April 2014

Those who have been following this blog for the past couple years may remember that the women’s wheelchair basketball teams in Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif were, at the relative beginning of their existences in 2012, very private about their new-found love of wheelchair basketball. In Mazar, all the male orthopedic center patients would have to be taken to their rooms during practices so the players weren’t being watched by male non-family members. In Kabul, the outdoor (at the time) court in the middle of the ortho center campus had to be surrounded in opaque screen material during women’s practices for the same reason. We weren’t even allowed to stage a women’s competition between the two cities that first year because it wasn’t seen as appropriate for the Mazar women to leave their families and travel all the way to Kabul just to indulge in a sport.

Yesterday we held the 2014 Afghanistan Women’s National Championship at the newly built ICRC gymnasium in Kabul, and it’s hard to believe how much things have changed in just two short years. This was the first time the two cities have played against each other in official-length five-on-five competition (last year we had a three-on-three mini tournament with two teams from each city) and, as mentioned in my previous post, the first time we’ve held games – for men or women – in an indoor setting with a real scoreboard, shot clocks and no dust storms. It was the dawning of a new level of professionalism for wheelchair basketball in Afghanistan, and wonderful that the women were the ones to usher it into being.

The format of the championship was two games – one in the morning and one in the afternoon – with a short tie breaker scheduled to follow the afternoon game should the teams split the two. The players from both cities were supported by out-of-town members of the men’s national team, in Kabul to apply for their visas at the Italian embassy in advance of the trip next month. They joined several family members of the players and a few ortho center staff to cheer on the participants at the morning game.

The players began the game with so much nervous energy that the first several shots by each team flew a good two feet over the basket. When the first ball finally snapped through the net, though, the gym erupted in cheers. The concrete floor and metal construction of the building combined to make 15 fans and 20 players sound like ten times that number! Once their nerves calmed after a couple minutes, both Mazar and Kabul put the team offensive and defensive principles they’d learned during the week to good use, executing both phases with more precision and intensity than they had in any of the practices. It was great to see how the thrill of competition brought them to a new level of play, and made it impossible for me to maintain an impassive referee’s expression when, after every made shot, the scoring player whipped her chair around to scream exultantly with a huge smile on her face as the small cheering section shouted its approval along with her teammates. After Kabul built a sizeable lead in the first half, Mazar came back strong in the second and eked out a narrow three point victory in the morning game.

The afternoon game had an even more electric atmosphere as a large crowd of Afghans and several ICRC expatriate staff joined the family members and men’s players – well over 100 people in all – to watch the championship finale. If the volume of support at the morning game was surprising, the afternoon was an absolute cacophony. Again, Kabul was fast out of the gate, quickly jumping ahead by eight points. Again, though, Mazar recovered and – despite their best player fouling out just before halftime – fought back to claim a one point win and the championship trophy. In last year’s 3-on-3 national tournament, the two Kabul teams had taken both first and second place, so the victory was doubly sweet for Mazar. Both teams played as hard and well as I could have hoped, and I am so proud and happy to have had them put on such a tightly contested championship for the gathered throng.

Following a presentation of trophies and medals, I was joined by a representative of the Afghanistan Paralympic Committee, Kabir Khoshbin, to announce the Afghan Women’s National Team. As each of five players were announced from Mazar and five from Kabul (two spots were held in reserve because there are not enough female players of certain classifications to make a fully balanced roster), the crowd roared in appreciation. Getting the support of the Paralympic Committee in naming a women’s national team was a big step forward, and my hope is that it will draw more public attention to the women’s game and prompt additional cities to form teams, allowing the sport to spread around the country as it has for the men.

I’d like to share one additional encouraging anecdote about the evolution of the women’s game here that I was reminded of during a conversation with Alberto on the way home from last night’s festivities. I received a message last June from the father of one of the female Kabul players who found me on Facebook. It was a sincere, sweet note thanking me for teaching his daughter how to play basketball and wishing me success in the continuation of my mission to do the same for others. It was the first time I’d received anything like that from the father of any of my students, much less one of the female players. Yesterday that man’s daughter, Mulkara, was named to the first ever women’s wheelchair basketball team for Afghanistan.

I’ve made the point before about how amazed I am by what the women’s teams are accomplishing here – succeeding at sports as a disabled person in Afghanistan is a breakthrough in itself; doing so as a woman bordered on inconceivable just a few years ago. The message from Mulkara’s father reminded me that their remarkable achievements are, in large part, possible because of the support of family members that are also taking a huge social leap in standing behind the players in their groundbreaking endeavor. His message, combined with the zeal with which the fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers at yesterday’s games cheered – and the warmth with which they all greeted me – gives me great hope that more daughters will soon be encouraged to become a part of this small-but-growing group of Afghan pioneers.

Tournament photos courtesy of Denver Graham


The Mazar uniforms included beautiful Afghanistan flag head scarves


Nadia (center) leads the Mazar fast break


The teams race past their screaming fans


The Kabul team celebrates its second place trophy with coach Mirwais (a men’s national team player) and Kabir Khoshbin of the Afghanistan Paralympic Committee (standing in suit)


As I settle back into life in Kabul on this, my fifth visit to Afghanistan since first coming in the fall of 2009, it strikes me how shockingly normal it feels to be here at this point. I remember clearly first time I came here, on the drive from the airport to the guesthouse where I was going to stay, Kabul felt like the strangest, most foreign, and most nervous place I could imagine. Six months before that, I never could have conceived of the fact that I would, at some point in my life, even have a reason to go to Afghanistan. Now, less than five years later, it feels so familiar and comfortable that it’s hard for me to picture not being here in the springtime as the foothills temporarily turn from dusty brown to dark green, not sitting in daily traffic jams stuck between mid-90s Toyota Corollas and wooden donkey carts, not passing men toting AK-47s in the street as if they were briefcases, not having my bedroom rattle every 30 minutes as military helicopters buzz low over the rooftop. Most significantly, though, I can’t fathom not experiencing the genuine friendships of all the people, Afghan and expat, I’ve had the great fortune to meet in this country in my short time coming here.

The feeling of a part of myself increasingly belonging to Afghanistan was strengthened even more when I was greeted at the Kabul airport on Tuesday morning (for the second year in a row) by a cadre of Kabul wheelchair basketball players, armed with giant bouquets of flowers, huge Afghanistan flags, and even a couple news camera crews to commemorate the occasion. Despite barely being mentally functional after nearly 30 hours of travel, I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face as the players asked for picture after picture, laughing and clowning around until the second each photo was snapped, at which point everybody’s faces (except mine) turned instantly to stone – the classic “Afghan smile.” I love these guys.Image

A royal welcome

The strange thing is that, despite feeling more comfortable and at home here than ever, recent instability around the country has made the security protocols put in place by the ICRC the most restrictive they’ve ever been in in my experience. The deadly attack in mid-January on a Lebanese restaurant frequented by expatriates – I had been there many times, as it was only a few blocks from the ICRC residence compound – pretty much cut off all ability for ICRC staff (none of whom were at the restaurant at the time of the attack, thankfully) to move around outside the compound and work settings. This means all my time here will be spent either in the residence compound or at the Orthopedic Center where the basketball training takes place. It’s a strangely isolating feeling, but at least I get to have daily interaction with the players to keep me from feeling too disconnected from the people here.

My plan for the coming two months includes the following basic agenda:

  1. Train the Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif women’s teams and conduct a national championship competition for the women (this week).
  2. Train the Jalalabad and Kandahar men’s teams – the two newest and least experienced in the country – to help bring them nearer to the knowledge and skill levels of the more experienced teams in Mazar, Kabul, Maimana and Herat.
  3. Hold a three-day men’s national tournament to declare the 2014 national champion.
  4. Conduct a 10-day training camp for the men’s national team, named at the end of my visit last year.
  5. Travel with the national team as its head coach for two competitions in Italy – the first international competitions the team will have ever played in and the first time most of the players will have been outside their  own country.
  6. Following a short holiday in Italy after the games, I will travel to Bethlehem, Palestine to conduct a one-week training clinic for the Palestinian national team and other aspiring players there. This clinic will be in partnership with Mercy Corps, a humanitarian organization based in my hometown of Portland, Oregon.

I’ve already had two days of coaching the women’s teams. So far they are off to a good start and are trying very hard to learn the more advanced individual skills and team concepts I’m teaching them this time. It’s difficult having such a short time to work with the teams (I’m only in Afghanistan for a month before leaving for Italy, as opposed to the two-month stints I’ve grown accustomed to in recent years) because it means moving through a lot of material fairly quickly without as much time for review as I’d like. They’re doing a great job, though, and I’m looking forward to seeing them put their new skills and knowledge to work in the games we’ll be holding on Sunday to determine the national women’s champion.

The women’s games will be the first official competition played in the brand new gymnasium Alberto had built on the Ortho Center campus. He had the building constructed around the outdoor court we played on the last two years, and it is phenomenal! For the first time, the players can play at any time of day year-round, and we will be holding the competitions with an electronic scoreboard as well as visible shot and game clocks (previously we had a person keeping time with a stop watch and yelling out time remaining every few minutes. We’ve never used a shot clock). These additions may seem mundane on the surface, but they make a huge difference in adding a feeling of legitimacy to the game.

ImageThe new gym!

One other quick shout-out before I head off for a third day of practices: I had a chance to spend my second evening here catching up with two good friends and ICRC colleagues from my trip last year – Verbena Bottini and Henning Krause, whom I stayed with in Jalalabad during my first time training that team last spring. All three of us left Jalalabad just weeks before an attack on the ICRC compound in late May 2013 in which an Afghan guard was killed. Miraculously, the rest of our colleagues who were still stationed there managed to escape, but I think all three of us had similar feelings of conflict about not being there with them during such a traumatic experience. It was wonderful to see them and spend time reminiscing. Henning headed back to his current post in Tajikistan the day after we met up, so I won’t have another chance to see him before I go, but Verbena will be here in Kabul for the latter half of the month, undoubtedly yelling Italian-accented encouragement to the Jalalabad team during the men’s national tournament, as she did last year.

ImageHenning, me, Verbena

Many of you probably saw the news about the shooting of three American doctors and a nurse at a Kabul hospital yesterday. I am ok, but it was a true tragedy. Please keep the families of those lost in your thoughts.