September 2015

On September 16th, the morning after I arrived in Kabul from India, I was already on the court officiating the Fall Women’s National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament. In the past, I’ve always followed a pattern of spending days or weeks training teams leading up to each tournament, but with limited time on this trip due to late September and early October being focused on training the men’s national team for their coming trip to Japan (more on that later), we had to skip dinner and jump straight to dessert. As always, it was incredibly fun being on the court with the women’s teams from Kabul, Mazar, and Herat, and I was really pleased with how much they’d improved since I was last here just four months ago.

In May, Herat was the surprise of the spring women’s tournament, taking second place and nearly beating Kabul in the finals despite having only started playing wheelchair basketball the previous August. Their rapid success caught the attention of the more experienced teams from Kabul and Mazar, who had clearly spent the summer working hard to improve their games and keep up with their rookie counterparts.

Mazar, in particular, came to this tournament with a new level of focus after having fallen from first in the fall of 2014 to third in the spring of this year. They played at a blistering pace throughout the tournament, keeping the defenses of Kabul and Herat on their heels, and built momentum in each game by continually attacking their opponents. In the end, Mazar was just too strong and too driven to be beaten, and they won all three of their games on the way to recapturing their place as the top team in Afghanistan. They’d won two titles previously, but I’ve never seen them this excited – they proved to themselves and to everyone else that, as the longest-tenured team in the country, they are still a force to be reckoned with. Congratulations to Mazar!

Mazar and Kabul show their skills (and beautiful basketball uniforms!) in the tournament final (photo courtesy of Zarlasht Sarmast)

Mazar celebrates with the championship trophy (photo courtesy of Zarlasht Sarmast)

Following Mazar’s victory in the two-day women’s championship, we held a local tournament for all the men’s players from Kabul. The Kabul members of the men’s national team acted as coaches for the six teams, which were made up of players who have been playing for anywhere from four years to just four months. It was a wonderful opportunity for everyone to get to experience an official competition, which is normally limited to the top 10 players from each province during national tournaments.

The energy level was high throughout the three-day competition, and all the players were so excited to have the chance to play in front of crowds and even TV cameras, many for the first time. The teams had been selected to be as even as possible based on player experience and classification, and every team won at least one of their games. The team coached by Shir Padshah, one of my first students in Kabul and the one tournament coach who isn’t a national team member (he decided to focus on coaching over playing about a year ago), finished on top. Shir is a relentlessly positive coach who is constantly shouting during games to motivate his team, so it was great to see him and his players succeed.

The best part of the Kabul tournament, though, was seeing the non-star players get their chance on the court. We made a rule in the opening round of the tournament that the coaches had to give each player at least five minutes of court time per game. When one of those players scored or made a good play on defense, their teammates exploded with enthusiastic cheers, causing the players on the court to beam uncontrollably. As the level of competition has continually grown here in Afghanistan, that innocent excitement about the smallest successes has often been overshadowed. It was so nice to get to experience it again and have such a joyful, positive experience.

Aziz and team Shir
Aziz (center), the youngest player on Shir Padshah’s championship team, accepts the first place trophy with his teammates

Safi Mohammadullah Shir
The winning coaches, from left: Safi (3rd place), Mohammadullah (2nd), and Shir (1st) with an unidentified supporter wearing the first Dave Matthews Band t-shirt I’ve seen in Afghanistan

Now we will all take a few days off to celebrate the Muslim holiday of Eid Al-Adha, following which the men’s national team will convene in Kabul for a 10 day training camp to prepare for its first official international competition – the IWBF Asia-Oceania Championships in Japan. Eid Mubarak, everyone. More to come soon about the national team’s upcoming adventure!

I just finished conducting a packed 10 days of wheelchair basketball clinics in the southern Indian city of Chennai. As I fly from India to Afghanistan, I finally have a few moments to take a breath and write out my impressions of the experience. I taught introductory theory courses for classifiers, coaches, and referees (the first such technical classes for any adaptive sport ever conducted in India), as well as camps for both beginning and more experienced players – an awful lot of material to squeeze into a week and a half, but well worth every minute. The workshops were organized by the Wheelchair Basketball Federation of India (WBFI) and the ICRC, which have been partnering for the last year in a grassroots campaign to build awareness and participation in wheelchair basketball in India from the ground up.

The first time I came to India last December, I visited three different states in a single week and partnered with a group of several other international coaches; that was a wonderful experience, but it felt slightly chaotic with that being the first such set of clinics the WBFI had organized and with different coaches flying around the country from once city to the next with only a few days to teach in each location. This time, with the courses all being held in Chennai, with the organizers’ extra months of experience, and with a bit more time to design and implement curricula for the different groups, it felt more structured and similar to the way I’ve become accustomed to teaching, making an extremely hectic week and a half feel at least a little bit under control.

Blog 1Teaching an introductory course on player classification to a class of physiotherapists (photo courtesy of Angel Singha)

All told, the courses brought together 75 people from 10 Indian states (plus dozens of volunteers, several local leaders in business and the non-profit world, para athletes from other sports, and a variety of other observers who had the chance to see wheelchair basketball being played in India for the first time); it was beautiful to see how much the sport has already grown there since I first visited just eight months ago. Course participants came from as far away as Nepal and Kashmir, and all of them worked together in mixed groups that didn’t hew to the locations they came from. It was exciting to see so many different areas and cultures represented and even more exciting to see players and technical officials interacting as though they had all grown up in the same neighborhood – this despite the fact that many of them don’t even share a common language. I’ve gotten used to teaching through interpreters, but this was the first time I’ve ever had to teach through multiple interpreters (as many as three) all at the same time!

The diverse group of course participants included several women, including a coaching trainee – Nasreena – from the far northern area of Jammu and Kashmir which, with its geographic setting at the intersection of India, Pakistan, and China, has been at the center of decades of conflict. Nasreena had never played or coached basketball of any kind and, like her fellow Kashmiri players, was in a culture very different from her own, but she jumped right in and, by the end of the clinics, was shouting instructions to more experienced male players from different states as though she’d been doing it for years.

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Nasreena (far right) and fellow coaches Farhana (middle) and Prabhu (crouching on left) instruct their team during a scrimmage (photo courtesy of Ashish Bhatia)

The participants from Nepal were also welcomed with open arms and developed fast friendships with the Indian players. I was so impressed that they would make the two-day plane, train, and bus journey to be a part of this event. It was a truly remarkable mix of people, and showed the unique power of sport to be a unifying force that bridges and all kinds of cultural boundaries.

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Tilak (left) and Himal from Nepal participated in coach and classifier courses (photo courtesy of Ashish Bhatia)

The classroom courses for classifiers, coaches, and referees were wonderful, and I’m so happy to see such a large group of highly-knowledgeable people from outside the disabled community (most of the classroom participants were physical therapists, able-bodied basketball players, coaches and referees, or physical education teachers) committing themselves to helping the game expand from within the country. They were great with the players and will bring a lot to the table in terms of spreading a high level technical knowledge base to their areas of India.

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Jay Ramji leads the huddle in a game among Chennai players during the coaching clinic (photo courtesy of Ashish Bhatia)
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Neeraj from New Delhi fully commits to his coaching craft as Vassan from Chennai listens (photo courtesy of Ashish Bhatia)

As I’ve seen in the countries where I’ve coached previously, wheelchair basketball can also serve as a tremendous driver for disabled individuals to discover their inner potential and transcend the boundaries their societies have placed on them. This was never more apparent than in the group of brand new players from the southwestern state of Karnataka who said that, before coming to Chennai to attend the workshop, many of them hadn’t left their homes – not their towns, their houses – for years! That was an unbelievable revelation to me, and made me realize all over again how big a difference the opportunity to play sports can make in the lives of people who have spent so long – and become so used to – being marginalized.

One other amazing interaction I had happened on my first night in Chennai, before the courses had even started. I was meeting up with ICRC and WBFI colleagues for dinner at my hotel and was approached by a young, athletic-looking Indian guy in a wheelchair. I assumed he was going to be taking part in the upcoming event, so happily introduced myself. He told me his name was Shudeep, that he had come from Kolkata, and that he had never heard of wheelchair basketball – he just happened to be eating in the hotel restaurant when he noticed me and Madhavi Latha, the president of the WBFI, and thought there must be some sort of wheelchair-related event happening in town, so he came over to investigate. When we told him about the clinics, he got really excited, as he said sports had been a huge part of his life before he was became a paraplegic over a decade ago, but that he hadn’t every had the opportunity to participate in any since he’d been injured since nothing like that was available in his home state. He was in town to have surgery for a pressure sore the following day, so we asked if he might be able to come by the gymnasium to check out the clinic before he had to check into the hospital. He enthusiastically agreed, and when he and his wife came the next day, his face lit up like a spotlight when he had the chance to see the game being played and take some shots himself. The next day he posted the following update and photo on Facebook:

“Some priceless moments just on my way to Apollo Hospital… Perfect motivation one can get and can’t wait to recover and head back to the court. This was the platform I was searching desperately for years to get involved into… To get motivated and to inspire others… To live life to the max!!!”Blog 11
As clear an example as I can remember of why I love doing this work so much. I am truly lucky to get to meet people like Shudeep (left) and see transformations like his happening on a regular basis (Photo courtesy of Shudeep Baidya)

It is a testament to the commitment of the WBFI and the ICRC (and all the volunteers, coaches, referees, and classifiers) that so many potential players here are discovering the joy of wheelchair basketball. It was such an honor to have been asked to come back and teach all these groups, and I am already eagerly anticipating the growth that I know the country will see by my next visit. Thanks to everyone who made me feel so welcome during my stay, and to all the players and course participants who were such a joy to coach.

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Rahman from Chennai had his 24th birthday during the players’ workshop – it was a good day (photo courtesy of Ashish Bhatia)

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Jagannathan, player representative for the WBFI and captain of the Chennai Eagles (photo courtesy of Ashish Bhatia)

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Arul from Chennai takes a shot during one of the great games held during the player workshops (photo courtesy of Ashish Bhatia)