October 2014

Yesterday, October 29th, was the five year anniversary of my first day in Afghanistan. I remember landing here in 2009 with nothing but a rough hand-drawn map to get me through the airport and out to the parking lot several hundred yards away where I’d be meeting my contact, Chris Drew. The first thing Chris told me once I found him was that the UN compound near the guesthouse where we’d be staying that night was attacked by the Taliban a few hours before and multiple foreigners were killed. That night, just moments after going to bed in Afghanistan for the first time while wondering if I had gotten myself in over my head, an earthquake shook Kabul, ensuring beyond a doubt that I wouldn’t sleep a minute that night. After the inauspicious arrival, I boarded a military flight the following morning before dawn along with a mixed detachment of European soldiers (and an all-girl Norwegian rock band that was doing a tour of Afghan military bases – seriously!) and flew north to the town of Maimana to begin what has since become a life-consuming wheelchair basketball coaching adventure.

The 29th was also the final of the first women’s wheelchair basketball tournament in Afghanistan to feature more than two teams (sort of the bare minimum for calling a competition a “tournament,” not that we’ve let that stop us in the past). The team from Herat – only two and a half months old at this point – joined the existing squads from Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif to play in front of crowds that swelled to over 200 people and included at least a half dozen local and international news crews. It’s hard to believe that a mere two years ago, the female players wouldn’t allow themselves to be seen practicing by non-family members. Now they present themselves with confidence and poise in front of television cameras and screaming crowds alike.
Unfortunately for Herat, no amount of grace under pressure can make up for the experience deficiency they were working against when playing Mazar and Kabul. The lost both their games by wide margins, but made progress and got their first taste of high level competition. They’ll be in much better shape in the spring with a few more months of practice under their belts.

Ferishta vs. Mitra
Mazar and Herat battle in the tournament’s opening round (AFP Photo/Shah Marai)

The first game of the tournament, a back-and-forth affair between Kabul and Mazar, ended in a nail-biting one point victory by Mazar. The final between the two teams the following day shaped up to be another barn burner. Kabul came out strong, taking an early lead and looking ready to avenge their earlier loss while recapturing the national title Mazar had taken from them in May. However, Mazar made a series of hustle plays that resulted in tough scores and, before anyone could blink, the momentum of the game had shifted dramatically in its favor.

Nuria final
Nuria of team Mazar chases down a loose ball in the final against Kabul (AFP Photo/Shah Marai)

The game between two very equally-matched teams ultimately came down to a test of wills. Mazar refused to be cowed by Kabul’s early dominance, and when it took the lead back, Kabul’s players looked confused and rattled. While playing in front of a raucous home crowd can be a definite competitive advantage, it can also add pressure, particularly to players relatively new to competitive sports. I could see the fear on the faces of the Kabul players as Mazar widened its lead in the second half, not wanting to disappoint their local fans. Mazar built upon its comeback and, by the second half, was scoring at will. Kabul’s players never recovered, and Mazar took home its second consecutive championship trophy, winning by over 20 points.

Mazar champions
Mazar players celebrate their victory. (AFP Photo/Shah Marai)

Post championship photo opp with tournament Most Valuable Player, Ferishta, and Mazar coach, Basir

Kabul’s team was taller, more polished, and just as fast as its opponent, but Mazar simply wouldn’t accept defeat. I know the Kabul players (as well as those from Herat) will learn from Mazar’s example and bring a deeper resolve to their next competition.

Among the many media outlets to cover the tournament, the Associated Foreign Press published an article that has appeared in dozens of publications worldwide, and also posted a brief video on the tournament. Congratulations to all the players – the world is starting to hear your story!!

Hello from Kabul! Things are off to a fast start here at the beginning of my first fall trip to Afghanistan since my first visit back in November 2009. After arriving the evening of Thursday October 23rd, we kicked right into a two-practices-per-day training camp with the brand new Herat women’s wheelchair basketball team the following morning. I was so excited to finally get the chance to coach a new women’s team here – the first to have been formed in almost three years – and the players were every bit as enthusiastic, focused, and wonderful to work with as I could have hoped.

The Herat team was just formed in early August, so they’ve only been playing basketball for a little over two months. However, their coaches, Said Habib and Said Eqbal of the Afghanistan men’s national team, have done a tremendous job instructing them in the fundamentals of the game. The women showed up to our training camp with the beginnings of what I can tell will be strong skills in the very near future. I was able to work in skill development and drills that I normally would reserve for players with much more experience, which is a testament to both their natural talent and drive and their coaches’ focus on getting them started playing the game the right way.

Teaching the Herat women with the help of Coach Said Habib (center), and trusty Kabul team mechanic, Mirza – photo by Kabir Khoshbin

The Herat team is eagerly looking forward to playing in their first national tournament, starting tomorrow morning, and I can’t wait to see them put their newly-learned skills to work on a public stage with real competition. It’s going to be a big challenge for them to face the much more experienced teams from Kabul and Mazar, but they have no fear and I know they’ll make their coaches, families and city proud!
It’s amazing for me to see the organized spread of wheelchair basketball expertise really starting to take shape here. Now that we have over 300 men’s and women’s players in Afghanistan, the structure of developing Afghan coaches, referees, administrators, and experts – all part of the plan from the beginning to build a local knowledge base that can grow the league from within the country – is becoming increasingly necessary, as the sport’s expansion has reached a point that I can only work with a relatively small subsection of the player population each time I come.

While I do feel a slight twinge of nostalgia for the early days when I could coach each player in Afghanistan directly, it is so gratifying to see the fantastic, dedicated teachers so many of the early players have become, and how fast the next generation is progressing as a result of their forebears’ tutelage. I had the chance to observe a Kabul men’s team practice two nights ago as they prepared for their upcoming national tournament, and was blown away both by how much the players have grown – even those members of the national team I just coached in Italy less than six months ago – and by how well-structured and creative the coaching was. Seeing my teaching handed down and expanded upon with enthusiasm and confidence was the best kind of pride I can imagine feeling.

There are so many people who have played a part in all the success wheelchair basketball is having in Afghanistan, but I have to specifically acknowledge Alberto Cairo for all the time, dedication, structure and love he has put into this game every day since we started working together back in 2011. None of this amazing progress would have been possible without his guiding hand moving things forward here in the country day in and day out. I am eternally grateful that our paths crossed when they did, and that we’ve been able to work together to make our mutual dream – one we now share with so many here – a reality.

From left: Alberto, Shir Pashah (who braved a torrential rain storm to meet me at the airport for the third year in a row – thanks, Shir!), Kabul men’s head coach Fayaz, and Kabul men’s team and national team player Safi – Photo by Kabir Khoshbin