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.