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!