November 2014

The epic four-day Afghanistan Men’s National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament for Fall 2014 just concluded. While all the tournaments we’ve held here since the first one in 2012 have been unbelievable, inspiring, memorable experiences, this one may have topped them all. Between a massive across-the-board improvement in the level of play since the spring tournament just six months ago, rapidly increasing parity among the teams, and a some unbelievable underdog storylines playing out as if scripted in a movie, the drama of this tournament will be hard to top. I’ll set the stage with a brief background on each of the six teams to give some context to the incredible way the tournament unfolded.

The first wheelchair basketball tournament in Afghanistan was a 3-on-3 competition in 2012 that featured eight teams from four provinces – one from Maimana, one from Herat, two from Mazar, and four from Kabul. The Kabul teams, which were the newest at the time, combined to go winless during the tournament. The following year, in our first 5-on-5 tournament, they improved enough to take second place to Mazar. In May 2014 they completed their evolution by winning their first national championship in front of a raucous home crowd. Six players from that Kabul team went on to play for the men’s national team that played its first international competition in Italy in June. The experiences they had there had a profound impact on Kabul’s level of play, as the players who went to Italy brought back many new techniques and strategies to their team which, coming off its championship run in the spring, looked even more unstoppable on the first day of this tournament, winning its first three games in convincing fashion.

The team from Kandahar is physically the biggest (seriously, these guys are huge) in Afghanistan, but also the least polished. They have finished fifth out of six teams in each of the two tournaments since the team was formed two years ago, getting by primarily on strength, confidence, and sheer size. This year they made a definite leap forward in their grasp of the intellectual side of basketball, improving their teamwork and defense. They also have a new coach who grew up in Toronto and has a solid grasp of basketball fundamentals – that’s been a great influence for all of them, even though the coach is new to the wheelchair version of the game.

The Herat team was the third formed in Afghanistan and has always been solid, but has never won a championship or made it to the finals of a national tournament. Last year they took third place and, like Kabul, built on the experiences three of their players had in Italy to make major improvements since the spring of this year. Herat also has several young players that are starting to come into their own and have the team positioned to do great things in the coming years.

Mazar is in the most difficult position of all the teams. Four players managed to escape during our trip to Italy and defect to other European countries. Three of those players were from Mazar, leaving only one national team member to return to the country’s original wheelchair basketball team to commence with an unforeseen rebuilding process. That player, Basir, was a starter for the national team, but is a class 1.0, meaning he had to take over the primary scoring role for the team despite having the least physical function (speed, quickness, balance, etc.) due to his disability. He is a good leader and a natural on the court, but it was clear that Mazar had been set back a long way by the loss of three of its four best players. Luckily it too has a few young athletes with a lot of promise – they just need a bit more work to hone their games and become the on-court leaders the team needs to return to the form that won it a national championship in 2013.

The first team I coached in Afghanistan, the Maimana team won the country’s first national championship (the aforementioned 3-on-3 tournament) despite being from the smallest city, having the least funding, and pulling its players from a relatively tiny talent pool. The team’s top players all started playing together in their mid-to-late teens when I first came to Afghanistan in 2009. Despite developing into some of the country’s best athletes over the past few years, and featuring Afghanistan’s best player in its captain, Shahpoor, Maimana was unable to duplicate its early success. It finished fourth in 2013 and second in the Spring 2014 tournament. In a crushing blow to the team’s hopes of returning to the top of Afghan wheelchair basketball, Shahpoor was the fourth national team player to defect, leaving the team from the little northern town to pick up the pieces and try to carry on without its leader.

Since its first foray into wheelchair basketball in 2013, the team from Jalalabad has struggled mightily to keep up with the rest of the league. Coming into this tournament, Jalalabad had never won or tied a game against any of the other provincial teams, leading to them finishing last in both tournaments in which they’d previously competed. Along with Kandahar, they were the team with which I spent three days of focused time to help them step forward in their development in advance of the tournament. While our brief training camp was good, there were still major holes in the team’s game that I worried may prevent them from improving on their previous finishing positions. Despite this nagging doubt, I really hoped they would find a way to get their first win, as I knew it would mean the world to them to finally taste even a small degree of success.

The Tournament – Day 1
The first day of the tournament went generally as expected, with only minor surprises. Kabul, as previously mentioned, looked a step or two ahead of everyone in winning its first three games behind a coordinated team effort led by Belal, a young player who got his athletic start by becoming the first star disabled skateboarder at the famous Skateistan, and has now taken over as the primary scorer for the Kabul team.

Jalalabad played better than it had in the past, but still lost its first two games to Maimana and Herat. Mazar also lost its first two games and looked a bit lost without its departed star players.
Herat looked surprisingly strong behind the noticeable improvement of one of its oldest players – Sayed Habib, who was the driving force behind the team adopting the techniques and strategies he’d learned in Italy – and one of its youngest – Nazir, a tall single leg amputee who went from being promising at the tournament six months ago (only a few months after he’d started playing) to offensively dominant in the team’s first few games of this competition.

The big revelation from the first day, however, was the team from Maimana. They won their first three games easily, behind the kind of coordinated team effort that had eluded them when Shahpoor was on the team and serving as the focal point of both the offense and the defense. I hoped they would find a way to combine their respective skills to fill the hole left by his absence, but didn’t expect it to happen so soon or so convincingly. They looked like the second best team behind Kabul after day one, with Herat closely behind.

The Tournament – Day 2
If the first day of games contained a few pleasant surprises, the second was a complete shock to the system for one reason. Jalalabad not only won its first game ever – defeating Kandahar in a closely contested battle that saw one of the team’s youngest players, Wasim, emerge as a force that the entire team could rally behind – but tied its other two! Jalalabad’s second tie, and the last game of the day, was against the previously invincible-looking team from Kabul. In a single day, the Jalalabad team went from losing every game it had ever played to tying the previous two national champions (Mazar being the other) AND winning its first game in the same day.

Kabul stumbled in the second day, losing handily to Maimana – which would finish the first round undefeated – before tying Jalalabad. It was clear that, while the Kabul team was the deepest and most polished, it had a difficult time responding to momentum shifts in its opponents’ favor and tended to play its lineup choices very safe – leading to the same five players playing entire games despite having a wealth of talent on its bench.

The Tournament – Day 3
The third day of the tournament saw the teams play quarterfinal and semifinal games to determine the matchups for the 3rd place and championship showdowns the following morning. Maimana and Kabul, as the top two teams in the first round, received automatic byes to the semifinals, while Jalalabad/Kandahar and Herat/Mazar faced off for the right to challenge them.

Herat proved too much for the weakened Mazar team and won its quarterfinal easily, scoring over 50 points for the first time in any Afghanistan tournament game and setting up a semifinal matchup with Kabul. Jalalabad and Kandahar, on the other hand, was much more competitive. Kandahar had dominated this matchup in past years, but Jalalabad built on its victory the previous day and, behind several clutch plays at the end of the game, willed itself to another win. For the first time in its brief history, Jalalabad would go to the semifinals and play for a medal!

In the first semifinal game, Kabul and Herat played each other closely well into the second half, but Kabul managed to put together just enough plays to eke out a close victory and a trip to the championship game. In the second game – which everyone watching fully expected the to-that-point unstoppable Maimana team to win with relative ease – Jalalabad came out with unbelievable confidence and a vise-like defense to nearly steal the victory. However, after several phenomenal last-minute lead changes – including an amazing three point play (a scored basket during a foul, followed by a free throw) by Wasim with under 30 seconds to go – Maimana’s Sakhi knocked down a long range two point shot with just five seconds to play that sealed Maimana’s trip to a championship rematch with Kabul. Jalalabad would finish its remarkable tournament run by playing Herat for the third place trophy.

The Tournament – Day 4
The Jalalabad/Herat game to decide the third place finisher was the best-played, closest game we’ve ever had in Afghanistan. It was back-and-forth the entire way, with no team holding a lead of more than five points and constant momentum shifts. It was the kind of game I was honored to be officiating, but also wishing I could just watch and enjoy from the sidelines. Herat played as well as it had all tournament, but Jalalabad simply wouldn’t allow itself to be beaten. Wasim was again the fulcrum on which the team balanced, and made every key play the Jalalabad team needed to stay in the game until the end. Clutch play after clutch play on both sides ended with Sayed Habib coming off the bench to give Herat a one point lead on a long perimeter shot with 20 seconds to go, followed by Wasim fighting his way to the rim and scoring with just seconds to play, securing an unbelievable victory for Jalalabad. The scene that followed was pandemonium. Players from all the other teams rushed the court to congratulate the delirious Jalalabad team, while players, coaches, fans (including my longtime colleague and friend, Verbena from Italy, their number one supporter since the team’s first tournament), and even their American coach, shed tears all over the court. It was a moment none of us will never forget.

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Wasim of Jalalabad hits a pressure-packed shot to give his team the one point win over Herat (All Photos by Enrique of the ICRC)

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Jalalabad players (in black) celebrate their victory with the team from Kabul

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Jalalabad’s number one fan, Verbena, sheds tears of joy following their 3rd place finish

It was impossible to imagine that the championship game could live up to the drama and exultation of Jalalabad’s triumph, but I should know by now that if there is one thing I can count on with Afghan wheelchair basketball players, it’s that they will always find a way to shock me. With a huge crowd watching and multiple TV networks filming the action, Maimana shot out to an early lead, shutting down Kabul’s offense and scoring seemingly at will in the opening minutes. A small-but-extremely-vocal contingent of fans from their home province of Faryab banged drums and screamed non-stop in support of their team, drowning out the hundreds of spectators that had gathered to root for Kabul. However, the home team fought off the early onslaught and worked its way back behind stellar a stellar performance by Saber, another national team starter who shook off a slump from the previous two games to carry his team back into the game. The two teams fought wire-to-wire during the second half, with the offenses gathering momentum as the game went along and leading to a furious finish with each team scoring and the other countering as the final minutes ticked down. Maimana rode a series of clutch free throws, including the game-tying and winning shots by its youngest player – Haroon – to a shocking upset of the defending champions. This time, instead of tears, the court was covered with fans and players (including those from other teams!) joining in a circle to dance to the beat of the Faryab drum. The atmosphere was pure jubilation, and I found myself fighting through the crowd to hug each player in turn and congratulate them on what they’d just accomplished.

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Ramazan from Maimana, the tournament’s Most Valuable Player, drives through a crowd of Kabul defenders

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Maimana’s musical cheering section

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Sakhi prepares Haroon for the biggest free throws of his life

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Haroon hits the game winner

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Players and fans storm the court to rejoice in Maimana’s championship win

It’s hard to say which was more improbable – Jalalabad going from winless to 3rd place in a single tournament or Maimana overcoming the loss of its (and the country’s) best player to win a national title a mere six months after his departure – but those two things happening simultaneously made this the best, most exciting wheelchair basketball tournament in Afghanistan’s history… so far, anyway.

Following the women’s national tournament, I partnered with the Afghanistan Paralympic Committee to finalize the selection of the country’s first national women’s wheelchair basketball team, which I then spent the next few days coaching as part of their first training camp. We had named the initial 10 members of the team in May of this year, and chose the final two, plus three alternates, on October 31st. The naming of the team is a major landmark for women with disabilities in Afghanistan – it was something difficult to even imagine being a cultural possibility just two years ago – and was a thrill for all involved. However, as the person charged with selecting the team, it meant I had to make some very difficult choices.

The teams from each province – women’s and men’s – are represented by 10 players when we hold national championship tournaments in Kabul (there are far more players in most provinces, but only the top 10 make the teams that travel for tournaments). This means that, with womens’ teams in only three provinces, the national team is composed of half of the total tournament participants. On one hand, it’s great to be able to convey such an honor on a large percentage of the players. On the other, it means those not selected feel a very acute sense of disappointment upon hearing the names of the team members announced.

Both with the women and the men, I have a close personal tie to every player that competes in the national tournaments. I’m their teacher, their coach, their referee, and their friend. I’ve been working with many of them for years, since some were barely more than children, and in almost every case, introduced them to the first and only sport they’ve ever played. So when I select the national teams, the excitement of acknowledging the success of those make it is tempered a bit by sadness for those who just miss the cut.

Given how far these players have come in such a short time, it’s often easy to forget that they didn’t have the formative athletic experiences that inform our reactions to the regular ups and downs of sports. Not winning a game or not being selected for a team is hard for any competitor; I’ve experienced both many times in my life and it is always painful, even as an adult. But for players for whom wheelchair basketball has become their identity – the first thing for which many of them have ever received real positive recognition – it can feel much bigger than those of us who grew up learning how to win and lose from an early age can possibly understand. Most of the Kabul players were in tears following their loss to Mazar in the women’s championship game. One of the players who wasn’t selected for the national team came to me and, with her eyes downcast, asked why I thought she was a bad player. It’s hard to know what to say in these situations. I try to be as patient and compassionate as possible when dealing with their disappointment, but ultimately I understand that this is a painful-but-necessary part of the learning process for all of them… and for me.

All the above-mentioned evolutionary challenges aside, I had a wonderful time conducting the national team training camp for the women. They made amazing progress in just four practices, their attitudes were great, and I am so excited for the chance to see them travel abroad to experience international competition for the first time (hopefully sometime in 2015!).

Womens national team blog 1
Afghanistan’s first women’s national wheelchair basketball team

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Running the national team through a speed and endurance workout

Following the women’s national team training camp, I’ve spent the last three days training the teams from Jalalabad and Kandahar (the two newest men’s teams in the country) in advance of the national tournament this week. It’s been a pleasure – and a laugh riot – to coach these guys, as always. I wish them both the best of luck!

Mohammad Shah from Kandahar
Following a grueling three hour training session, Mohammad Shah from Kandahar – one of the strongest (and sweetest!) guys I’ve ever met – decided to climb the ladder to the gymnasium balcony… while strapped into his basketball wheelchair… then hung by one arm for almost a minute to pose for photos. Wow.