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!