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.