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