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!!