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.