[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.

YodaMiyagi

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.