I deliberately left out one important event in my recent wrap-up of the Afghanistan team’s trip to Italy. I did this because I wanted to keep the focus on the fantastic experiences we all had together, the amazing development of the team in such a short time, and the courage and will the players displayed throughout our slate of games. However, it wouldn’t be a faithful recounting without mentioning one very difficult, very disappointing issue we dealt with, nor would it do proper justice to the team’s strength in overcoming this issue to play as well as they did in their final game against Briantea84.

The night before the Briantea game, after everyone had gone to bed, four players – Shahpoor, Mojeeb, Nasrullah, and Said Mohammad – walked out of the team hotel and never came back. When it was discovered the following morning that they were gone, everyone was immediately concerned for their safety. No one knew where they had gone or if they had gotten lost or into some sort of trouble that prevented them from returning to the hotel. Their Afghan mobile phones didn’t work in Italy, so there was no way to contact them to find out what happened. As the day went on and more details were discovered, however, it became clear that they had left the team voluntarily with the intent to stay in Europe rather than return to Afghanistan following the conclusion of the trip.

These were four of our top players. More importantly, though, they were part of our family. Every member of the team – as well as the coaches – was dealt a huge blow by their defection. Did we understand why they would want to stay in Europe? Of course. However, leaving the team without notice on the eve of its biggest game – turning their backs on all its collective potential in service of furthering their individual agendas – was a very difficult pill to swallow.

As the day wore on with no word from the missing players and the game against Briantea84 looming closer, we had to make a decision. Could we put this painful situation aside and play the best game we were capable of in spite of it? Given the number of spectators and media coming to the game and the massive amount of work Briantea’s staff had done to bring our team to Italy and promote the evening’s main event, we had to find a way. The team gathered and, to a man, agreed that we would do our best to put the issue out of our minds for the coming hours and focus on doing everything we could to make Afghanistan proud.

I’m without words to describe the kinship and pride I feel toward the remaining players of the team for what they were able to accomplish in the face of such a challenge. Though they may not have won the game, they played like champions and, in every player’s case, brought their games to a new level in response to the added pressure of having to adopt on-court leadership roles that had been primarily handled by the departed players up to that point. The Italian crowd fell in love with them immediately and cheered for the Afghans just as hard as they cheered for their hometown team. The scene following the final buzzer – a sea of Italian fans swarming onto the court to ask the Afghan players for photos and autographs – brought tears to my eyes.

Losing four players with whom we’ve experienced so much has been heartbreaking. I’ve coached those guys since they were barely more than kids. The wound from their leaving will take time to heal for all of us. However, given the perseverance shown by the remaining 11 players, I am confident that this team will continue its growth and become even stronger in the future. Afghans are the most resilient people I have ever met, and this team exemplifies that toughness and mental fortitude.

We wish the four who left the best of luck in their new lives – we received word from one of them recently that they are safe and well.

Now it is time to look forward. In October I will travel back to Afghanistan to select new players to join the national team and continue their training in preparation for their next international competition (time/location TBD). I know I can speak for the team in saying that we are excited to embrace whatever challenge comes next.

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The remaining players of the national team during the playing of the Afghanistan National Anthem before the game against Briantea84

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The players celebrate their courageous final performance with Italian fans following the game