May 2015


The Spring 2015 Afghanistan Men’s Wheelchair Basketball Championship Tournament just concluded after four days of incredible competitive intensity, camaraderie, occasional comedy, and inspiring performances from all involved. Once again, the tournament pitted teams from six cities – Herat, Jalalabad, Kabul, Kandahar, Maimana, and Mazar-i-Sharif – at the ICRC Orthopedic Center gymnasium in Kabul. Even with these tournaments now being held on a regular semi-annual basis, the tension and drive for each team to win a trophy for their home cities hasn’t lessened a bit.

Mazar

In my last post, I wrote about the Mazar men’s team’s recent influx of promising new players and how, following our three day training camp leading up to the tournament, they were hoping to improve on their winless performance in November’s tournament (following the departure of their three best players last June). While I was hopeful that Mazar could put some of their new skills into practice right away, I was nervous that their experience deficiency would still prove too much to overcome against the other five teams, all of which had shown marked improvement over the past six months.

In the tournament’s two-and-a-half day first round, during which the teams each played one another to determine the match-ups for the quarterfinals, semifinals, and medal games, Mazar shocked last year’s surprise success story, Jalalabad, winning a tight contest. They pulled off the victory behind strong play from several of their brand new players, who showed amazing composure in their first-ever tournament. The relief in showing themselves – and the other cities – that they could win again, was overwhelming for Mazar. I think they were more excited after that opening round win than they were when they won the national championship in 2013. I was particularly excited for Basir, Mazar’s lone remaining national team player who had recently taken over coaching the team while playing as well. I know firsthand how challenging those dual roles can be, and he was so proud to finally notch his first win as a player-coach.

Despite getting their first win since the departure of their three best players last summer, Mazar still finished as the sixth and final seed coming out of the first round, which meant they had to play a very strong third-seeded Herat team in the quarterfinals. The team from Herat had recently traveled to play a series of games against an Iranian wheelchair basketball club team (Iran has a very well-developed program), which was a tremendous learning opportunity for them and one I could see paid off in their three impressive wins in the first round. Heading into their quarterfinal matchup, it was clear that Herat was the heavily favored of the two teams. Once again, though, Mazar’s new players showed confidence and a refusal to be cowed by a bigger, more experienced opponent, even after Herat built what appeared to be a commanding lead in the first half. Mazar stormed back and took the lead, building their momentum and stunning the suddenly-tentative Herat players. The wave of energy carried Mazar the rest of the way to a remarkable upset, sending them to the semi-finals against the defending champions from Maimana.

Mazar came out strong in the semi-finals and gave Maimana all it could handle in the first half of their semifinal game, but eventually the superior speed and teamwork of Maimana proved too much, and the defending champs pulled away to send themselves back to the title game in a rematch against a to-that-point undefeated Kabul team. Mazar would go on to play for Kandahar for third place.

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Four members of Mazar’s youth movement (first four, r to l) – Mati, Assad, Yasdan, and Shahwali (all photos by Marc Zlot)

Kandahar

Kandahar was, to this point, the only team that had never played in either the championship or third place game. Therefore, their matchup with Mazar for the third place trophy represented a huge accomplishment for both teams.

Kandahar has taken a leap forward since the last tournament, with one of their newer players, Ghafar, having grown into one of the biggest post scoring threats in the country in just his first year playing with the team. Ghafar is huge, immensely strong, and probably the sweetest player in the entire Afghanistan wheelchair basketball community – a true gentle giant. He also sports a curly hair/mustache combination that makes him look a bit like massive, Pashtun Lionel Richie. The fans making up the tournament crowd – even those partial to other teams – couldn’t help but cheer for Ghafar.

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Ghafar (far left) and the Kandahar team prepare to take on Mazar in the 3rd place game

Ghafar’s dominant rebounding and inside scoring were an unstoppable combination against Mazar and led Kandahar to the third place victory. The team was unhinged after the win, and Ghafar didn’t stop smiling for hours. While Mazar was obviously disappointed to come up just short of a medal, both teams should be very proud of what they accomplished in this tournament. They represent the ever-growing parity between the teams here, and will be forces to be reckoned with in future tournaments.

The Championship Game

In the last two national tournaments, Kabul has taken first (spring 2014) and second (fall 2014) place, and is the deepest team in the country. They have a wide range of skills and their team-wide balance is very difficult for other teams to beat. This balance has also been problematic at times, though, as the team has never had a single alpha player to whom they could turn at the end of close games. This year, though, one of their top young players – Belal – stepped forward to be that focal point. Belal has only been playing wheelchair basketball for two years, but he is an incredible natural athlete who has been a star skateboarder for the famous Skateistan program for several years. In this tournament, Belal’s basketball skills finally caught up with his natural physical gifts and he became the player Kabul needed to take the next step in its development.

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Belal controls the ball for Kabul during the championship game

After cruising through the opening round with an undefeated record and beating Kandahar in the semifinals, the stage was set for Kabul’s rematch against Maimana for the championship. By game time the gym was packed to the gills with fans and players. The crowd numbers were hugely in favor of the hometown Kabul team, but the Maimana team was supported by two dozen of the loudest fans (accompanied by a tabla drummer) I’ve ever heard in any sport. The metal-walled gymnasium was a thunderous cacophony from the first seconds of the game to the last.

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Wasiq of Kabul (orange) and Rafi of Maimana battle for the opening tip of the title game

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The cheering section joins the team huddle during a Maimana timeout 

Kabul stormed out to an early lead, but Maimana countered with a dominant second quarter, and the teams fought back-and-forth for the rest of the game. The lead changed several times in the second half, with momentum (and noise) surging like a wave from one team to the other. With under 10 seconds to play and Kabul holding a slim three-point lead, Belal broke away for what looked to be the game-sealing layup. However, Ramazan, last year’s tournament Most Valuable Player for Maimana, raced at top speed to make a last-ditch effort to stop Belal from scoring. As he reached to knock the ball away, Ramazan’s wheel collided with Belal’s, sending both speeding players tumbling over each other and onto the ground in a heap. Everyone immediately rushed to their aid while they lay on the floor, eyes closed, for several agonizing minutes.

Thankfully, both eventually recovered their breath enough to be helped back upright and Belal went to the free throw line to shoot the two biggest shots of his young basketball life. In what might be the most clutch performance we’ve seen in a tournament yet, Belal shook off the effects of his crash and swished both free throws, throwing his arms wide to embrace the deafening chants of the crowd and his teammates. Those points proved the deciding margin and Belal was named the tournament MVP as Kabul won its second national title.

Congratulations to both teams for putting on the most impressive championship final we’ve seen in Afghanistan yet.

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Belal’s teammates and fans hoist him above the crowd during the championship celebration

Tomorrow the men’s national team convenes for its spring training camp, with battered, bruised, exhausted players from all six cities joining together to prepare for their next international adventure in representation of their country.

Over the course of the last week, I’ve held training camps for the Afghanistan Women’s National Wheelchair Basketball Team and the Mazar-i-Sharif men’s team, as well as a course for coaches and referees. It’s been a hectic schedule, but a wonderful experience working with three very different groups.

The Women’s National Team

This was the second time we’d convened the first Afghanistan women’s national team – which includes players from Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif, and Herat – for a training camp to build unity amongst a group that is used to competing against, rather than with, one another. The 15-player team includes an intriguing mix of personalities and experience.

The Mazar contingent (five players) has been playing together the longest of the three women’s teams – about five years. They are a fast and aggressive group, but are also a bit entrenched in an individualistic, unpolished brand of play that can make the transition to higher-level team concepts and coordination a bit challenging. Their team had won two national championships in a row on the virtue of physical superiority and individual dominance, but were bypassed by superior team play by Kabul and Herat in the most recent tournament, dropping to third place out of the three teams.

The team members from Kabul (seven players) have been playing for between two and three years and tend to approach the game with more finesse than their Mazar counterparts. While this has led to most of them having more technically sound games than the Mazar players, it can often come at the expense of physical and mental intensity, keeping them from being as dominant (they won the championship last week, but by the narrowest of margins over a much less experienced team from Herat) as they might be.

The three players from Herat are the team’s youngest in terms of basketball experience, all of them having played for less than a year, but have made up for lost time by being eager and fast learners. They don’t have quite the physical strength and fire of the Mazar players, nor do they yet have the polished technique of those from Kabul, but they balance the power and finesse of the other two teams and add to it a focus on understanding team play that nearly won them a championship in just their second tournament.

Finding a way to get these various styles and backgrounds to coalesce into a highly functioning team that will be able to compete (hopefully soon) against more experienced national teams from around the world was my challenge.

Despite the players coming into camp mentally and physically fatigued from their tournament (and for the Herat players, a three day camp preceding that), we made a great deal of progress. The Mazar players committed to reworking some of their long-held habits to improve their efficiency, the group from Kabul stepped up their intensity, and those from Herat fought through their exhaustion to make further progress on increasing their knowledge and physical skills. As always, it was a joy to teach all of them and see the lightbulbs of understanding go off over the course our time together. The team still has a ways to go before it’s going to be ready for top international competition, but the potential is there and they’re one step closer to realizing it.

Blog 3The Afghanistan Women’s National Team 2015 (not pictured: Shakila, Zeynab, Sumayei, Khatera)

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The herat members of the women’s national team: Zeynab, Sumayei, Shakiba, and coaches Quwamuddin and Ayub


The Mazar Men

The Mazar-i-Sharif men’s team – the first ever formed in Afghanistan, several years before I first came – has been through an epic series of successes and disappointments as the country’s wheelchair basketball league has evolved.

When I met them in 2009, it was after I had spent a week teaching the brand new men’s team from Maimana – my first experience in Afghanistan – and had driven across the north of the country with the Maimana players to play a game between the two teams. Mazar thoroughly dominated Maimana in an extremely rough game (from both a technical and physical perspective).

When the two teams met again in 2012 as part of Afghanistan’s first national wheelchair basketball tournament, though, Maimana shocked everyone by beating Mazar in the finals to win the country’s first official championship. Mazar had come into the tournament as the clear favorites and were stunned by the loss.vIn 2013, Mazar bounced back and dominated the rest of the competition on its way back to the top of the Afghanistan wheelchair basketball mountain and the league title. The team’s confidence was restored.

Just a year later, however, Mazar suffered its biggest loss yet when the team’s top three players fled to Europe as refugees. The remaining Mazar players fought gamely in the fall 2014 national tournament, but were unable to compete at the level of the rest of the rapidly-improving teams and finished a distant last place.

Mazar’s fall from the top has had one silver lining, though. As a result of its loss of established players, the team has recruited a large group of new players over the past six months, many of whom have the potential to make a major impact. With all this new, untrained talent coming on board, I decided that they would be the one provincial men’s team I would coach in advance of the upcoming national tournament as they try to fight their way back into contention. It was a true pleasure working with the team (the first time I’ve trained them as a group in over two years), and the new players were fantastic first-time students, drinking in every bit of information I could squeeze into three days. They have a huge challenge ahead of them catching back up to the rest of the league, but their future is bright.

In the Classroom

I spent the past three days teaching a class for all the coaches and referees here in Afghanistan (twenty in all). It was a lot of fun to get them all in a room together and delve into the finer points of leadership, practice planning, and in-game coaching techniques as well as walking them through all the rules of wheelchair basketball. Everyone was very engaged and they asked lots of questions that showed how far they’ve come in their understanding of the subtleties of the game. Tomorrow morning we start the four-day spring 2015 men’s national championship tournament, which will give them the immediate opportunity to apply what they’ve learned. Good luck to all the teams!

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Coaches (from left): Abdullah (Kandahar), Ramazan (Maimana), Quwamuddin (Herat), Sakhi (Maimana), Ahmad (Kandahar), and Ayub (Herat)

I arrived for my seventh trip coaching in Afghanistan on Thursday, May 7th, and it feels a bit like I never left. I’ve written before about how this place feels strangely comfortable after being so shockingly foreign on my first visit. At this point, the comfort has become so normal that that even that is ceasing to feel strange.

Spring is my favorite season here. The weather vacillates between days-long rain storms that turn the city temporarily into a swampy, muddy mess and gorgeous sunny stretches where the landscape turns a beautiful, subtle shade of green as it dries out. There is still a cap of snow on the mountains to the west and north of Kabul and, on clear days, the views down city streets can be breathtakingly beautiful. It’s good to be back.

Training the Women of Herat
The Herat team is the newest of the small-but-growing women’s wheelchair basketball league in Afghanistan that currently also includes Mazar-i-Sharif and Kabul. They were just formed in August of 2014 and I had my first chance to train them a few months later. Since our initial meeting, the team has been joined by a new coach – Tahera Yousofi, the captain of Herat’s able-bodied women’s basketball team, recent winners of the Afghanistan national championship for women. Tahera is going to be a fantastic resource for the team with her strong basketball knowledge and easy rapport with the players. Though she’s new to the wheelchair game, she is extremely bright and dedicated to learning its intricacies, and I can tell she will be an important role model for the players in Herat. It’s always exciting to see people from outside the disabled community here getting involved and discovering the joy of working with these athletes.

While the team had made significant progress since the fall, they came into their training camp a ways behind the much more experienced Mazar and Kabul teams, who have been playing together for several years. They are astute students, though, and were devoted to squeezing as much new knowledge out of our three days working together as possible. By the end of the third day, they were exhausted and nervous, but very excited to put their new skills to work in the two-day tournament against Mazar and Kabul for the Spring 2015 Women’s National Championship.

The Tournament
The women’s national tournament was held over the course of two days, with each team playing a game against the two others in a round robin format to determine the two teams that would play for the championship on the afternoon of May 12th. Herat and Kabul played in the first game and, while both teams showed typical first game nerves, Herat played far above its experience level and was within two points at halftime. Kabul used its superior strength and height to overpower the younger team in the second half, eventually winning by 11. After the game, Herat’s team captain, Shakiba, came up to me with a look on her face that combined bewilderment and regret and said, “Mr. Jess, we don’t know what to do. We tried and tried, but we couldn’t win!” I called their team together and explained to them that they showed in the first half that they have the ability to play up to the level of the more seasoned teams and that now they just needed to find the focus and consistency to play that way for an entire game. They nodded their agreement and promised to try.

The morning of the tournament’s second day had Herat and Mazar (the two-time defending champions) playing to determine who would meet Kabul in the championship game that afternoon. Mazar were obviously the heavy favorites, but Herat learned from their loss to Kabul the previous day and came out with intensity and purpose, surprising the Mazar team by jumping out to an early lead behind the speed and scoring of their youngest player, 18 year-old Sumaiye. Mazar shook off their shock to fight back, however, and the game was neck-and-neck for the last three quarters. The score tied with under a minute to go when Shakiba went to the free throw line for two huge pressure shots. She closed her eyes for several seconds before receiving the ball, trying to calm her nerves, then proceeded to make both shots to win the game for Herat – their first win ever – sending her team to the title game! I have never heard ten people make as much noise as the Herat team did after that game, screaming for a solid ten minutes in utter jubilation.

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Herat celebrates its first victory and a trip to the national championship game

Herat came into the final again playing the role of the underdog. They started off much more slowly this time, obviously feeling the physical toll of their victory that morning and the pressure of playing in front of a few hundred spectators, with a large contingent of television cameras and photographers surrounding the court. They dug deep, though, and after several baskets in a row coupled with tough defense erased Kabul’s early lead, the two teams again played very evenly for the rest of the game. With 20 seconds to go and Herat clinging to a one point lead, Kabul’s Nilofar missed a potential game-tying free throw, but her teammate, Humaira, was able to tip the rebound back to her and Nilofar hit a huge layup to give her team the narrowest of victories.

In spite of their amazing performance, Herat was disconsolate following the loss, with players and coaches (many in tears) demanding an explanation – from me, from the other referees, from the scorekeepers, from anyone – for why they didn’t win. Just hours after feeling the thrill of victory for the first time in their lives, they couldn’t process how it could evaporate so quickly. I truly felt for them and wished I could give an answer that would ease their pain and help them realize how far they’d come and how proud they should have been of their performance, but I knew they just needed time to let the emotions fade.

During the post-tournament awards ceremony – which was joined by the President of the Afghan Olympic Committee (the highest ranking sports official in Afghanistan) along with several other members of the Afghan sports community – I was tasked with presenting the Most Valuable Player trophy after all the team trophies and medals had been given. Herat’s players had barely raised their eyes from the floor to that point, with expressions of blank disappointment on all their faces. However, when I announced Sumaiye’s name (the first time a player from the non-winning team has ever been awarded the MVP in Afghanistan), their sadness turned to euphoria in the blink of an eye. Their screams in support of their teammate’s award (joined by all the players from Mazar and Kabul) were every bit as loud as those that had followed their first victory. It was a heartwarming finish to what had been an emotional roller coaster ride of a tournament for Herat. As I told them and their coaches afterward, if they can come within a single point of winning the national championship just nine months after learning to play wheelchair basketball for the first time, they are going to taste victory many times in the years to come.

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Kabul (in black) and Herat (in orange) fly down the court in the championship game (photo courtesy of Els Hekman)

In Other News…

  1. Afghanistan has finally been granted membership in the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation (IWBF), giving its men’s and women’s national teams the opportunity to play in official international competitions all the way up to the level of the Paralympic Games. This is a huge step forward for Afghanistan’s program and we are honored to be a part of the IWBF community. We don’t know yet when or where our first competitions will be, but I will announce it here as soon as we do.
  2. Jalalabad is ready to form a women’s wheelchair basketball team for the first time. This will bring our women’s league to four teams and is a tremendous addition to the Afghanistan wheelchair basketball community. Welcome, Jalalabad!