January 2014


I’m on my way home to Colorado after a whirlwind two weeks of coaching in Battambang, Cambodia. I just finished four days of training the first Cambodian Women’s National Team; it was both extremely productive and off-the-charts fun. This was my first experience training a national team and, because the twelve players on the team are the most skillful in the country, it definitely allowed me to push into much more advanced individual and team concepts than I’d been able to teach previously. The team did phenomenally well, with the players from Battambang (7) and Kampong Speu (5) meshing together easily after the first day or so. The goal of the training was to get the team started on the road to preparing for the Asian Para Games in Seoul, South Korea in October and, while there’s still a long way to go before the Cambodians are going to be up to the level of some of the continent’s more experienced teams, they’re on a steep learning curve and can definitely get there with consistent practice over the next 9 months.

Connor Shoos, a young American able bodied basketball player working in Phnom Penh, came up to Battambang to see how he might be able to help the players keep improving once I return to the States. Connor is from Maine (a fellow Portlander!) and proved to have great chemistry with the players right away. He hopped in a chair the moment he arrived and went through two full practices with the team to get the basic principles of wheelchair ball down. Connor’s a great kid and I have no doubt that, as long as he stays in Cambodia, he’ll be a fantastic resource to help keep the teams improving by giving them pointers on the basics of basketball – the kinds of the things that are relevant to both the wheelchair and standup versions of the game.

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Connor gets the hang of hoops in a chair…

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…and deals with the unavoidable blisters all new players acquire during their first practice

I had a couple interesting cultural firsts during the last few days in Battambang. First, I was invited to a Khmer wedding by my Cambodian ICRC colleague. The wedding (really just the reception – Khmer weddings take three days for all the different ceremonial and party-related events) took place on Sunday between our morning and afternoon practices, so I did a quick change into the most formal clothes I had with me and headed to the outdoor wedding pavilion with my colleague, Sovanny, her sister and her niece. The wedding was quite a spectacle; Khmers go all out on food, entertainment and dress – and invite everyone they know and everyone those people know (hence the reason I was there to celebrate someone I’d never met before). The highlights included:

1. The bride and groom awkwardly dancing on stage in their VERY formal wedding clothes while the live band played Cambodian pop music (it reminded me of 6th grade slow dances – very little movement, very stiff) while five or six designated people covered them head-to-toe in foam from aerosol cans. 

2. A random gentleman in the crowd being serenaded by the singer of the band while his friends chanted at him to chug a 48 oz plastic bag of beer through a straw. He did it. I was impressed.

3. The centerpiece of the pavilion was a 25 foot tall pineapple totem surrounded by a massive fruit arrangement. The band kicked into a certain song partway through the event and half the attendees rushed the pineapple and started grabbing as much fruit as they could hold, followed by everyone running back to their seats holding armloads of fruit above their heads and shouting in celebration of their hauls. I was the only foreigner at the wedding, nobody near me spoke more than basic English, and the band was so loud that nobody could really talk to each other anyway, so I had to make my own conclusions about why all these things were happening. I had a grin on my face the entire time.

The second culturally enriching experience I had was visiting one of the players’ homes for the first time. Sochan, who is the player/coach for the Battambang team and who made the  national team despite being 8 months pregnant (she promised she’d be back on the court a week after delivering her baby!), invited me and my assistant coach, Anya, to join her and her husband for a home-cooked Khmer meal. I was excited to finally get the chance to see how the players live – I’d been to a few players’ homes in Afghanistan, but hadn’t had the opportunity yet in Cambodia. Sochan’s husband picked me up on his motor scooter, which meant that I also got the chance to skitch through Battambang holding onto the back of his bike, Back to the Future style. Fun? Yes. Safe? Eh… I made it in one piece, so who’s counting?

Sochan prepared an unbelievable five-course feast that was, no joke, the best Asian food of any kind I’ve ever had. She prepared it all on a tiny portable stove in her 100 square foot one-room apartment that serves as both her family’s home and a shop where she makes and sells sewn handcrafts. It was hardly bigger than a storage locker, but they made it feel comfortable. Four of the other Battambang players live right around the corner from Sochan, and their apartment was even smaller. Four people in less than a 10’x10′ space with no furniture other than some thin mattresses on the floor. It’s a different world. And the Battambang players are the relatively “well off” set between the two provincial teams. It’s hard to fathom how the Kampong Speu players must live, but hopefully I’ll have a chance to visit one of them on my next trip.

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From left: Sochan, Anya, me, and Kempeak. What you can see in the photo is 90% of the entire house.

On our last day, I introduced the players to the shooting game, H.O.R.S.E, as a fun finish to the week. We had to change it to H.I.P.P.O since that was the only animal they could think of that had more than two letters in their language. It actually added to the entertainment value of the game since the players were calling each other hippos to much laughter throughout – solid work for trash talk rookies!

The game was very competitive but super fun. Amazingly, Seila, the one-armed player I talked about in my previous post, finished in second place! It was incredible watching her knock down shot after shot, followed by spinning with a huge grin on her face to good naturedly taunt her opponents, who had, until that point, been good naturedly (and loudly) encouraging her to miss!

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Seila knocks down another shot on her way to a second place H.I.P.P.O. finish

It’s hard to believe this trip is already over, but I’m thrilled with how far all the players have come in such a short time, both as basketball players and as people. I can see what a profound impact their success is having on their senses of themselves, and I can’t wait to see how much they continue to evolve by the next time I see them. Sincere thanks to Chris and Anya Minko of the CNVLD for creating these teams and continuing to manage them, to Didier Cooreman at the ICRC for his ongoing support of the project, and to Connor and Suy Sareth for their contributions during the week!

Here are a few more photos from the week, most courtesy of Anya Minko.

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Players show their intense sides during the tournament last week

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And their fun sides…

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Sinaet from Kampong Speu was one of the most improved players, making the National Team as a class 4

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Chris Minko of the CNVLD and Nimol, the team’s elder statesman (at 32) and biggest goofball

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Sry Mom (or “Mom” for short), at 18 the national team’s youngest player. Tiny but fierce.

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Dayang is arguably the country’s best player, but that doesn’t mean she has to take herself seriously. Her hat says, “I Love Boy”

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Me and Anya, interpreter and assistant coach, and daughter of Chris Minko

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The national team!

Four days of two-a-day training sessions with the Kampong Speu and Battambang players are in the books, and yesterday we held a tournament to conclude the week. I split the players into four equal teams composed of players from both provinces and each team played three full length games over the course of a morning and afternoon session. The level of play has come up significantly since my visit in July, with game scores regularly doubling what they were in the previous tournament. The energy level from the players was just as high as ever, with nonstop shrieking from the players on the court and those watching from the sidelines accompanying every play. I was grinning ear-to-ear the entire time.

At the conclusion of the day’s games, the players were completely exhausted – it was 90 with no shade for the afternoon session – but deliriously happy from the experience. It’s always so refreshing for me to experience the excitement of competition with these players (the same goes for those in Afghanistan), and reminds me not to take for granted the fun aspect of sports. After a lifetime of playing sports at various levels of competition, it’s easy for to get jaded and forget how much I love competing alongside a group of teammates, but being with young athletes new to the feeling, it brings back that youthful exuberance every time. 

One highlight of the tournament was the hairstyles the players showed up with for the big day. I’ve never seen so many creative variations of ponytails, pigtails, braids, etc. Couple the hair with the jewelry and makeup, and this was definitely the most fashionable basketball tournament I’ve been a part of.

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Sopeap, Thorn, Kepeak, Chanda and Dayaing bring the style

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Hair in action!

Following the tournament, we announced the selection of the national team that will travel to Seoul, South Korea in October for the Asian Para Games. The players hadn’t talked much about the selection or the games, so I didn’t realize how invested they were in making the team until after I announced the chosen players. Each name was accompanies by jubilant applause and screaming, even for those players who seemed like locks to make the team.

After I read the final name, though, the proceedings took on a much more somber tone, as the faces of several players who didn’t make the cut dissolved into tears of disappointment while their teammates tried to console them. One of the best players not to make the squad was dealing with such a combination of shock, anxiety and exhaustion that she ended up being admitted to the hospital overnight. She was released this morning and is feeling much better, but – just as the players’ infectious excitement captured me during the games – her inconsolable grief upon not achieving an athletic goal for the first time hit me really hard. It’s been a long time since I’ve tried out for a team and felt the sting of not making it, but I remember the feeling very well. I found out later from my assistant coach and interpreter, Anya, that one major reason the players were upset about not making the team was that they wouldn’t get the opportunity to fly on an airplane for the first time when the team goes to Korea. My god. This work never ceases to keep me humble and grounded.

For all the challenges of dealing with the disappointment of a few, there were twelve amazing stories of success for the players who did make the national squad. The one I’m most proud of is Seila, a class 1 player from Kampong Speu. Seila is one of several Kampong Speu players who, as the result of cerebral palsy, is only able to use one arm. She has become so good with that one arm, though, that she is able to execute every skill the two armed players have learned – all while using that same arm to maneuver and stop her chair. She has one of the brightest smiles I’ve ever seen, and it lit up the world when she heard her name announced for making the national team.

This morning, in the first national team training session, I taught the group how to execute a bounce stop. The bounce stop is a fairly complex technique used to stop the wheelchair while controlling the ball – difficult for even highly mobile players to master at first. Check out this video of Seila doing it correctly with one arm within minutes of learning it!

 

 

Hello from Battambang, Cambodia! It’s been just about five months since I returned from my first trip to coach the two women’s teams here, and I just arrived on January 3rd for my second round. Over the past few months, as mentioned in my previous post, I had a month-long scheduled trip to Afghanistan canceled due to security concerns. A few other international coaching opportunities in the fall didn’t come through either, so I’m just now getting back out with players for the first time since late July. It’s been a fantastic first couple days and I’ve been completely blown away by all the positive changes the players have made, both in terms of basketball skills and in their everyday lives.

Since my last visit, several of the players have gone out and gotten jobs or gone back to school to get degrees, while a few others have found husbands and gotten pregnant. This last bit may sound a bit odd as an accomplishment to Western ears, but given how disabled people are traditionally viewed here, it’s a huge step forward in their integration into society. All the women showed up to the first practice in full makeup, with many wearing earrings and necklaces as well. It’s humorous, of course, but it also shows that they’re each taking a great deal more pride in their public image. They’ve stopped thinking of themselves as members of a marginalized disabled community and have started seeing themselves as women. It’s an amazing transformation.

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Reuniting with the Battambang players

Beyond the physical transformations many of the players here have made, several have also made incredible mental and emotional strides. One of the Battambang players, Sinuon, was born with severe cerebral palsy. When I first met her, she didn’t speak and rarely made eye contact, but tried her best to keep up with the rest of the group during practices despite having severe muscular and cognitive limitations. Apparently, when she first joined the Battambang team a few months before my first visit, she would just sit in one corner of the court looking at the ground and not interacting at all. She’s had one of the most difficult first 20 years of life I can imagine, but she’s transcended it to the point that she’s new laughing and smiling during practices, joking with her teammates, and exhibiting much more physical mobility than any of her physical therapists thought she would ever be capable of. Hers is probably the most obvious of the stories of player growth, but there are many others of varying degrees that have been wonderful to see.

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Sinoun

In my summary post following my trip here in the summer, I mentioned that the next goal for the Cambodian program was to take a national team to the Southeast Asian Para Championships in Myanmar this month. Unfortunately, we learned in October that not enough participating nations were going to field women’s wheelchair basketball teams to include a tournament field. Since learning that, we’ve reset our sites on an even bigger stage – the Asian Para Championships in Korea. This is the second largest disability sports event to the Paralympics and will be an unbelievable test, but certainly an unforgettable experience, for the Cambodian players. At the conclusion of this week’s training camp, I’ll name the 10-12 person national team, which will stay in Battambang for four more days of intensive work. The two provincial teams – Battambang and Kampong Speu – I’m training through Friday of this week are picking things up very quickly, so coaching the national team made up of the best of those two teams should be a lot of fun.