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