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.