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.

Wasiqullah Amanullah

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

Lalaljan

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.

Mojeeb

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.