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!