May 2013


Apologies for the lack of posts over the past week. My computer’s hard drive failed the day after I posted my last entry, so I’ve been without a regular internet connection since. Thanks to Michael Glowacki for loaning me his laptop to catch up on the happenings of the last week – ironically, I’m writing this post on the very same computer I used to compose this blog’s first entries back in 2011.

The highlight of the past week – and one of the most fun, exciting experiences I’ve had so far in Afghanistan – was the men’s national tournament. We gathered six teams of 10 players each over three days from the cities of Herat, Jalalabad, Kabul, Kandahar, Maimana and Mazar-e-Sharif for the country’s first official 5-on-5 tournament. As was the case last year with our 3-on-3 tournament, this competition served as the culmination of two months of training for the teams and brought with it the challenge of putting into practice all the new skills, techniques and strategies the players have learned this year, overlaid with the pressure of representing their respective provinces proudly. Adding additional pressure was the fact that I announced before the games began that the tournament would culminate with the naming of Afghanistan’s first ever men’s national team for wheelchair basketball – 12 players and three alternates – in collaboration with the Afghanistan Paralympic Committee.

Given the size of the tournament – 60 total players and two more cities being represented (Jalalabad and Kandahar) than last year – Alberto and I knew we had our work cut out for us as organizers and as referees. We decided that each team needed to play each other team in round robin format, requiring 15 total games of about an hour apiece, which would lead to a tournament-style elimination round of seven additional games (quarterfinals, semifinals, 5th place, 3rd place and championship games), meaning a total of 22 games between morning and evening sessions each of the three days, with me acting as one of the three referees in every game. It was a LOT of basketball but, as physically and mentally exhausted as I was at the end, it was the most fun I can remember having on a basketball court since I was a kid.

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Amanullah of Jalalabad and Wasiqullah of Kabul battle for a loose ball in the opening round (Photo by Denver Graham)

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Lalaljan of Jalalabad looks to uncork a long pass against the defense of Jawad and Mojeebullah from Mazar (Photo by Denver Graham)

In an only-in-Afghanistan interlude, we were playing the final quarterfinal game between Kandahar and Herat on Friday afternoon when the sound of a massive (but thankfully far away) explosion echoed across the court. Being very used to this sort of thing, none of the players even blinked and we continued play without interruption. At halftime, we were informed by ICRC security that a suicide bombing had taken place across the city at a UN agency and that a firefight was still going on in that area, so we would need to finish that game in time to be back to the ICRC compound before dark. There was no immediate threat of any problems in our area of the city, so we finished the game and headed home, hoping that the incident wouldn’t affect the schedule for the tournament’s final day. Thankfully, authorities managed to control the situation after a five hour firefight and we were cleared to resume the tournament on schedule the following morning.

After a hard-fought opening round and two Saturday morning semifinals that were, hands-down, the most well played basketball games I’ve witnessed here in Afghanistan, Mazar and Kabul advanced to the championship game. The title game got off to an ominous start when, just as I was preparing to toss up the opening jump ball, thunder pealed, the skies opened up and a 15 minute spring rain storm drenched the court. After the storm, the court was frantically mopped off so we could still get the game finished before dark.

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Bilal of Kabul embraces the rain before the championship game. Mirwais (behind Bilal) has a future so bright he has to wear shades… even in a torrential downpour. (Photo by Jake Simkin)

The players and referees were a bit soggy when we finally tipped off, but the enthusiasm of the gathered crowd of close to 200 people wasn’t dampened a bit. Cheering erupted as the whistle was finally blown to start the game. Despite playing some of the best team basketball of the tournament, Team Kabul struggled to find its shot in Saturday’s final and Mazar rode an amazing offensive performance from its star, Mojeebullah, to the tournament title.

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Mojeebullah raises Mazar’s team championship cup along with his MVP trophy (Photo by Michael Glowacki)

It’s difficult for me to adequately express how proud I am of all the teams following the tournament. Each of them showed massive improvement since last year and, indeed, took huge steps forward just since the end of our training sessions. The level of play at this tournament was lightyears ahead of what I saw just one year ago and, for the first time, I can see these players approaching the level of skill they will need to compete internationally. Additionally, with the four top teams – Mazar, Kabul, Herat and Maimana – all capable of being the country’s best on any given day, I am so excited to see the development of the league continue over the coming year. Jalalabad and Kandahar now have the taste of high level competition in their mouths and are both equally motivated to catch up to the level of their rivals from the other cities. I have no doubt they will work hard and hopefully will follow the path of Kabul, which finished a distant last place in the 2012 tournament and used a year of focused training to come back and take second place this year. I’ll do whatever I can to help them achieve that goal.

Following the presentation of trophies for first, second and third place and naming Mojeebullah of Mazar the tournament’s most valuable player, the president of the Afghanistan Paralympic Committee announced the names of the players comprising the national team. Despite the dejection felt by all the teams other than Mazar, the players revived and cheered loudly as each member of the national team was announced. The chests of each player named to the team swelled with pride as they lined up next to each other as representatives of their country.

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Members of Afghanistan’s first national wheelchair basketball team cheer their selection (Photo by Michael Glowacki)

It is unbelievably exciting and emotional for me to see how far these players have come over the past two-to-three years, from scrappy kids playing a sport for the first time to true athletes that captivated every audience member who saw them this week. I am honored to have played even a small part in their growth as players and as men, and I was so proud to have my wife, Lindy, here to witness their amazing talent and magnetic personalities firsthand during the tournament. More to come soon from Lindy on her perspectives after spending a week in Afghanistan, as well as an update shortly on the status of the documentary film, The League of Afghanistan.

Congratulations to Team Mazar on their championship run and to all the players here – men and women – who continue to amaze me every day.

Immediately following the women’s tournament last Friday, I had the chance to meet a newly formed team from the southern province of Kandahar. The team was formed earlier this year by a local NGO and two of the coaches I’d trained in Herat – Said Eqbal and Qawamuddin – went down there two months ago to give them their first training. Following that visit, the rumor was that, in spite of their lack of experience, the team was very strong.

I was naturally curious about this unknown team that had asked to participate in the national tournament we’ll be conducting later this week. I offered to have them come to Kabul a week before the tournament so I could do a couple days of quick training and rules orientation to get them ready to compete against the more experienced teams, which they accepted. I had asked about the possibility of forming a team in Kandahar last year (it’s the third most populous city in Afghanistan), but was told that the ICRC would never send an American to that part of the country since it’s where the locus of the fighting between the armed opposition and coalition forces is happening. This being the case, I was delighted to hear that a team had been formed without my involvement and that they were open to working with me and to joining the league.

When I met the team on Saturday afternoon, I understood what people meant by their being “strong.” These guys are huge! The Pashtun people, which make up the majority of Kandahar’s population, are a physically robust ethnicity in general, but several of the players look like power lifters or body builders. I was really hoping they didn’t have a personal problems with Americans themselves…

Thankfully, they all turned out to be perfectly nice guys who were just happy to have some coaching before getting thrown into the fire of the tournament. They definitely have a ways to go to catch up with the rest of the teams in terms of knowledge and skills, but they were extremely attentive and adept students that made a marked improvement over just two days of training. They won’t win the tournament, but if they play smart and get a few breaks, they may steal a game or two, which would be a huge accomplishment for such a new team.

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The Kandahar team makes up for its lack of experience with sheer intimidation

On Monday morning, my wonderful wife, Lindy, arrived for her first visit to Afghanistan. After fighting through a day of massive jet lag on Monday, Lindy came to visit the ICRC Orthopaedic Centre to meet all the people I’ve been working with my last couple years in Kabul. She then joined me for a coach and referee class I was teaching, where she had the chance to meet many of the players from all across the country. It’s been a wonderful first two days of introducing her to this part of my world – the first time I’ve been able to share it with anyone from home.

Lindy will be acting as Michael’s film assistant during the tournament, which starts tomorrow, so she’ll be working as hard as I am very soon!

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Lindy meets Shir and Mirwais from Kabul

Yesterday we held Afghanistan’s first women’s wheelchair basketball tournament – two three-on-three teams each from Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif – and it was a great success! I couldn’t be prouder of how well the teams played and how much composure they showed in their first public performance.

As I mentioned in my previous post, the female players only just recently decided they were comfortable with opening a portion of the court to allow people to see them practicing. Yesterday they got all the spectators they could handle; there were at least 50 people surrounding the court at 6am for the first games, and more than twice that for the finals in the evening. The crowd was yelling, cheering and doing all it could to distract and/or encourage the players on each team throughout the day, but the ladies played like they’d been dealing with crazy crowds for years.

In a surprising turn of events, the two teams from Kabul – which only started playing basketball a year ago – beat the much more experienced Mazar teams in the semifinals and captured the tournament’s first and second place trophies! Two players from Kabul – Mursal and Mulkara – led their team to the championship by playing harder and faster than any other players in the tournament. I have no doubt that these two are going to be at the forefront of expanding women’s wheelchair basketball here – they play with the kind of tenacity and competitive fire that inspires everyone watching them and will definitely be an amazing example for disabled women and girls across Afghanistan. Mursal was named the tournament’s most valuable player and let out a scream of pure joy when I presented her with the trophy. It was an incredibly gratifying moment.

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Mulkara poses before the games begin

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Mursal knocks down a free throw as part of her MVP performance

The one difficult moment of the tournament was when the second semifinal ended and the Mazar teams knew they wouldn’t be playing for the tournament championship. Most of the players were in tears on the sidelines, unable to accept the first athletic defeat of their lives. I called them together and, with Alberto interpreting, told them that, even though I know they’re disappointed, this event is so much bigger than just winning or losing a game. This is the first tournament of many to come. I told them we will work to form new teams in other provinces across Afghanistan, but Mazar will always be the first; the group that made sports an opportunity for disabled women in this country. That, more than any game or tournament result, is the thing to be most proud of. Now, I said, you have one more game to play. You’re playing each other for the third place trophy, so take this opportunity to show everyone watching what you can do and what great athletes you are.

I was choking to get the last words out and everyone in the group – Alberto included – was crying by that point, but the players pulled themselves together, took the court, and played the best game either team had played the entire tournament. The crowd was cheering every made basket and shouting encouragement as they, just like me, wanted nothing more than to see Mazar end on a high note. At the last whistle, all the players were smiling and laughing, and they all enthusiastically supported the Kabul teams when they played the championship game. It was the best.

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Mazar players (from left) Frishta, Nadia, Liann and Kamela show off their custom made, Islam-appropriate basketball jerseys, hands down the fanciest athletic gear I’ve seen

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Giving a pre-tournament speech to the players

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Up goes the opening tip of the first game

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The eventual second place Kabul team gets psyched up before the tournament final

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After the games were finished, everyone was happy to accept their medals

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Mursal (left, in glasses) and her Kabul teammates hoist the championship trophy

(All photos courtesy of Martina from the ICRC)

This morning marked the conclusion of my week training the Kabul women’s team. I’d been looking forward to seeing how much the team had progressed since my first visit last year – it was only formed a month or so before I arrived in May 2012, so I knew a year of experience would do wonders for the players’ skill level and confidence. I was not disappointed. They team is still in the relative beginning stages of its development, but it’s a night and day difference for most of the players I met last year.

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Hazima (left) and Simin are new players since last year. Hazima has picked up the “pay attention when you hear the whistle” lesson. Simin, not so much… [Photo by Michael Glowacki]

As much as they’ve grown in basketball terms, the female Kabul players have equally amped up their personalities and entertainment value. Whether it’s calling me “sir” instead of Jess (talk about making a guy feel old!), chanting each others’ names for encouragement during layup drills, or yelling the omnipresent “you won’t make it!!” before each player’s turn in our HORSE competition, they had me laughing the entire week.

Hands down the most comical development since last year, however, was an English phrase that each player has learned and uses liberally during drills and games – even players that speak no English otherwise. In their high-pitched, girlish voices (most of the players are in their early 20s, but look even younger than that), every player, upon losing the ball out of bounds, being called for a foul, or experiencing any other minor basketball frustration, will pipe up with, “Oh, shit!” The first time I heard someone say it, I assumed it was a Persian phrase that just sounded like “Oh, shit,” but realized after I kept hearing it that, yes, these demure young ladies in their long sleeves, pants and head scarves, were cursing like sailors – in English, no less – during basketball practice. I know I’m probably not setting the right example as a coach by not telling them to watch their language, but it’s just way too funny for me to put a stop to it. Sorry, mom.

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“Oh, shit!” [Photo by Michael Glowacki]

I don’t know if it’s increased confidence in their skills or evolving social norms, but the Kabul women requested on the first day of training that half the screens that keep people outside the court from watching them play be removed (the screens on the street-facing side of the court remain up for now). When I asked what prompted the decision, they told me they need to get used to playing in front of people so they don’t get nervous during competitions. It may seem small, but that was a huge step toward letting the rest of the world see what a remarkable thing they’re doing in a country where female disability sports couldn’t even have been considered a few short years ago.

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Nilofar throws a picture-perfect baseball pass in front of the newly opened court fence [Photo by Michael Glowacki]

A year ago, Alberto and I decided staging a “tournament” between the Kabul and Mazar teams (the only two women’s teams in the country so far) would be premature since the Kabul team was so far inferior to their Mazar counterparts in both skill and experience. In just one year, though, the Kabul women have caught up to the point that I wouldn’t know who to bet on between the two teams.

The first ever women’s wheelchair tournament in Afghanistan will take place tomorrow, with two three-on-three teams from Kabul and two from Mazar. It’s going to be a great moment for the players and for the sport, and I can’t wait for spectators to watch these amazing women play for the first time.

 

[The below post has been edited for movie quote accuracy. Thanks to Dave McGrew for pointing out that I quoted Yoda from Star Wars and attributed it to Mr. Miyagi from Karate Kid. Does it make me old that I somehow mixed up an iconic quote from two iconic characters in two of my favorite movies, or does it make me old that I’m quoting Star Wars and/or Karate Kid in a post about players that weren’t born until well after both movies were released? Both?]

I just finished my week training the top two Kabul men’s teams. It was, as always, a lot of fun; this group has a great collective personality and I really enjoy each of the individual players. As mentioned in my last post, the teams here have been working hard on their skills since my last trip and have made more progress than any of the other groups in Afghanistan.

That said, the challenge of getting them to maintain focus and play smart basketball in game environments continued throughout the week. At times, they’d pick things up more quickly than any of the teams I’d worked with before, but just as often, they’d let their attention lapse and revert to bad habits of throwing long passes into crowds of defenders and taking impossibly difficult shots. By the second-to-last day of training, I was getting a bit fed up with the inconsistent effort and even invented a new drill that required them to either remain focused or get hit in the head by an incoming pass from a teammate. That strategy actually worked pretty well.

At the conclusion of that penultimate practice, I tried to take my frustration and turn it into positive momentum for the team. Instead of telling them what they were doing wrong, I emphasized what I saw as their potential, and what they are capable of accomplishing if they come together as a unit and make a collective effort to improve. At the conclusion of my soliloquy, they nodded and one of the players, Fahim, said in English, “we will try, Mr. Jess.” I had seen enough ‘trying’, so I responded by saying, “There is a great American movie called The Karate Kid  The Empire Strikes Back. In this movie, there is a wise teacher of martial arts cool Jedi stuff like moving space ships with your mind. At one point, he teaches his student a very important lesson. ‘Do or do not,’ he said. ‘There is no try.’ This is how I want you to approach practicing the right way. Do. Don’t try.”

I have no idea how I kept a straight face as I made this analogy – it was hard – but the players ate it up! They’d never heard of The Karate Kid Empire Strikes Back, of course, but the message translates very well to their culture. When I asked if they understood my point, they all yelled in unison. “YES! DO!” Then they came out the next day and had their best practice of the week by far, showing that they took their pledge to heart.

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Thanks for the life lessons, Mr. Miyagi Yoda. Rest in peace.

One interesting angle this week was the fact that Shahpor, the player from Maimana who is generally considered the best player in the country, was training with the top Kabul team since he is here studying English. He will play with the Maimana team at the national tournament and, given the growing rivalries between the different cities, I wasn’t sure how accepting the Kabul players would be of his participation. They treated him like one of their own throughout the week, though, and the dynamic was overall very positive. When three of the Maimana players – Ramazan, Haroon and Alem – came to Kabul for a couple days to participate in the wheelchair race at Olympic Stadium, though, I could tell that Shahpor really missed his friends and teammates. During practice, when the Maimana guys would be chatting outside the court, I would always notice Shahpor gazing in their direction wistfully (I cut him some slack for not listening to me on this particular occasion). It will be great to see them all back together at the tournament in a couple weeks.

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Shahpor lines up a shot with his trademark concentration

We concluded the week of training for the men with a team-wide game of A.S.P. (Dari for horse) to decide the best shooter on the team. The game was very energetic, with all the players chanting “Neh-meh-sha!!!” (you can’t make it!) as each player lined up for his shot, then dissolving into laughter if the player missed and wild cheers if he made it. Afghan trash talk is much more polite than what I’m used to in the States – it made for a highly entertaining and supportive environment.

Out of the 16 players who started the game, the final came down to Shahpor and Amin, one of the team’s quietest and least confident players. Shahpor has much greater shooting range than anyone else and is very consistent, so it looked like Amin was going to have to resign himself to second place. But somehow, like Daniel LaRusso pulling out the crane kick against Johnny Lawrence in the All Valley Tournament final, he managed to take down the heavy favorite to the amazement and delight of the rest of his teammates, throwing his arms skyward and yelling wordless exultation louder than he probably ever has in his life.

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Amin is crowned A.S.P. champion for Kabul. (Note the Kabul variant on the Chinese knockoff Air Jordan basketball – this one is “Jordon Power” – which is superior in quality but clearly inferior in creativity to the “Fly Man Jodan 28” ball I found in Herat last year)

One other funny  note about Amin: The week I was in Jalalabad, Alberto was watching the team practice and heard Amin giving direction to one of the other players in a deep, guttural voice, kind of like the Cookie Monster – the exact opposite of Amin’s normal quiet tenor. Thinking this was funny and very odd, Alberto asked Amin what he was doing. Amin meekly replied, “I was being Mr. Jess.” Alberto naturally got a huge kick out of that, as did I.

I started training the Kabul women’s team on Sunday. Inspiring and hilarious stories from that experience coming soon.

Yesterday’s big wheelchair race to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the ICRC was a phenomenal success. One side of the Olympic Stadium stands were packed with supporters chanting the players’ names and cheering like crazy during each race, and the players proudly put every ounce of their athletic talent on display for the gathered throng. All five provinces represented themselves well, but the hometown Kabul racers fed off the crowd’s energy to dominate the proceedings – a major surprise since the Mazar team had posted superior pre-race qualifying times.

The two favorites coming into the race were Saber of Kabul, a wonderful kid and one of the most improved players this year, and Mujeebullah of Mazar, who is one of the top two or three basketball players in the country. They both did very well but, in a shocking turn of events, were both beaten by Safi – a paraplegic player/coach from Kabul – who used pure determination and a unique pushing strategy (he would make five powerful pushes as rapidly as possible, then rest for one beat before doing it again, allowing him to maintain his speed over the full 200 meters of the race) to post the best times in each of the three rounds of the race. Given his level of injury, Safi was an underdog coming into the race, but couldn’t have been happier – nor prouder – to hoist the championship trophy for his city. Normally a pretty stoic personality, Safi couldn’t wipe the ear-to-ear grin off his face for a full hour after the race concluded.

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The racers sprint toward the finish line in the final with Safi in the lead

It was amazing to watch the winners being surrounded by TV reporters and cameras in the post-race pandemonium. As Alberto said about Safi after watching him field interview questions, “Two years ago, someone on the street taking his picture would have been cause for celebration. Now he will be on every television in Kabul.” I’m getting misty just writing about it!

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From left: Safi (1st), Saber (2nd), Mujeebullah (3rd)

I’ve been back in Kabul now for a couple days, but it’s been so busy with two-a-day practices that I’m just now getting a moment to catch up.

My last couple days in Herat were excellent. We had a series of 5-on-5 games in front of a small-but-excited group of ICRC colleagues and an occasionally massive crowd of school children, who ringed the court clapping and screaming support for the players during their two recess periods. The players did very well, particularly on defense, and showed that they’d retained even more of what we worked on in our training sessions that I expected. Team captain Said Iqbal led his group to victories in both their games and did a nice job keeping them focused on playing the right way. Granted, he also shot a one-handed, contested three pointer at one point (which he made, so I couldn’t be too mad about it… it would’ve been hard to convincingly feign anger about poor shot selection when I was laughing out loud after it went in), but I’ll take one or two slip-ups if it means good overall progress.

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Kids flood out of the school and ring the court during a pre-game round of H.O.R.S.E.

Michael and I got the chance to go back to Herat’s amazing Blue Mosque on our last day as well, and were given a tour of the back rooms where craftsmen make the tiles that cover the outside and inside of the massive structure. The tiles are still made using techniques and tools over a thousand years old, and it was a real privilege to get to see them being created by all the artisans that work there, some of whose families have been doing this job for several generations. The foreman of the tile painting section explained that all the colors are created from scratch using only naturally derived ingredients that, as with all the other processes, are the same as those used since the mosque was first built. I happened to be sitting next to a vat of yellow paint, so I asked what the basis for it was. He said yellow is made from a combination of mustard seed and battery acid residue from cars. Wait… what?? I asked what they used before car batteries existed. He paused for a second and said, “I don’t know. Something else, probably.” Ok, so maybe not every process is the same as it was a thousand years ago…

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An artist paints portions of a tile using the ancient color Battery Acid Yellow®

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The main entrance to the Blue Mosque, covered in hand made and painted tiles

My first two days of Kabul practices (I’m teaching the first and second men’s teams this week and the women’s team next week – unbelievable that there are now almost 100 male and female players just in Kabul!) have been fun, but a bit of a mixed bag early on in terms of basketball success. I got the chance to watch a few of the first team’s practices in between trips to the different provinces, so I’ve seen how much they’ve improved over the past year under the direction of the player/coaches I trained last year – Shir, Safi and Mirwais. In our first day working together, they definitely showed that their individual skills have moved forward significantly during our different drills. However, when I broke them up into three teams to play scrimmage games, all the progress seemed to go out the window as they threw bad pass after bad pass, resulting in endless turnovers, while taking consistently bad shots using poor technique. This isn’t an uncommon occurrence among the teams I’ve worked with on the first day of training, but given all the work the Kabul players have done leading up to this week, I was pretty disappointed by their refusal to use their brains to play the way I know they can. 

I gave them a lengthy speech after practice about the fact that they’re in a position to take a major leap forward this year and perform much better in the 2013 national tournament than they did in 2012. They were chagrined, but took the admonishment very well and promised to play up to their potential the rest of the week.They’re a great group of guys who take a lot of pride in the improvement they’re making, so I’m hopeful that the progress I’m expecting will come to fruition.

Today is the 150th anniversary of the founding of the ICRC, for which we’re staging a wheelchair race at the Olympic Stadium here in Kabul. Four racers from each of the five provinces where I’ve been teaching – all of them basketball players – will compete for the first ever “fastest man in a wheelchair in Afghanistan” title. It should be a lot of fun. I’ll report back with results and pictures.

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