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!

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

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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.

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

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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!