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)