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