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!