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.