Over the course of the last seven days, I’ve been putting the 2015 Afghanistan Men’s Wheelchair Basketball Team through an intensive training camp to prepare the team for its first official international competition. We leave tomorrow morning for the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation Asia-Oceania (IWBF AOZ) Championships in Chiba, Japan. The IWBF AOZ Championships are the qualifying tournament for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Brazil and will feature 12 national teams from across Asia and Australia competing for the three Paralympic slots from our region. The competing teams include some of the world’s best – including 2012 Paralympic silver medalists Australia and hosts Japan – and they all have far more individual and collective experience than we do. With this being the players’ first time competing (and my first time coaching) internationally at this level, we have our work cut out for us!

It’s been a fantastic week of training, and I’m so proud of all the players for the hard work they’ve put in to prepare themselves for this tournament. Seven of the 12 team members were on the team that went to Italy for a series of exhibition games in June 2014, but the other five will be playing outside Afghanistan (and traveling abroad!) for the first time. Given the magnitude of this tournament and the excitement of visiting a country as foreign to them as Japan, though, the team has been remarkably focused and composed throughout our week of training. They’ve shown noticeable improvement in all facets of the game, have watched hours of video of our opponents to improve their mental readiness, and are committed 100% to supporting each other throughout this experience. They’re ready to represent Afghanistan to the best of their abilities, and that’s all I can ask for.

Throughout this week of working and bonding with the national team players, I’ve had flashbacks to my early days meeting and coaching each of them. On one hand, it seems like a lifetime ago that I was introducing most of them to wheelchair basketball for the first time; on the other, it’s hard to believe how far they’ve all come in just a few years. Below are the members of the 2015 national team. Wish us luck!

#1 – Basir Tajiki
Hometown: Mazar-i-Sharif

Basir, affectionately nicknamed “ Numbah One” by the Italian soldiers that served as our drivers/bodyguards/entourage during our trip to Italy in 2014, is the coach of the men’s and women’s teams in Mazar and, at just 23, is his home city’s most experienced player. He has been playing wheelchair basketball since his early teens – one of the Mazar players that was on the first team formed in Afghanistan, back in the years before I first came. He’s the national team’s shortest player, but more than makes up for his lack of size with limitless confidence.

#5 – Sayed Habib Naeemi
Hometown: Herat

Habib came to Kabul from Herat in 2011 during my second trip to Afghanistan to learn the basics of wheelchair basketball with the group of brand new Kabul players, then took what he learned back to Herat and helped to start the game there. Habib has worked tirelessly on his game and has become one of the most consistent midrange shooters on the team, as well as a true student of wheelchair basketball. His knowledge and experience, having played on the team that went to Italy, will be put to good use in Japan.

#6 – Alem Muradi
Hometown: Maimana

When I first came to Afghanistan in 2009 to coach the newly formed Maimana team, Alem was just 15 years old and was, by far, the team’s physically weakest player. He was painfully thin and his body was twisted from a genetic disability that made it difficult for him to push a wheelchair, much less play basketball. At the time, Alem had to use every ounce of strength he had just to get the ball up to the level of the rim. He was a picture of perseverance, though, and continued to practice and practice, gradually becoming stronger, growing a full foot taller, and getting surgery in 2014 that gave him a bit more mobility in his wheelchair. In 2015, he had improved so much that he made the national team roster and, in the months since, has become the team’s best outside shooter and a fantastic defender. Alem’s is one of the most remarkable success stories I’ve ever seen in wheelchair basketball. He may be our secret weapon at the beginning of the tournament in Japan, but he won’t stay a secret for long.

#7 – Ramazan Karimy
Hometown: Maimana

Ramazan was the other 15 year-old on the Maimana team when I first came; his nickname among his teammates was “Chucha” – “the kid” in Persian. Like Alem, he’s gone through a massive transformation in the years since, though his shift was more mental and emotional than physical. Ramazan was always naturally athletic, but was moody and unconfident when I first met him. I worried at first that he wouldn’t stick with basketball for long, but being part of a team and seeing the beginnings of success in those early years transformed his attitude. Within three years he had become one of the best players on the Maimana team and made Afghanistan’s first national team as an ace ball handler and point guard. He’ll be a starter for the first time in Japan, and his improved shot and sharp passing will be the engines that make the team run.

#8 – Belal Mir Batzai
Hometown: Kabul

Belal is the youngest player on the national team and is an outstanding young man, always supporting his teammates and doing anything he can to keep the group’s morale high. He just started playing wheelchair basketball two-and-a-half years ago after starting his athletic career as a skateboarder – and now disabled skateboarding teacher – in the world-famous Skateistan program (he skates sitting down and can do truly remarkable things on a board). He has quickly become one of the most talented players in Afghanistan and, at the last men’s national tournament in May 2015, was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player. Belal is playing on his first men’s national team, but will be a key to the team’s success in Japan with his athleticism, strength, and focus.

#9 – Sabir Sultani
Hometown: Kabul

Sabir may look like he was drawn in a superhero comic book, but his powerful frame belies one of the gentlest personalities I’ve encountered anywhere I’ve traveled. Loved by all his teammates, he is the most athletic player on a team loaded with phenomenal athletes. Sabir started his athletic career as a competitive weight lifter before changing his focus to wheelchair basketball in 2013 and has turned that weight lifting power into blinding speed in a wheelchair. He has also parlayed his growth from the experience of team sports into a job making prosthetic limbs at the ICRC orthopedic center, exemplifying the full range of life success that wheelchair basketball can help players achieve. He’s one of two returning starters from the team that went to Italy and will be relied upon to defend the opposing team’s fastest player in each game.

#10 – Fahim Zaki
Hometown: Kabul

In 2011, when I first started coaching new players in Kabul, Fahim wasn’t strong enough to play with the top fifteen initial players in the city. Playing on a regular basis led to a rapid physical transformation, though, and after making the Kabul team the following year, Fahim progressed enough in 2013 to make the first men’s national team and travel with the team to Italy. Now he’s a veteran player with a broad skill set and a nose for the ball that makes good things happen for the team on offense and defense. Fahim recently got engaged and will get married soon after the team returns from Japan. Congratulations, Fahim!

#11 – Nazir Qatali
Hometown: Herat

Along with Belal, Nazir is one of the two newest players to wheelchair basketball on the men’s national team. Like his teammate, he also picked the game up quickly and showed great aptitude from the outset. He is a natural low post player with a knack for getting near the basket and scoring on offense. Nazir also has a hilarious personality and is constantly making jokes and cracking up his teammates. He showed up to practice on Saturday having shaved his five o’clock shadow into the beginnings of a tremendous mustache/soul patch combo. He came straight up to me, pointed to his face and, with a huge grin, said, “Mr. Jess – it’s good for Japan??” Yep – it’s good. His new nickname is “The Stache.”

#12 – Sakhi Noorzay
Hometown: Maimana

Sakhi, who was just 17 years old when I first went to Maimana, was the team’s one English-speaking player. He was also very outgoing and curious about the new American in town, so we bonded quickly. At the time, Sakhi was a promising player, but for the first couple years, struggled to translate his strong technique into success during games. However, when his Maimana teammate, Shahpoor, left the national team and defected to Europe during our trip to Italy, it opened up a leadership opportunity for Sakhi – one he took immediate advantage of. Just four months later, he was one of the leaders in Maimana’s run to an improbable national championship. He has blossomed into one of the national team’s best and smartest players and will play a huge role in Japan.

#13 – Wasiqullah Sediqi
Hometown: Kabul

Wasiq is the captain of the 2015 national team and has been a member of the national team since its inception in 2013. He is a physiotherapist for the ICRC in Kabul who initially wanted to be a wheelchair basketball coach before trying his hand at playing the game in 2012 and immediately taking to it. Wasiq’s composure and veteran leadership on the court – and his experience playing in Italy last year – will be critical to helping the team adjust to the high level of competition we’re about to face.

#14 – Ghafar Ghafoori
Hometown: Kandahar

Kandahar’s lone representative on the national team, Ghafar is the team’s enforcer. He’s a gentle giant, though, who constantly has a smile on his face and sometimes surprises even himself with his physical power. My favorite Ghafar story took place during his first national tournament with Kandahar, when he and an opposing player – a decent-sized opposing player, no less – both had a hold of the ball. Ghafar pulled the ball upward as he tried to take possession of it, lifting the ball, his opponent, and his opponent’s wheelchair a full foot off the ground. As I blew my whistle to stop the play, Ghafar looked innocently in my direction, a bashful grin on his face, and calmly set the other player down like he was made of plastic. This is Ghafar’s first national team, and his first time traveling outside Afghanistan. He is the least likely team member to be accidentally mistaken for a local in Japan.

#15 – Mohammadullah Ahmadi
Hometown: Kabul

On second thought, Mohammadullah might be even less likely to blend into Japanese society than Ghafar. He is the senior member of the national team and is adored by everyone he meets. He was the first player in Afghanistan to grasp the concept of playing unselfishly to help his team – to this day, when I explain to players who have played with him how they can set picks and screens to get free shots for their teammates, the standard lightbulb-turning-on response is, “Oh! Like Mohammadullah!” Mohammadullah struggled the most with foreign food among the players who went to Italy, finally deciding he liked pizza on the last day (but still with visions of traditional Afghan food dancing in his head). I can’t wait to see how he responds to sushi.

Team serious
The 2015 Afghanistan Men’s National Team, deadly serious and ready for competition (click to enlarge)
Back row in black, L-R: Coach Jess Markt, Team Manager Shukrullah Zeerak, Wheelchair Basketball Federation of Afghanistan (WBFA) President Safi Hussain Hesari, WBFA Senior Advisor and future saint Alberto Cairo, Assistant Coach Qawamuddin Ghafoori – Photo by Ishaq Anis

Team laughing
Outtake from five seconds earlier, before everybody had a chance to get serious

On a personal side note, this will be my first time visiting Japan since I went as an exchange student for a month in 1993. I was 16 and it was three years before I broke my back in a car accident and became a paraplegic. One of my favorite memories from that trip is playing basketball with the team at a Japanese high school my American friends and I attended for two weeks. I’m not sure I could have come up with a less likely scenario at that time than one in which I’d next come to the country 22 years later as the coach of a wheelchair basketball team from Afghanistan. Life. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I wouldn’t have wanted it to unfold any other way.