April 2013


Now that I’m back in Kabul and preparing to head to Herat for a week, I thought I’d share some photos – most of them the work of my friends Paul Salvanes and Henning Krause – of the team from Jalalabad.

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Teaching players to “leave the hand in the cookie jar” on their follow through (Photo by Paul)

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Wasim (18), a potential future star player, practices dribbling and laughing at the same time (Photo by Paul)

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Explaining the fine art of lining up for a free throw. Baby steps. (Photo by Henning)

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Wasim races ahead of the defense during a scrimmage game (Photo by Paul)

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The crowd of spectators who came to watch every day before school (Photo by Paul)

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Coach Mahboob (on my right) translates my direction to “put your hands in the air and wave ’em like you just don’t care” (Photo by Paul)

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Noordin, the 18 year old player who was shot by a Taliban soldier six years ago, rendering him a paraplegic

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Aman Ullah is a truly nice guy who is one of the team’s natural leaders.  That said, I wouldn’t mess with him.

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Jalalabad superfans Paul, Henning and Verbena (photo by Henning)

 

Today was the last of my training sessions with the Jalalabad team. All in all it was a great week getting to know the players and coaches, and I’m excited to see their progress from my first day working with them to the tournament at the end of May. Their three coaches – Taj, Enam and Mahboob – are all quick studies and good leaders, so I have a feeling I’ll see some good development over the next month.

After practice, I came back to the ICRC compound for lunch. While chatting with my Brazilian colleague, Ana, as we sat outside, there was the sound of what I thought was a door slamming on the other side of the compound. Ana stopped mid-sentence and said, “that was an explosion. It was far away, but it was an explosion.” Ana has done work in several war zones previous to arriving in Jalalabad, so I trust her read on this type of thing. Explosions are unfortunately quite common in Jalalabad, however, so we didn’t think too much about it. Two minutes later, though, we heard a much louder “boom!” and the porch we were sitting on shook very hard for at least 2-3 seconds. Assuming it was a bomb that had just exploded very nearby – and at this point taking that prospect very seriously – we ran inside to find our other colleague, Marian, had just slipped running down the stairs from her room following the explosion and landed hard on her knee. Ana tried to make contact with the delegation office to find out what was happening while I helped Marian get her leg straightened out (it turned out to be a heavy bruise, but she should be fine in a few days).

I felt strangely calm as all this was unfolding, but Ana was very concerned as she tried to raise someone on the radio who knew what was going on. Probably the fact that I’ve never been through any conflict-related violence and thus had  no context for how I should feel made it a bit easier for me, while Ana had plenty of similar scary situations to draw upon and was intent on getting as much information as possible – smart move.

After a few minutes, we were informed that it wasn’t an explosion after all, but an earthquake. The epicenter was only 20 miles away from Jalalabad, which is why it felt so strong and was so loud. Everyone here agreed that we’d never felt an earthquake that intense and short before, nor heard one make a loud booming sound like this one did. Even the Afghans who have live here and been through countless earthquakes and bombings were at first sure it was an explosive attack.

Seismologists in Pakistan are reporting the quake was a 6.2 on the Richter Scale. Several walls have cracks in the plaster, though there doesn’t appear to be any significant structural damage in the compound. Initial hospital reports say about 75 people have been brought in with quake-related injuries – mainly women who were at home and were hit by falling objects – while the current estimate is eight deaths in the immediate surrounding area. At first we were all so relieved to find out that there was no attack. After hearing those casualty figures, though, it made me realize just how vulnerable people here are to such a variety of different dangers. It doesn’t seem fair for a group of extremely impoverished people to have to deal with the constant threat of spontaneous violence while also knowing that mother nature can wreak havoc at any moment. 

Sincere respect to Verbena, my Italian physiotherapist colleague, who ran into the patient ward at the ICRC orthopaedic centre as everyone else was fleeing to make sure a woman with a recently amputated leg – and no way of moving from her hospital bed – was safe.

It’s now been five days since I arrived in Jalalabad. I’m having a great time training the team here as well as getting to know a new group of ICRC colleagues while adjusting to a culture that’s quite different from any of the cities I’ve visited thus far. The political climate in and around Jalalabad, which is located due east of Kabul, very close to the Pakistan border, is quite a bit more volatile than what I’ve experienced in Kabul and the northern provinces. As a result, the ICRC team here isn’t allowed to leave the organization’s compound except on official business (visiting hospitals and prisons, meetings with local officials, etc.).

I’ve never experienced this level of security before, but my job is a bit unique in that I get to leave the premises to go to the basketball court (located about a quarter mile away on a separate compound run by a local ministry for orphans and disabled people), so I’ve had several colleagues attend practices just as an opportunity to see something different than what they’re used to. One of them, a German named Henning who is in Jalalabad studying Pashto as he prepares to be an ICRC interpreter in heavy conflict regions, said his trip to practice was only the fourth time he’s been outside the compound in three months of living here. The ICRC compound is a very nice place to live and the staff here are all great people, but four times in three months. Wow. (Fortunately the ICRC is very well respected here and has good relationships with both sides of the current conflict, so there’s little risk to anyone as long as the security rules are followed.)

Henning was the subject of another funny experience. He came with two other colleagues, Paul, a Frenchman, and Verbena, an Italian, to practice on Saturday.  After practice finished, Paul and Henning decided to try their hands at shooting baskets from wheelchairs. I don’t know if either have ever played basketball before, but Paul is very athletic and picked up the technique quickly. When Henning tried to replicate what he’d seen me teaching the Afghan players, though, he really struggled. I showed him several adjustments as he missed shot after shot. After I corrected the position of his right hand, which was shooting the ball, he asked if left handed players ever struggle with learning to use their right hand to shoot. I told him, no, if you’re left handed, you shoot with your left hand. He responded, “Oh, really? I didn’t realize that. I’m left handed.” No wonder he was having such a hard time! He was learning to shoot a basketball for the first time while sitting in a wheelchair AND using his weak hand. We got a good laugh out of that one.

The team here is the newest in Afghanistan, having just formed a year ago. As a result of that and the fact that this is the first time I’ve had the chance to coach them, they’re a bit behind the other teams developmentally, similar to where the Kabul team was last year in comparison to Mazar, Maimana and Herat. They’re all very good students though, and they have several good potential players on the roster. They’re also a very cool group of guys whom I’m really enjoying getting to know. We had a nice conversation after practice yesterday over tea and milk where I asked each of them how they’d been injured. Several had polio as children, many had legs amputated after mine accidents during the Russian occupation in the late 80s and early 90s, and several others were paralyzed after being shot during the Mujahideen and Taliban regimes following the overthrow of the Russians.

One player, an 18 year old named Noordeen, was the first player I’ve met in Afghanistan (at least the first I’ve heard about) who was injured in the current conflict. He was shot by the Taliban six years ago when he was just 12 years old. Noordeen might be the brightest player on the team and, despite having a relatively high level of injury – he’s a paraplegic close to or a bit lower than my level – is one of the best all-around players as well. He’s very focused on doing everything I show the team correctly and will, as a result, improve quickly. I have no doubt that he’ll be a great leader for this team in the coming years.

I have two more days teaching the Jalalabad team, and my goal is to get them as close as possible to the knowledge level of the other teams. They likely won’t be competitive in the tournament this May but, if they continue to work, they’ll definitely have a chance to catch up to the other more experienced teams in the next year.
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Teaching Wasim, at 18 one of the team’s most promising players, how to shoot.

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Having fun with the team during a drill while a crowd of kids from the nearby orphanage watch practice from the other side of the fence. The kids are there en masse every day before school.

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Refereeing a scrimmage game at the end of practice.

This post was written on April 15. Finally back in internet land after another three days of darkness.

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Today marked the end of my time training teams in Mazar, with the conclusion of a few days working with the Maimana team that was the original impetus for my coming to Afghanistan back in 2009. It was so good seeing my old friends and students from Maimana, who were just as energetic and eager to learn as they were when they were all just kids learning the first fundamentals of basketball almost four years ago.

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Posing in the rain with Khair Mohammed and Sakhi, two of my original students from Maimana. Full disclosure: Khair Mohammed was not technically a ‘kid’ in 2009, but he was young at heart.

It was particularly good to see one player, Shir Mohammed, who was a clear leader of the team on my first trip, but who had been dealing with various health problems over the past three years and hadn’t been able to participate in any of the subsequent trainings. Shir is hands down the most peaceful, zen-like player I’ve met here, and he is deeply respected by all his younger teammates. He was obviously shaking off a little physical rust from the years of not playing, but his mind was as sharp as ever (as an example, his teammates told me Shir recently conducted surgery on himself to remove a bladder stone, then, as a result of his success, performed the same surgery on multiple other people despite having had zero medical training. Only in Afghanistan!). By the end of our sessions, he was always the one explaining the new team concepts I’d been teaching to all his teammates. He’ll be acting as the coach for Maimana now that their leader, Shahpor, is studying in Kabul, so I’ll get to work with Shir again during a coach/referee clinic I’ll be putting on before the national tournament. I’m already looking forward to it.

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My last practice with the Maimana team was this morning, and our court time was limited to a few minutes because of the second rain-out of the week. We ended up having a very fulfilling classroom session instead, where I taught them a few offensive sets (something none of the teams in Afghanistan have used before, but are all being introduced to this spring) as well as some team defensive concepts. After the session, I went to the players’ converted dorm room – a bunch of mattresses scattered across the floor of the orthopaedic centre treatment area – to say goodbye until the afternoon exhibition game against Mazar, but was pulled by a mixed group of Maimana and Mazar players into a game of “carom board,” which is sort of like a combination of shuffleboard and pool played on a miniature scale. The game was a lot of fun, and I had some good laughs with the players, who marveled at my lack of skill as I took a beating at the hands of Haroon (wearing the Christiano Ronaldo jersey in the picture below).

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Clockwise from left: Ramazan from Maimana, Sayed Mohammed and Mojeeb from Mazar, Haroon from Maimana

The exhibition grudge match between the two cities who had each won one of the two 3-on-3 national tournaments staged in 2012 (Maimana in June, Mazar in November), was at threat from the first all-day rainstorm I’ve experienced in all my trips to Afghanistan. The court had standing water all over it 30 minutes before game time, with a persistent drizzle still hanging on from the heavier rain earlier in the day. The players insisted that they wanted to go one with the game, though, so I summoned my Oregonian upbringing (rain is just a part of sports where I’m from) and marshaled as many mops and brooms as we could find to clear most of the court.

I won’t sugarcoat things; the conditions were miserable. Despite the mopping, there were puddles all over the court, every caught pass meant water splashing in the face of the receiver, the chairs were sliding all over the place, and it was legitimately cold (this is two days after it nearly hit 100 during afternoon practice). The rain never let up and, over the course of the game, actually got quite heavy. Despite the fact that everyone was soaked through and shivering, the players carried on with full intensity until the final whistle.

Mazar won handily, which was expected since four of Maimana’s top players were absent from the game (Shahpor in Kabul, and Sakhi, Rafi and Ahmad Shah having returned to Maimana early this morning for university commitments), but I was really proud of all the players for not only carrying on in the face of inclement weather, but for actively employing many of the things I’d taught them over the past week. I also have to extend sincere thanks to the group of my expat colleagues and friends from the ICRC and other organizations who braved the rain to come and cheer on the players. I know it meant the world to both teams.

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Mazar executes a perfect example of the teacup defense, which I just introduced to them last week. Not pictured: me smiling

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Ramazan (second player to the left of me) uncorks one of two three pointers he made in the game

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Mojeeb drains a free throw on the way to his game-high 16 points (out of 28 total for Mazar)

I have a much needed break tomorrow before heading back to Kabul on Wednesday, then onto Jalalabad on Thursday.  Fingers crossed my internet access there will be more consistent and I can make regular updates on my first trip there. Being so close to Pakistan, it should be a very interesting contrast to the northern cities where I’ve spent my time so far.

I just finished my week of training the Mazar men’s and women’s teams and, as always, I had a fantastic time working with both groups. I’ve written about the men’s team’s progress, and they’re definitely making great strides. I played a quick game of 2-on-2 after practice yesterday with Sayed Mohammad, Mojeeb and Basir – the three top players on the team – and was very impressed. Playing along with them gave me a new appreciation for how fast they are and how well they’re picking up the subtleties of the game like floor spacing, pick-setting and team defense.

The women’s team seems to have hit a bit of a plateau in their development and I had a bit of trouble figuring out how best to motivate them to learn new skills and implement team concepts this year. They’re all fairly young – late teens to early twenties – and my sense is that nearly all of them see any practice activities other than playing games as a necessary evil that they need to endure but would rather skip. I have a feeling that I’d overhear them reciting Allen Iverson’s legendarily derisive rant about practice in Dari if I could just understand them better. “Practice. We’re talking about PRACTICE. Practice! Not a game. Not a game. Practice.”

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Teaching the team how to throw hook passes. Note the happy expressions.

Thursday’s session was particularly difficult, with all the players moving at half speed and seeming half-asleep. Even the jokes and bad attempts at speaking Dari – usually guaranteed to get laughs – couldn’t get them out of their funk. On Friday I was determined to find a way to get their energy level up and force them to have fun, whether they liked it or not. My solution was introducing the team to the classic shooting game of H.O.R.S.E. (or A.S.P. in Dari – HORSE would have taken forever) with the explanation that the winner of the game would be crowned the best shooter on the team. I figured this would get them working on their shooting technique, but would also engage their competitive natures, and it absolutely did the trick. Despite my ongoing insistence that they could shoot from anywhere they wanted when it was their turn – literally anywhere, ladies! – they completely ignored me and every single player took the exact same right handed layup for the entire game. Creativity was not an option, only victory. Nevertheless, they were laughing and shouting every time a player missed her final shot and was named an ASP, and looked over to me with huge grins every time they made a shot to avoid receiving a letter themselves. We followed that with a full-length game, and everyone had a great time. As always when they’re in top form, the women alternated between euphoria after made baskets and angry head slaps after an opponent did something they didn’t like (even if that thing was perfectly legal). I called at least two fouls for slapping. Good stuff.

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“Lickety brindle up the middle!”

After the practice was finished, several of the team members asked if I would pose for a group picture. This naturally turned into at least 15 minutes of photo snapping with different cameras, combinations of players, and poses.

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Mazar #1!!! (Except for Fereshteh. She’s the cutup.)

Many thanks to my interpreters, Jamil and Tawab, who both did an excellent job of turning my rambling basketball English diatribes into understandable Dari for the players.

Lack of internet connectivity aside, things continue to go swimmingly in Mazar. Both the men’s and women’s teams are very enthusiastic and are learning new skills very quickly. It feels like they’re finally breaking through several old habits on this trip, with shooting technique being chief among their improvements. There’s still only one player – the aforementioned Sayed Mohammed – who has truly good shooting form, but the others are getting closer by the day.

A funny thing happened yesterday that was both encouraging and a bit shocking related to Sayed and his shooting. After the morning practice ended, he and two of the other players asked me if I’d play a shooting contest with them where each player is required to make a shot from 15 spots on the floor. Whomever makes each shot first is the winner. I was stunned when Sayed actually beat me at the game! I’m certainly not claiming to be the greatest shooter in the world, but to have an Afghan player shoot well enough to beat me (Sayed made four consecutive three point shots at one point!) was a serious turning point in the evolution of the sport here. The elation on Sayed’s face when he made his final shot made losing the contest 1000 percent worth it. If he can help other top players learn to play with his technique and efficiency, the soon-to-be Afghan national team could become competitive even more quickly than I’d hoped!

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While in Mazar, I’m staying with several colleagues at the same ICRC house I was in last year. It’s nice to be in familiar surroundings. Since I was last here, however, there has been one major change to the house. The current head of the ICRC Mazar delegation, a Belgian named Pierre, is an avid rock climber. Pierre worked with a local Afghan carpenter to build a professional-quality climbing wall in the basement of the house so he could practice his craft and get others who are based here to join him. It’s the coolest guest house feature I’ve ever seen! The ceilings in the basement are around 10 feet high and the wall fills an entire side of the house from floor to ceiling. It’s unbelievable.

It was mentioned on my first day here that every visiting ICRC employee is required to take a shot at climbing the wall so, naturally, I insisted on trying it myself.  I hadn’t done any rock climbing since I’ve been in a wheelchair, so I had no idea if it was even possible for me to climb such a wall, but I figured it would be a good workout even if I couldn’t scale it. I started sitting on the floor so I would have the maximum height of wall to ascend and, after a few attempts, managed to complete one of the pathways with some light assistance from my colleague Joakim. It was so much fun – and so difficult! – and I can’t wait to try it again once my forearms resume functioning. My goal is to reach the top of the wall with no assistance at all before I head back to Kabul in a week.

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Beginning the ascent

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Nearly to the “summit”!

Tomorrow is my last day training the Mazar teams before the Maimana team arrives for a series of two-a-day sessions Saturday, Sunday and Monday. We’ll then have an exhibition game between the Mazar and Maimana men’s teams, which – even though it won’t count for anything official – should be ultra-competitive and a great time.

Apologies for the long delay between posts. I arrived in Mazar-e-Sharif on Sunday, but the internet access in the house where I’m staying has been down until now. Below is a post I wrote on Monday, April 8, but haven’t had the ability to upload until now. Thanks for your patience!

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This morning was my first official training session with the Mazar-e-Sharif men’s team, with the women’s first practice scheduled for this afternoon. Things are already off to an enthusiastic start, with the players all excited to show me what they’ve learned in the 10 months since I last saw them play. There has definitely been progress across the board, but there are also plenty of areas where old habits are proving to die hard. A few of the players have figured out how to shoot with proper technique, which is a big step forward, but the majority default to the combination shot put/baseball throw shooting style that was popularized in the early days of Afghanistan wheelchair basketball before I had a chance to work with anyone. The good news, though, is that everyone is eager to learn and improve, so I know we’ll get things fixed up before too long.

Two of the Mazar men’s players – Sayed Mohammad (19) and Mojeebullah (18) – have made major progress since last year and are cementing their positions as two of the country’s top players. Sayed, in particular, has a natural feel for the game and plays like someone who grew up watching and playing basketball . He has a presence and poise on the court that is at a different level from any of the other players, and I have a feeling he will be one of the leaders in building the popularity and ongoing development of wheelchair basketball here.  I actually assumed he was in his late twenties based on his composure and maturity; I thought he was joking when he told me he was just 19. It’s so encouraging to see players that young with a firm grasp of the sport – that’s the primary necessary ingredient to ensure it continues to grow and become locally sustainable.

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Mazar men’s players (l-r): Sayed Mohammed, Nazir, Basir, Mojib, Nasrullah, Shafi, Isatullah

After practice, I joined the Mazar men’s team for a quick breakfast featuring hot “tea whitener” as the beverage du jour. In the US we grew up with Hi-C juice boxes after sports. Here it’s Every Morning packaged milk heated up in the microwave. No matter what it’s called and no matter how comfortable I get with life in Afghanistan, I just can’t manage to get on board with the hot milk after practice custom. Sorry, guys – I really tried.

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While I was in Kabul for the first few days of my trip, I ran into one of the first players I taught back in 2009, Shahpor Sorkhabi , who won the national tournament most valuable player award a year ago in leading the Maimana team to the country’s first 3-on-3 championship. Shahpor just started going to school for English in Kabul, so he will train with the Kabul men’s team when I teach them in May, but will play with his Maimana teammates in this year’s national tournament. When I asked Shahpor and Alberto why Shahpor doesn’t just join the Kabul team while he’s living there, they both made it clear that he could never betray his hometown team to play for another city. In an age where players in professional sports jump from team to team constantly while chasing money, exposure or championships, it was very refreshing to hear that players here in Afghanistan hold the bonds to their local provinces and teammates far too important to abandon them for selfish reasons. It helped me understand the intensity with which the players here approach competition with other teams. Their pride is collective, and that is a powerful driving force.

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Reuniting with Shahpor

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