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.