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!