more than that, wanted his team to play well. Anyone who’s played sports has experienced “first game jitters” despite the fact that most of us grew up playing sports and are relatively used to those situations. Now imagine you’re between 18 and 30 and you’re playing in the first “real” sporting event of your life, with TV news cameras filming you, a big crowd watching, and intense local pride tied up in your performance. Oh, and imagine you’ve spent part or all of your life being relatively sedentary because no one you know ever thought you could should (or could) do anything physical due to your being disabled.

That’s where most of these players were coming from, so it wasn’t surprising that the first game, between Kabul 1 (out of four Kabul teams) and Herat, ended in a 2-2 tie after 20 minutes. The players in that first game looked like the ball was on fire every time it came to them; they couldn’t get rid of it quickly enough. Everyone started to calm down over the course of the next few games, though, and, in the cases of several teams, found a way to channel their intensity into some very impressive performances. Maimana and Mazar 1 (the stronger of the two Mazar-e-Sharif teams) both looked extremely impressive on day one and ended the day by playing each other to a 12-12 tie. When I blew the final whistle to end the game and the teams realized they’d tied after an extremely hard-fought battle, instead of looking downcast that they hadn’t gotten a win, all the players from both teams cheered and started high fiving and hugging each other! It was an incredible way to end the first day.

The round-robin first round of the tournament continued during days two and three, with a few themes emerging. First, the four Kabul teams really struggled and were unable to keep up with the pace of the teams from the other cities. While I refuse to play favorites – I’ve spent relatively equal time with all the teams, so I wanted them all to play well – I will say that I wanted to see at least one or two Kabul teams pull out some wins in front of their hometown fans and fellow players. Unfortunately, they just couldn’t manage to get it done other than a few instances where one Kabul team played another. They’re the newest team of the four cities participating in the tournament (there were a total of eight 3-on-3 teams: four from Kabul, two from Mazar and one each from Maimana and Herat) and their lack of game experience was evident. They looked a lot like the Maimana team I first took to Mazar in 2009 that got beaten 34-6 while never wiping the shell shocked expressions off their faces until the game was over. Kabul 1 ended up making the biggest improvement over the last two days of round 1, but could only manage to put together one impressive half in each game before losing focus and letting their opponents come back to steal the wins.

While Kabul’s teams were having a hard time finding any momentum, Herat – the team I worried lacked leadership and competitive fire during my week training them – came alive after a slow start on day one. They ended up being the most improved team of all those I worked with, playing great team defense and using a combination of speed and solid offensive strategy to win their last four round 1 games, including an upset victory over Maimana in the last game of the round. I’ve spent the least amount of time with the Herat players of any of the teams, but I was very impressed with how well they put into practice the skills and concepts we had worked on a month earlier.

When we finally got to the final round on Friday, the previous day’s scandal had been pushed aside and the excitement was palpable. The crowd for the finals was huge – a great mix of Afghans and expatriates from the ICRC and other organizations.  Even a few old friends of mine from Maimana happened to be in Kabul for the tournament to cheer on their team.

Despite improved effort and focus from the four Kabul teams, none were able to upset their opponents in the quarterfinal round, so the final four teams were Maimana vs. Mazar 2 and Mazar 1 vs. Herat. Mainama handled Mazar 2 easily to move to the final, and the guys on the team were absolutely beside themselves to even make it that far. Herat and Mazar 1 played a dramatic back-and-forth game that wasn’t decided until the final minute, when Herat managed to make two clutch free throws to seal the upset win. When I blew the whistle to end the game, the five Herat players unleashed a collective scream that would have put Rob Halford to shame.

The final game, between Maimana and Herat, wasn’t nearly as competitive as their previous matchup had been, but Maimana reversed the first result, beating Herat handily to capture the first ever Afghanistan National Wheelchair Basketball Championship! Maimana put on display all the skill, power, speed and teamwork they’ve obviously worked so hard to build since that devastating loss to Mazar back in 2009, and I couldn’t be prouder of them. Everyone agreed that they were great citizens as well as great players; they were universally loved by players and fans alike at the tournament.

At the awards ceremony, I partnered with the president of the Afghanistan Paralympic Committee (more to come about him in a soon-to-come post) to present the trophies to the top 3 teams, and we asked Alberto to award the most valuable player award to Shah Poor from Maimana. Even though he had dominated the tournament and no one had a shred of doubt that he deserved the award, Shah Poor was completely surprised when Alberto presented him with the MVP trophy. When he heard his name, he let loose with a primal scream of celebratory exultation while tears sprang to his eyes.

(Sidenote: after the ceremony several players came up to me and promised to work hard all year on the skills I taught them so they could “be Shah Poor” next year. The guy is only 19 years old, has only been playing basketball for three years and already he’s being talked about like me and my peer group used to talk about Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson when we were kids!)

After about an hour of consecutive speeches by no less than 15 people (an Afghan tradition at any major event), I ended the proceedings by thanking the Maimana team for sending that 2009 request to the U.S. for a wheelchair basketball trainer to teach them how to play the game. It was that simple act that made possible everything that’s happening now. As I told the gathered throng, these have been two of the most fulfilling, inspiring months of my life, and it never would have happened if Khair Mohammad and the kids from tiny Maimana hadn’t had the guts to ask for something that had to seem completely implausible at the time. Thank you again, guys!

A few photos of the tournament action, courtesy of the ICRC’s Jessica Barry:

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Addressing the teams before the beginning of Friday’s final round of the tournament to warn them that the two referees (Alberto and myself) were going to be real jerks that day

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Shah Poor celebrates a big semifinal basket against Mazar-e-Sharif’s #2 team

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Mujeeb of Mazar’s #1 team and Farhad of Herat – two of the tournament’s star players – battle for a rebound in the other semifinal game

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Maimana and Herat pose for a quick photo before the championship game

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Shah Poor of Maimana and Said Eqbal of Herat battle for the national championship

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I congratulate Haroon, Maimana’s youngest player, after his team finishes off Herat for the championship

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The Afghan Paralympic President, Mr. Sami, presents Maimana with the national championship trophy

Stay tuned for upcoming posts about plans for the next steps in building wheelchair basketball into a bigger, broader movement in Afghanistan.

After four consecutive hours of refereeing this afternoon, I’m way too tired to write a proper post about the opening day of the inaugural Afghanistan national championship of wheelchair basketball. I’ll just say this: it was one of the most fun days I’ve ever had on a basketball court. The nervousness, excitement, emotion and competitive spirit on display today were on a completely different level from anything I’ve seen here before. I’m running on fumes, but I can’t wait for another four hours tomorrow!

I concluded the week of training with the Kabul women with their mini-tournament on Saturday. Wow! They exceeded all my expectations after only one week of training (most of them only touched a ball for the first time a month ago). I was a bit concerned that every game would end in a 0-0 tie since only a few of the players had gotten to the point of being able to infrequently make shots from close range in practice. I thought the added pressure of playing in front of a small crowd of family members and ICRC expat women (the team specifically asked that only women be invited to watch them) would add to the nerves of playing in their first-ever competition, but it actually spurred them to much better performances than they’d shown in any of the practices. Only one game out of 10 total ended up being scoreless (each game was 10 minutes long), with the action fast paced and even pretty rough at times!

The star of the tournament was Mursal, a studious and quiet girl who picked up the game faster than any of her teammates during the course of the week. Mursal has to play with extremely thick glasses since she has a degenerative eye condition that leaves her virtually blind without them (this in addition to the polio she had as a child that left one of her legs twisted and weak). With her Kurt Rambis specs, though, she proved almost unstoppable! She thrived on the pressure of being her team’s primary scorer and showed amazing composure for such a new player. My favorite part of her game was her tendency to fearlessly drive to the basket, a practice that led to her drawing several fouls against aggressive defenders. Each time I announced that she was fouled in the act of shooting and would be awarded two free throws, her quiet façade would fall away and she’d let out an excited yelp and fist pump; this was before she even shot the free throws! Mursal led her team to the tournament championship and showed everyone that, in spite of her demure nature, she’s a clear leader of the team.

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Mursal drains a free throw to the delight of teammates, opponents and referees alike (Photo courtesy of David Constantine)

One of Mursal’s teammates was Shurkrya, whom I wrote about a couple posts ago. Shukrya is the newest player on the team, having never played a sport before the beginning of this week, and was a bit of a pet project for me since she was so meek and self-conscious about her lack of experience and a polio-affected left arm that forced her learn to play almost exclusively one-handed. Many times, her teammates showed impatience at her lack of confidence and slowness to physically execute even the simplest aspects of the game. As I wrote before, one of my main goals for the week was to get Shukrya to experience some level of athletic success so she would be motivated to keep working and clear the physical and mental hurdles that were initially holding her back. Well, in a tournament filled with surprising performances, she surprised me the most. She proved to be an intuitive passer who made great assists on nearly all of Mursal’s scoring opportunities. As the tournament went on and she made more and more good plays, Shukrya’s rare smiles came more and more frequently and she pushed her wheelchair harder and harder, eventually playing as though she’d forgotten the weakness in her left arm entirely. When I draped a gold medal around her neck at the post-tournament awards ceremony, she was beaming and had a look of excited confidence that told me everything I wanted to know about whether she would stick with basketball after this week. I can’t wait to see how much she evolves by my next visit.

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Shukrya

One other player who went through an amazing transformation in the tournament was Idrees, the only male player this week. Idrees has spina bifida, which affects his leg and arm strength (he uses crutches to walk) and gives him the size and physical appearance of an 11 year-old even though he’s 16. Because of his condition, Idrees has always been afraid to try playing basketball with the men. Idrees asked me if I would let him train with the women’s group since they were all brand new to the game, like him. When the female coaches agreed that this would be ok, I encouraged him to join their camp. During the course of the week, Idrees’s highlight was during a layup drill on day 3, when he made his first ever basket just an hour after he had told me, “Mr. Jess, I love to play basketball, but my problem is I can’t throw the ball up to the goal.” After making the layup, he couldn’t wipe the smile off his face for five minutes. It was a great moment. When it came time to play in the tournament, Idrees unwittingly shifted into another gear. In his second game, he made two consecutive baskets to lead his team to a win. Then, during the semi-finals, he made the game winning shot with under 10 seconds to play to propel his team into the championship game – all this from a kid who’d literally made one shot in his life before the tournament started! He probably still hasn’t stopped grinning a day and a half later. I think Idrees has proven to himself and everyone else that, at this point, he’s ready to start playing with the boys (cue Kenny Loggins theme song).

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Idrees

I couldn’t be prouder of Mursal, Shukrya and the rest of the women’s team here in Kabul (and Idrees as well, of course). They took a huge leap forward this week and I know they’ll continue to improve so that, when I come back next year, they’ll be ready for their first real games against the much more experienced Mazar-e-Sharif women’s team.

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The Kabul women celebrate a successful first tournament as a team

Up next, the four day men’s national tournament, starting tomorrow afternoon!

Michael Glowacki, director of The League of Afghanistan, just got back to Kabul after making a last minute trip to Maimana for a few days to film the team there. As those of you who have been following this blog know, the Maimana team was the one who sent a request to the States in the summer of 2009 for someone to come to Afghanistan to teach them how to play wheelchair basketball. That request – and my ensuing trip to work with them for a week – was the genesis of everything that I’m doing now. While I love all the players I’ve been so fortunate to work with here, I’ll always have a special connection with the Maimana guys because of this.

It was important to me that, even though Michael hadn’t been able to film any of my three direct interactions with the Maimana team thus far, they fit into his film somehow. He agreed and, thankfully, the pieces all fell into place to get him on a plane to go visit the team while I stayed behind to continue teaching the players in Kabul. Michael had a great time meeting and getting to know the players I’ve spent so much time talking about over the last year and came back with some great stories.

I’ve written about Shapur, the on-court leader of the Maimana team, in previous entries. He’s one of the strongest, fastest and most athletic players in Afghanistan and – at just 19 years old – the sky’s the limit for his potential. What Michael learned in spending a day with Shapur is that his entire family lives together in a compound of mud houses (really just individual rooms) that surround a small courtyard. Living in the courtyard is the family’s sole source of income – a single milk cow. Shapur and his brother take the milk to local sporting events and sell it to spectators to earn a living. Shapur is a top student and, in addition to his ambitions with basketball, hopes to become a lawyer specializing in ensuring equal treatment for women. Yeah, buddy!

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Haroon, at 18, is the youngest member of the Maimana team (hard to believe he was just 15 when I first met him!). Over the last couple years, Haroon has grown into a muscular, athletic player who is almost as fast as Shapur. He’s also one of the happiest, most positive people I’ve ever met. Ever since I first started working with him in 2009, Haroon has injected pure joy into every practice we’ve had, feeding energy to the rest of his team with his irrepressible smile and excitement. Each time he makes a basket or executes a skill correctly in practice, he looks expectantly toward me to make sure I’ve seen and, upon getting a nod of approval, lights up like he just won the national title. Michael asked Haroon in an interview what he would do if the Maimana team ceased to exist. Haroon said, “I would find a ball and practice by myself until we could make a new team. I will never stop playing this game, no matter what happens.”

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Khair Mohammad is the elder statesman of the team and its founder. He tells me he’s 36, but he says it with a sly grin that lets me know he’s several years older. Khair is one of my favorite characters of all the people I’ve worked with here and a truly sweet guy. What I didn’t know about him that Michael found out is that he was one of the mujahideen that fought to take Afghanistan back from the Soviets in the early ‘90s. He stepped on a land mine during the war and lost his right leg below the knee. Khair is very small, not very athletic and definitely the least skilled of the Maimana players, but he manages the team and serves as its mechanic, making sure everyone has working wheelchairs at every practice. When it came time for the Maimana guys to select the five players (three starters and two reserves) that would make up the team that will represent them at the national 3-on-3 tournament this coming week, the other players chose Khair over several more talented, younger options for the fifth spot. When he tried argue that they should send the five best players in order to give them the best chance to win, Shapur, Haroon and the others responded, “You started this team and gave us a chance to play basketball for the first time. If you don’t go to Kabul, we don’t go to Kabul.” How can you not love these guys?!

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Khair, Shapur, Haroon and the other two members of the tournament team – Ramazan and Aalem – will board a local bus in Maimana tomorrow morning at 8am.The bus will arrive in Kabul in the late afternoon after a long, hot, uncomfortable drive across the northern desert and through the Hindu Kush mountain range. I have no doubt they’ll be tired but buzzing with excitement for the upcoming tournament. As the smallest Afghan city – by far – with a wheelchair basketball team, there is a huge amount of local pride surrounding the chance to compete for the national championship. I can’t wait to see the team, give each player a hug and welcome them to the big city.

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Maimana after taking first and second place in the Mazar men’s mini-tournament. From left: Khair Mohammad, Aalem, Haroon, Shapur, Ramazan

I have one more day of training the Kabul women’s team; it’s hard to believe how fast the week has flown by! Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve been teaching for so long now, or maybe it’s the difference between coaching twice a day for a total of 7-8 hours and coaching once a day for 3-4, but I feel like I just barely got started with them and the week is already almost over.

The Kabul women have been a lot of fun to work with – it’s great getting to start with a team at the very beginning of their wheelchair basketball experience for the first time this year – and they’re really enjoying the experience. It’s funny; their lack of experience is actually a great advantage for them when it comes to learning. Whereas with the men’s groups I’ve been working with have taken quite a bit of time to break their self-taught habits in order to learn the new skills and techniques I’m teaching them, the women don’t have bad habits and, as a result, pick up my instructions very quickly. Sometimes it’s difficult for them to get the physical coordination down right away since none of them have played basketball – or any competitive sport for that matter – before, but that will come with time as long as they’re practicing the right way. I have a feeling they’ll be light years better the next time I see them, which is really exciting.

All the players and coaches on the women’s team are very nice and enthusiastic, but one in particular has really stood out to me. Her name is Shukrya, and she’s by far the weakest player in the group. Most of the women’s team had started practicing about a month before I arrived, so they’d all gotten to know each other and begun to learn the basics under the teaching of Mirwais, one of the player/coaches I’ve talked about in previous entries. Shukrya didn’t join until the first day of training camp this week, though, so she literally hadn’t touched a basketball until I handed her one on Sunday. She’s the quietest of the players, rarely makes eye contact, and is very self-conscious about her lack of experience and physical weakness (part of which is due to her having had polio, which left her left arm a lot weaker than her right). Still, she shows up every morning (not all the players have) and tries to get better. Every once in a while, when she does some small thing correctly – dribbling in place, for instance – while I’m watching, she’ll let herself have a brief, shy smile. It’s extremely endearing. Combine this with the fact that she wears a beat-up NY visor over her head scarf, and I just can’t help but root for the kid. It’s my goal to get her to feel the excitement of athletic success, even if it’s just something small, before the end of the week to spur her to continue to develop as a player. I know she can do it.

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Shukrya shows a rare smile while getting a lesson in dribbling from me and Mirwais

Today I went to visit Skateistan, a state-of-the-art indoor skateboard park and school for Afghan kids that was built three years ago by an Australian named Oliver Percovich. It’s an incredibly unique facility that is the heart of a grassroots skateboarding movement that’s growing like wildfire in Kabul and will soon expand to Mazar-e-Sharif. Oliver told me and a few of my colleagues the story of how he started Skateistan, and it’s fascinating. He arrived in Kabul in 2007 with his skateboard and no agenda and, when he started skating in the streets, noticed that kids of all ages were fascinated by his board and wanted to try it for themselves. Skateboarding was basically unknown in Afghanistan at the time, so there was no social stigma associated with it like there is in other parts of the world. Oliver saw this as an opening to do something meaningful for the kids he was meeting in the streets, so he started recruiting boys and girls, rich kids and poor kids, kids as young as six to kids as old as 17, and getting them to use skateboarding as a form of self-expression. He didn’t tell them how they were supposed to do it; he just let it evolve for the kids in the way that made most sense to them. Then he started using skateboarding as a carrot to get kids that otherwise wouldn’t be going to school to start attending classes.

Skateistan has now grown to a group of over 500 kids, each of whom get 2 hours per week at the skate park – 1 hour skating or playing sports and 1 hour going to classes held at the facility. 40% of the students are girls and they’ve even recruited disabled kids as well, who each have their own way of riding the board that they learned completely on their own. It’s been an amazing achievement over a relatively short period of time, and it was great to for me to get to hear what worked for Oliver and what didn’t as he grew his movement over the past four years. I invited him to send a representative to the upcoming stakeholders’ meeting about expanding wheelchair basketball in Afghanistan since a few of his disabled skaters have also started playing basketball. His and his team’s success would be an invaluable resource for me to draw on as I try to figure out how best to take wheelchair basketball to the broader Afghan disabled community.       

The second week tournament in Kabul was on Friday and, as has been the case with each mini-tournament thus far, it was a ton of fun. The two groups of players participating in the camp this week were a third group of Kabul players organized by the ICRC – several of which I worked with on my trip last year – and a group convened by the Afghanistan Paralympic Committee. Though the second group is often referred to as “the Paralympic Team,” they’re actually a group of disabled athletes that specialize in sports other than basketball (power lifting, track & field, swimming, etc.). They’re all very athletic, naturally, but are still learning the basics of the game just like the rest of the players in Afghanistan.

I combined the two groups together for the tournament, mixing players from both groups to make eight teams of three. For the most part, the guys from the Paralympic group were more experienced than the ICRC group, so I named several of them captains of teams otherwise made up of Ortho Centre players. Many of the players from the separate groups had never played together or met each other before, so it was great to see them learning to work together and communicate on the spot.

Because I needed a few extra players to fill out the 24 roster spots for the tournament, I also had player/coaches Sher and Mirwais captain teams. Both Sher and Mirwais are class 1 players, meaning they have higher level disabilities (both are high-level paraplegics and Sher is also missing both legs) and less functional ability than many of the players they are competing against. Most of the Paralympic guys, for instance, are either single or double leg amputees, so they have superior balance, speed and mobility to players like Sher and Mirwais. Both player/coaches have improved so much over the last year, though, that they competed on an equal level with the Paralympic guys. Sher, who, as I mentioned in my last post, has arguably the most severe disability of any of the players in Afghanistan, led his team to the mini-tournament championship!   

After the post-tournament presentation of medals to each of the top three teams (during which people on the STREET outside the Ortho Centre were cheering each team and player as they received their medals!), Sher called everyone’s attention so he could make a short speech through an interpreter. He very graciously thanked me for coming all the way to Afghanistan to teach them how to play basketball and concluded by saying, “We are not true basketball players yet – we know this – but we promise to continue practicing so that when you return to Afghanistan again, you will be proud of the players we have become.” Simple. Humble. Perfect.

One more Sher anecdote before I finish, since this got me even more than his speech: He caught up with me when I was getting ready to head back to Alberto’s house following the tournament and told me he had something for me. His face was peaceful but proud as he dug through his jacket. He pulled out a small box and pressed it into my hand, very sincerely saying one of the few English phrases he knows – “thank you, Jess.” Then he smiled, turned and left. I sat there and stared at what he had given me. It was a tiny pack of mint chewing gum, one that probably cost about 10 cents at the market. For Sher – as would be the case for most of the players I’m working with here – this was the best gift he could afford to give, and he gave it as though it was a prized possession. That’s how I will always think about it, too.   

Today I start working with the brand new Kabul women’s team – only the second female team in Afghanistan and one that has only been in existence for about a month. I’m sure I’ll have plenty of great stories to share over the course of the week. Stay tuned!