May 2014


On the Afternoon of May 25th, the Afghanistan Men’s Wheelchair Basketball team won its first game! Six games into our trip, the team finally put all its hard work to full use in defeating the team from Cinisello by one point in a game that aged its poor coach by about 10 years. Shahpoor swished a pair of free throws with 45 seconds to play to give the Afghans a three point lead before the Italians scored inside to cut the margin to one. The Afghans made a final defensive stand to hold onto the victory and, as the final buzzer sounded, I breathed for the first time in what felt like hours. Congratulations to the team on such a great achievement!
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Mojeeb scores in the team’s game against Torino (photo by David Constantine)

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The team celebrates its first victory along with the coaches and Afghanistan Paralympic Committee representative, Abdul Husain Hesary  (back right) – Photo by Michael Glowacki

The morning after notching its first win, the team was rewarded by a visit at practice by U.S. National Team player and member of Italian League champions Briantea84, Brian Bell. It was a fantastic experience for our guys to get to share the court (and learn some new techniques) from one of the top players in the world. Thanks to Brian for taking the time to meet the team!

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Brian Bell and Shahpoor line up for the opening tip

It’s hard to believe the national team and I left Afghanistan nearly a week ago – between the travel to and through Italy, acclimating to the Italian lifestyle, and playing our first four-game competition, it feels like we just arrived! It’s been such a whirlwind of activity that I need to try to capture all that has happened since leaving Kabul on Monday the 19th in a single post – there hasn’t been a single free hour since we left that I could devote to writing. I guess that means we’ve been productive!

The Flights
I was nervous about the complicated nature of escorting 15 Afghan players, 23 wheelchairs, and almost zero flying experience other than myself and Michael (Alberto flew to Italy two days ahead of us) through the Kabul and Dubai airports, both of which have been challenging for me as a disabled traveler in the past. Three days before we were scheduled to leave, we were informed by Emirates Airlines that all our flight reservations had been canceled because the travel agent failed to confirm them in time. Uh oh. When I asked if there were other seats available, the customer service person informed me that the next available seats for a group of our size would be in mid-July. Mid-July!! Thankfully, after an evening of morose conjecture about what we were going to do, ICRC’s travel department was miraculously able to rebook us on the same flights to Dubai and Milan despite the prior claim that no seats were available. Between the near-cancelation of the flights and the fact that Emirates required us to submit physician-stamped forms for each wheelchair user stating that, even though they are disabled, they do not require oxygen or a doctor on board to survive the flight (Alberto informed them that these are athletes – they have an abundance of oxygen!), I felt a sense of foreboding about the prospect of getting everyone all the way to Italy.

Thankfully, the actual travel process was remarkably smooth – far smoother than any flight I’ve ever taken through Dubai by myself, in fact. The very few minor challenges:

1. Mohammadullah, our quietest, shyest player and one of those who had never been on a plane of any kind before, was scared enough by the experience of taking off and seeing Kabul disappear below him that he shut his window blind and stared straight ahead for the first hour of the flight to Dubai.

2. Somehow, to build on this traumatic first flying experience, Mohammadullah was also seated next to a crazy woman who, after realizing that Mohammadullah had inadvertently taken her seat (he was meant to be in the one next to her), demanded to be moved elsewhere because, quote, “this is why I can’t stand Afghanistan!” Mohammadullah, who speaks no English, just sat there meekly wondering what he had done wrong and hoping the terrible experience would end soon.

3. Coincidentally, as we were waiting in line at the Kabul Airport to get our passports stamped, this same woman had demanded to know why Mirwais, who was sitting a few feet away from her in line, was “staring at her.” Neither Mohammadullah nor Mirwais knew how to react to this lady, so I assured them that every plane has at least one crazy person on board, but I was sure she was harmless. Thankfully, she was.

4. When we got to Dubai, we were booked in a hotel near the airport for our 17 hour layover before leaving the next morning for Milan. The hotel stay included dinner and breakfast at the hotel buffet. Since none of the players had ever eaten non-Afghan food, there was a lot of sitting motionless and staring at their plates filled with a variety of foreign foods, wondering how they were going to keep from starving if this is what they had to eat the whole time. I assured them that the food was going to get a lot weirder for them in Italy, so they better learn to like new things. Several made a valiant effort. Others subsisted on bread and bananas.

When we finally arrived in Milan after 27 hours of travel, the players were met by a gauntlet of photographers and video cameras from various local and international news outlets covering their arrival. Just to think of how different that experience was for a group of people that were largely ignored their entire lives until two or three years ago was truly amazing. I was able to observe from the rear of the pack, watching the scene unfold with reporters pulling individual players aside to interview them as each member of the team stared around him in awe at all the commotion. When Alberto came forward out of the press to greet us, he had tears in his eyes. We had finally made it – the Afghan National Wheelchair Basketball Team was actually in Italy!

The Beach
After exiting the airport, we got on a coach bus and immediately drove 4 ½ hours to a tiny beach community on the Adriatic Coast about an hour outside Bologna, where our first competition would take place. The collective energy and enthusiasm during the drive was through the roof. The players couldn’t believe they were in a place so green and beautiful. Within 30 minutes of starting the drive, they were dancing to the radio and singing at the tops of their voices. As unlikely as the eventuality of my bringing 15 disabled Afghans to Italy to play basketball may have seemed five years ago, that was nothing compared to being on a bus full of them clapping and dancing along to Two Princes by the Spin Doctors.

The place we had been booked for the first tournament was a “camping hotel” right on the beach. None of the players had ever seen an ocean or a sea before, so you can imagine their excitement the morning after our arrival when we introduced them to the Adriatic (Said Mohammad’s excitement was tempered slightly when he cupped his hands and took a drink of seawater – “Blech! Why is it so salty??!”). It took Saber only about 5 minutes of revelry before he had pushed his wheelchair 30 yards out into the calm surf and jumped into the water. Fearless!

After watching and cheering for Saber for a couple minutes, other players began stripping off shirts, orthotic devices, and prosthetic limbs. Soon the water was full of deliriously happy Afghans shouting exultation at this new, unbelievable experience they were sharing together. As I told Michael at the time, even if we don’t win a game on this trip and even if I never get another chance to coach these players, it was all worth it to watch them experience the freedom of swimming in the sea for the first time.
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The players arrive at the beach – their first time laying eyes on the sea.

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Saber emerging from his first swim as Michael captures the moment in the background

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The Bologna Games

The games we played at our first competition took place at a giant exhibition center that was hosting a medical device convention. Our team, the Italian Under-22 National Team, and a select team made up of players from Italy’s top (professional) division provided entertainment by playing three games each day of the competition – two for each team each day. The two Italian teams were clearly very strong and very experienced. Even the under-22 team was exceedingly disciplined. We watched them play each other in the opening game of the first day and they were extremely athletic, well-coached, and TALL. Given the level of their play, the tiredness from our team’s long journey, and the pressure of playing the Afghans’ first international games, I knew we would be lucky to stay within 20 in any of these games. I laid out our game plan and told the players that, no matter what the score, I only cared that they played their best and gave us something to build from as we moved through our Italian game schedule.

The games were, not-surprisingly, extremely tough and in two of them we were beaten pretty handily. However, on the second day our team started to hit its stride, realizing that, with unselfish, team-oriented play, good defense, and no fear, we could play with these guys. In our second game against the select team, we actually had the game tied going into the fourth quarter (much to the surprise of the other team, who had beaten us by 26 the day before). We lost by six points in the end – 66-60 – but it was a tremendous improvement over the level we assumed was our ceiling after the first day’s games. Even given this massive leap forward against a top team, however, the guys were despondent after the game. They aren’t content coming in a close second in these games – they want to win. Difficult as it was for me to see them taking a loss so hard, I was incredibly proud of the players for having the confidence in themselves to demand victory, even this early on in their development. We may not have gotten a win right away, but we showed ourselves and our opponents that Afghanistan has all the tools to compete at this level. We have four more games the rest of the way – all against Italian professional teams – and I can’t wait to get the guys back on the court to show what they now know they’re capable of.

My first training camp with the Afghanistan men’s wheelchair basketball national team is in the books! We completed the marathon 10-day camp last night and I’m thrilled with the progress the team has made. We leave tomorrow morning for Italy and the excitement level is sky high for all involved. I have to imagine the players are at least a little nervous about their first journey into the unknown of the western world, but if they are, they aren’t showing it. I guess when you grow up with the types of challenges these men have all overcome to get where they are today, even a first international basketball competition in a far-off country isn’t such a daunting prospect.

Before we head off on our epic adventure together, I’d like to introduce all the players of the national team. Each player has a fantastic personality all his own and, as we prepare to embark on what I’m sure will be a highlight-filled whirlwind basketball tour of northern Italy (the stories from which I will be writing about here as often as I can), I want people to get to know a bit about each of them.

All photos courtesy of Michael Glowacki.

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Shahpoor
Age:
21
Hometown:
Maimana
Shahpoor, who was one of the Maimana players I first came to Afghanistan to coach in 2009, is the most complete player in Afghanistan. His intensity and competitive drive are second to none and he is a natural on-court leader even at his young age. He can struggle at times with containing his emotions in the heat of competition, but he told me after our last training camp practice that he is committed to being the leader his teammates expect him to be, no matter what challenges we face.

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Farhad
Age:
24
Hometown:
Herat
Farhad has gone through one of the biggest personality evolutions since I first started coaching in Afghanistan. The first year or two I coached him, he was always quiet and stoic. He revealed to Michael in an interview that, not long ago, he decided he would be more happy showing the world his outgoing side. Now he is the biggest joker on the team, regularly breaking into song and randomly yelling out English phrases during practice like, “Come on, baby! Let’s dance!”

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Wasiqullah
Age:
36
Hometown: Kabul
Wasiq is a physiotherapist at the ICRC ortho centre in Kabul who, after starting out as a coach of the Kabul wheelchair basketball team, fell in love with the game and became a player himself. He won the 2014 national tournament Most Valuable Player (MVP) award in leading Kabul to its first title and is a stabilizing force for the younger players on the national team.

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Mojeeb
Age:
20
Hometown: Mazar-i-Shareef
Mojeeb is a natural talent who can take over games with his speed and knack for hitting difficult shots in traffic. He says little, but is constantly laughing. He was the MVP of the 2013 national tournament (at just 19) when he led Mazar to the title.

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Mirwais
Age:
31
Hometown: Kabul
Mirwais is the most well-rounded class 1 player on the team and my regular interpreter during practices. He has an intuitive understanding of the game and regularly makes in-game decisions that belie his limited playing experience. He is also one of the most promising potential coaches in the country, leading the Kabul women’s team for the past two years

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Ramazan
Age: 20
Hometown: Maimana
Ramazan was another of the original Maimana players that sent the request to the U.S. for a basketball coach that brought me to Afghanistan for the first time. Back then, as a 15 year-old, he was a bit sullen and rarely showed any excitement or joy in practices. He has gone through a remarkable transformation through his basketball success in the years since, though, and now has one of the quickest laughs on the team. A natural point guard, Ramazan is a creative passer and excellent ball handler despite his dominant right arm being withered by childhood polio.

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Habib
Age:
33
Hometown: Herat
Habib, since I first met him when he traveled to Kabul in 2011 to join my training of the team that spring, has been the consummate student of the game. He has always peppered me with questions about specific rules and strategies, and puts the knowledge to good use in his cerebral play on the court.

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Mohommadullah
Age:
35
Hometown: Kabul
Mohommadullah’s beard and imposing expression conceal one of the sweetest personalities in the world. He has come as far in his three years of playing basketball as any player in Afghanistan, and was the first to master team-first strategies by setting picks and screens for his teammates. These are invaluable traits in a class 1 player, and lead to his being universally loved by all his teammates.

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Eqbal
Age:
32
Hometown: Herat
Eqbal is a bruising post player who may give up a few inches of height to some of his Italian opponents, but will never give ground in toughness. He missed the first half of the national team’s training camp to fly home to be with his mother, who was ill in the hospital. She has since recovered, and Eqbal has done a great job catching up on a jam-packed 10 days worth of material in just half that time.

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Basir
Age:
23
Hometown: Mazar-i-Shareef
Basir may not look like a typical basketball player, but he’s one of the few who has shown a natural “court sense” that allows him to succeed both in team concepts and as an individual. He’s a class 1, so he’s not working with the same physical tools as many of his teammates, but makes up for it with craftiness and a solid grasp of fundamentals. He’s also missing a front tooth after getting hit in the face with a ball during one of Mazar’s practices, so he’s got a bit of a tough guy sneer when he chooses to use it.

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Safi
Age:
24
Hometown: Kabul
Safi is another player who’s gone through a significant metamorphosis over the few years I’ve been coaching him. When I first met him in 2011, he really didn’t distinguish himself as a player or a personality. By 2012, he had become one of the best players in Kabul through hard work, but still wasn’t a vocal leader yet. Last year, though, he had transformed into a pillar of intensity and is now the player on the national team most likely to call out a teammate for not playing up to his potential or for making a careless mistake.

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Nasrullah
Age:
19
Hometown: Mazar-i-Shareef
Nasrullah is the young clown prince of the national team. He cracks everyone up multiple times per practice with his broken English, strange comedic outbursts during otherwise serious drills, or his elastic facial contortions when lining up a free throw. I learned at the beginning of training camp that Nasrullah lives in a homeless shelter in Mazar, which is a level of poverty beyond even the rest of his teammates. The fact that he has transcended disability and abject poverty to achieve his position on the national team and is about to travel to Italy representing his entire country is a true testament to his strength of character and will.

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Fahim
Age:
25
Hometown: Kabul
Fahim is an employee at the Ortho Centre working in the patient management office. He is a coordinator for both the Kabul team and the national team, helping to ensure practices are scheduled and all the logistics of team business are taken care of. He plays with an unorthodox style, but one that is effective for him and, like his national team teammate, Basir, always seems to find himself in the right place at the right time to score when his team needs it most.

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Said Mohammad
Age:
21
Hometown: Mazar-i-Shareef
Said Mohammad is the best outside shooter and overall best basketball technician on the team. Like many of his teammates, he is a funny character who is always laughing at practices, but is also one of the most focused players when we need to accomplish a task.

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Saber
Age:
24
Hometown: Kabul
Of all the blindingly fast players on the national team, Saber is the fastest. He is an incredible athlete who has already competed internationally as a weight lifter for Afghanistan, and is the only player with that level of competitive experience. Basketball is a much different game, of course, but the calm intensity and coolness under pressure Saber has developed through his competitive past will be critical to his team’s success.

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Watch out Italy. Here we come!

 

A lifelong friend of Alberto Cairo designed the uniforms shown in the above photos. Sergio Silvestris supported Alberto’s groundbreaking work helping the disabled of Afghanistan for many years, including conceiving and leading an Italian fundraising effort to help reconstruct the Kabul Orthopaedic Centre (where our new gymnasium was completed a few months ago) after its near destruction in 1994. Voluntarily designing the national team’s uniforms and warm-up suits (and working with the Italian sportswear company, Sergio Tacchini, to have them produced) was just the latest example of Sergio’s creative selflessness in service of Afghans. Shortly after completing the uniform designs early this year, Sergio fell ill and, after a long battle with pneumonia, passed away in March. The national team will wear his initials on the backs of their Motivation wheelchairs and are dedicating their performance in Italy to Sergio’s memory.

Last night we completed the first half (five days) of the Afghanistan men’s national wheelchair basketball team training camp in preparation for our first international competitions in Italy. We fly out a week from today, and I’m amazed by how much the team has already progressed in such a short time.

We only had time for one day of rest/recovery following the three-day men’s national tournament, which meant a few players were out with nagging (but thankfully minor) injuries the first three days. One of those forced to miss time was Shahpoor from Maimana, one of my earliest students from my first trip back in 2009 and, at this point, the country’s top player. Shahpoor suffered what was feared at the time to be either a broken bone or torn tendon in his shooting hand in the second half of the national championship game. Everyone (not least, Shahpoor) was concerned that he’d be forced to sit out the games in Italy. Fortunately, though, it turned out to be just a sprain and, with the help of the group of expert physiotherapists at the ICRC orthopaedic centre, he was able to resume playing at full speed by the fourth day of camp. Shahpoor is a tough kid and a natural leader; his insistence on hitting the court the first second he could take the bulky wrap off his hand (and even playing in small doses before that by teaching himself to shoot left-handed) showed his natural competitive drive and had a major impact on the intensity of the team’s approach.

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Shahpoor from Maimana in 2009 (age 16) and today

Another thing that was noticeable after Shahpoor’s and the other injured players’ return was a palpable improvement in team unity. The first couple days went well, but there was a slight-but-noticeable separation between the players from the different provinces – nothing antagonistic, just a lack of clear understanding of how to work together with teammates who, just a couple days before, had been opponents. By the fourth day of playing and living together, though, that separation had evaporated and the team was really starting to hit its stride. They’ve been picking up complex strategies and team concepts much more quickly than I expected and, in spite of an exhausting schedule of two physically and mentally demanding practices per day, have continued to surprise me with their growth at every practice.

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Team unity has grown with every practice together (photo by Michael Glowacki)

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They may be friends and teammates now, but that doesn’t mean provincial rivals Shahpoor and Mojeeb (from Mazar) don’t still enjoy a good old fashioned physical battle when the drill calls for it (Photo by Jessica Barry/ICRC)

Our greatest challenges in preparing for the trip to Italy are primarily mental at this point. As I told the team on the first day of camp, they are every bit as fast as any team I’ve seen and have the physical talent to compete at a high level. However, they’re working from a major experience disparity compared to the teams they’ll be playing, so learning to focus every second they’re on the court – and being able to execute newly learned skills and tactics in high-pressure environments – will be of paramount importance. It’s a challenge for them both individually and collectively. It’s also a test for me as a coach as I try to instill the ability to block out stress, distractions and fear in a group of players who didn’t grow up in competitive environments where this ability can form naturally over time – not to mention finding a way to keep them from feeling completely overwhelmed by their first time leaving the immediate geographic region where they’ve all spent their entire lives. We’re all having fun figuring it out, though. Today is the team’s one mid-camp day to rest and recover, and I can’t wait to get back on the court tomorrow to see how much further we can progress together in the coming week.

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Saber from Kabul (front) and teammates (L-R) Sayed Mohammad, Mojeeb, Mohammadullah, Nasrullah, and Mirwais (Photo by Michael Glowacki)

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Ramazan from Maimana (Photo by Michael Glowacki)

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Teaching with help from my assistant coach/interpreter, Malang (Photo by Michael Glowacki)

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Just because it’s intense doesn’t mean training camp can’t be fun. Mohammadullah from Kabul. (Photo by Michael Glowacki)

The Times of London ran a nice piece about the national tournament and upcoming trip to Italy this morning. It will be publicly available here through Friday.

 

Personal note: Condolences to the family of Chase Brink, a player for the Junior Rolling Nuggets back home who passed away yesterday after a months-long battle with complications from pneumonia. He was 15 years old. You’ll be missed, Chase.

This year marked the third annual Afghanistan men’s wheelchair basketball national championship tournament here in Kabul. As was the case with the women’s championship last week, it was our first time holding the tournament indoors – the timing was fortuitous, as Kabul experienced major rain storms each afternoon of the tournament that would have made it impossible to play for hours at a time on the old outdoor court – and, while the new gym added an air of professionalism, every bit of the infectious player and fan enthusiasm was still present from previous years. Many times I blew my referee’s whistle hard enough to make myself dizzy in an effort to get the players’ attention over the din of the screaming crowd. It was an incredible atmosphere, and the teams earned every bit of the support with their inspired play.

As was the case last year, the tournament included six teams – Herat, Jalalabad, Kabul, Kandahar, Maimana, and Mazar – each of which has spent the last year working diligently to improve their position from 2013 or, in Mazar’s case, to defend their national title. The tournament kicked off on Saturday morning with a rematch of last year’s best game – the 2013 semifinal between Mazar and Maimana, which saw Afghan wheelchair basketball played at a new level and ended with Mazar pulling out a narrow one point victory to reach the finals. The opening game of 2014 was every bit as intense and closely contested, with Mazar holding a slight lead the entire game until Maimana put on a run in the last three minutes that netted them a one point win of their own. What a way to start!

ImageSayed Mohammad of Mazar watches a fast break layup drop through the net in the first round game against Maimana (Photo by Denver Graham)

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Haroon of Maimana lines up a free throw in his team’s first round comeback win over Mazar (Photo by Denver Graham)

The energy in the gym continued to build throughout the first two days, in which each team played each other team once to set up the seeding for the playoff round on Monday. Jalalabad and Kandahar acquitted themselves admirably, playing close games against far more experienced teams and showing the impressive growth they have made over the past year. Kandahar even managed to tie Herat – last year’s third place team – in an opening round game, the first time either of the newer teams have come close to beating one of the more experienced teams in a tournament game. It was a huge accomplishment for them, and they reacted like they’d just won the national championship. They went on to defeat Jalalabad in a very close game for fifth place and didn’t stop smiling for hours afterward. I wish Jalalabad could have gotten their first win, but they were close on multiple occasions and showed that they have all the talent necessary to compete with the top teams here – they just need a few more months of concentrated practice and they’ll get it.

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Kandahar gives the Afghan pregame salute – “Salaam!” – to Jalalabad before their playoff matchup (Photo by Jake Simkin)

The semifinals on Monday morning were a rematch of last year, with Maimana and Mazar facing off in the first semi and Kabul taking on Herat in the second. The winners would play for the championship and the losers for third place. Maimana and Mazar started off with a game reminiscent of last year’s semifinal, with both teams coming out strong and playing at a level above what they’ve shown in the past. This matchup has turned into a true rivalry over the past couple years and, while the players are cordial to each other off the court, they desperately want to beat each other once the ball is rolled out. The first half was back-and-forth, with each team going on runs and the lead changing several times. In the second half, though, Maimana pushed the tempo behind their leader, Shahpoor, and managed to pull away, avenging last year’s loss and mobbing each other with hugs and high fives after the final buzzer sounded their trip back to the finals (they won the inaugural national tournament in 2012). As my first-ever students and the ones responsible for me coming to Afghanistan in the first place, not to mention by far the smallest city and least-funded of the teams, I couldn’t have been prouder of them in their moment of redemption.

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Mojeeb of Mazar (in red) and Ramazan of Maimana (with ball) battle during Maimana’s semifinal victory (Photo by Denver Graham)

Kabul controlled the second semifinal, beating Herat comfortably to return to the finals for the second year in a row and continue their quest for the city’s first national championship. Wasiq, a mid-30s ICRC physiotherapist who started off as a coach for the Kabul team before falling in love with the game and becoming its best player, led the way with consistently strong performances in every game. Wasiq has a very even-keeled demeanor and, after every basket he scores, raises one arm to wave in appreciation to the shouting crowd while a shy smile creeps across his face. He’s a good leader, a member of the national team, and will be a great ambassador for Afghanistan in the international game.

In the third place game, Herat came back strong from their semifinal loss and shocked the defending champions from Mazar with a comeback victory. Nazir, a new player whom I had only met briefly last year before he even started playing, showed his potential by coming off the bench and emerging as a dominant force inside for Herat, scoring many of their points in the second half. Nazir has the raw talent to make the national team in the next year or two and seems to have the competitive drive to match. He was so emotional after helping his team to an upset victory that, when I went down the line of Herat players giving congratulatory high fives, he grabbed my face in both his hands and, with tears of joy streaming down his face, planted a kiss on my cheek.

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Herat celebrates Nazir’s go-ahead basket in the waning seconds of their third place game against Mazar (Photo by Jake Simkin)

I didn’t get an official count, but I would guess that there were well over 300 spectators packed into the gym for the championship game between Kabul and Maimana, with many more – including several Ortho Center patients in hospital beds – watching and cheering through the open windows from outside. Kabul, which was the only team to have gone undefeated in the first round, played a tremendous first half, using a balanced offensive attack and rock solid defense to build a 10 point lead at halftime. Bilal, a class 4 who just started playing a little over a year ago, had the game of his life in the final, scoring on an array of inside and outside shots and even hitting a one-handed turnaround three pointer to beat the shot clock buzzer at one point. After losing Shahpoor to a hand injury with about eight minutes to play and down by 12 points, Maimana staged a furious rally with their leader – his hand wrapped in ice and gauze – screaming instructions from the sidelines, but it wasn’t enough to catch the home team. Kabul won its first title and the court was instantly flooded with celebrating players and fans, the gym shaking with chants of “KA-BUL! KA-BUL!”

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Maimana captain, Shahpoor, hands out propeganda to the crowd before the championship game (Photo by Jake Simkin)

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Kabul’s Bilal (in blue) scores one of his many baskets against Maimana to lead Kabul to the national title

The League of Afghanistan, the documentary being filmed by Michael Glowacki, has followed players from all the provinces, but has spent the most time focusing on the team here in Kabul since I first started working with them back in 2011. It’s truly remarkable how far they’ve come in just the three short years since that first footage was taken (see them at the beginning in the first trailer Michael made for the film). They lost every game they played in the inaugural national tournament in 2012, managed to turn that disappointment into motivation, and now, after two years of hard work and dedication, can finally call themselves national champions.

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Bilal celebrates Kabul’s victory with the championship trophy and his teammate Wasiqullah’s tournament MVP award (Photo by Jake Simkin)

The trophy presentation at the conclusion of the tournament included a speech by the president of the Afghan Paralympic Committee, who expressed his excitement about the men’s national team traveling to Italy for its first international competition, and was attended by members of the Afghanistan Olympic Committee as well – the first time they have been represented at one of our tournaments. The excitement is growing for the team’s first trip abroad, and we start the 10-day training camp tomorrow to get ready. Stay tuned for stories from two-a-days with the national team coming soon.

 

I just finished four days of training men’s teams from Kandahar and Jalalabad. The two are the most recent additions to the Afghan wheelchair basketball community, and this was just my second opportunity to work with them since their formation. Given the brevity of my stay this spring – I spend a month in Afghanistan before taking the men’s national team to Italy – there wasn’t time for me to travel to the different provinces like I have in the past. With a week and a half booked at the end of the trip for the national team’s first official training camp, the training last week for the women’s teams, and tournaments for both the women and the men, I had less than a week to spare. I decided that would be best spent training the two least experienced teams, trying to bring them as close as possible to the level of the four provinces that have multiple years under their belts.

As was the case in my first time meeting these two teams, their rough exteriors belied a group of the most endearing personalities of any players I’ve worked with. When my wife, Lindy, came to the national tournament last year, she was stunned by their imposing physical presence (particularly the Kandahar team), but even more so by how disarming their smiles were when they finally came out. It’s impossible not to love the Jalalabad and Kandahar guys.

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Jalalabad mean mugs (from left: Mahboob, Haidar, Noordin) and my very un-mean mug

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Trying harder to fit in with the Kandahar guys

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My direction for this photo was “big smiles, guys!” Good effort…

Kandahar came with a brand new coach who, just like his team, had a personality that belied his outward appearance. When I saw his long beard and distinctly Pashtun features, I did not expect his first words to be an unaccented, “Hey, what’s up, man?? Good to meet you!” Ahmad, a 23-year old product of Canada, recently moved to his parents’ native Afghanistan and, just a couple weeks after settling in Kandahar, volunteered to start coaching their wheelchair basketball team. He’s a good kid with a lot of energy, a solid grasp of the game and, for the first time in my travels, the ability to translate basketball-speak directly from English to Dari/Pashto. It’s amazing how much that helps speed things up. In a funny small-world moment, he once met a good friend of mine who also hails from Ontario.

Last year, both Kandahar and Jalalabad had a rough time keeping up in the national tournament, as it was the first time either of them had played in a legitimate competition with the other provinces. This year, and particularly over the course of the last few days, though, they have both made great strides. I have high hopes for them surprising the other teams in a few games and hope they come away with a newfound sense of confidence that they are on equal footing with their rivals.

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Jalalabad running dribble sprints to get ready for the tournament

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Over The Top 2: Pashtun Fury (thanks to Razik from Kandahar for not tossing me through the back wall of the gym)

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Mid-practice tea break with (from left) Wasim, Nazif, and Inam from Jalalabad. Hot tea in the middle of three hours of basketball is better than hot milk.

Tomorrow the men’s national championship tournament begins; it will last three full days and finish with the finals on Monday night. All the teams arrived in Kabul yesterday and are buzzing with energy. I can’t wait to see yet another giant leap forward in their performance from last year, and look forward to sharing the highlights soon. Good luck to all!