It’s now been five days since we arrived in Japan and we’ve already had what seems like a year’s worth of new, amazing, wonderful experiences. We’re three games into the Asia-Oceania Championships, with three more to go. Here’s a rundown of the highlights so far:

The Journey

We left Kabul on the 6th on an Emirates Airline flight to Dubai. Out of the kindness of their hearts, the airline staff upgraded the entire team to business class for the first leg of the trip, so our players and coaches (many of whom had never been on an airplane before, much less a huge jetliner) occupied the entire business class cabin! It was fantastic. I couldn’t stop laughing as I sat at the back of the cabin observing all the players in their luxurious surroundings, trying to casually watch movies and eat their fancy lunches while periodically glancing around as if to confirm that everyone was still there and this was really happening to them.

At one point, just as we were taking off, Bilal – the fearless skateboarding star – shrieked out loud and clapped his hand over his mouth as he felt the sensation of leaving the ground and not coming back down for the first time. Sakhi, who was also on his first flight, pressed his face to the window and shouted, “look how small the houses are!!” even though we had just taken off and were only about a thousand feet off the ground.

Everyone was joking and laughing the entire time. It was the perfect beginning to the trip.

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The team flies in style!

Nothing good lasts forever, though. When we arrived in Dubai, smiles on all our faces, we found out that the travel agent who booked our flights had forgotten to reserve a hotel for our 11 hour layover. That meant we had to spend nearly half a day sitting in the terminal at the airport before our 2am flight to Tokyo. The only seats were hard, uncomfortable plastic chairs with the exception of one small area at the other end of the terminal from our gate, where there was a small collection of circular and other oddly shaped couch/benches. I wouldn’t call them comfortable, but by halfway through our stay, three quarters of the team was draped across various corners of the area, sound asleep, while the airport bustled all around them.

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Sakhi slept on this circular bench with a magazine on his face for hours (not pictured: everyone else in similar poses)

Learning the Culture

Before we left Kabul, I had a series of discussion sessions with the players to talk about various topics they’d need to know about on the trip. One of those topics was Japanese culture, including the differences between how people behave in public here as opposed to Afghanistan. Needless to say, not all the players remembered this lesson in its entirety. I went on a walk through the city with a large group our first afternoon here, and we ended up going to the shore of Tokyo Bay, about a mile from the hotel. It took quite a while to make the journey, since many of the players who don’t use wheelchairs outside the basketball court (most of the team) don’t move terribly fast. By the time we reached the tiny beach (the bay is surrounded by industrial complexes, so it’s not particularly scenic by the standards of someone who grew up with the Pacific Ocean an hour away, but the players who were traveling outside Afghanistan for the first time had never seen a body of open water before, so it was very exciting for them), everybody was talking in standard Afghan voices, which are about the equivalent of a space shuttle launch when compared to the demureness of Japanese public conversation. When the sun sunk low over the horizon, though, things suddenly got quiet as the guys got to see their first sunset on the water.

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Sunset on the shore of Tokyo Bay

While they may occasionally struggle with voice immodulation, the element of Japanese culture several players have mastered surprisingly quickly is the use of chopsticks. I jokingly suggested they try using them at our first dinner in the hotel dining room used by all the teams, figuring there was no way a group of people who rarely use utensils to eat would be able to learn the fine art of chopstick control. I should know by now that issuing a challenge to an Afghan is a guarantee that they’ll figure out how to do anything. Sabir was the first to get it down, followed by Wasiq, then the least likely candidate on the team – Mohammadullah. Now half the team are eating their meals – meat, rice, fruit, anything – with chopsticks. Incredible.

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Sabir, Mohammadullah, and Wasiq blending into Japanese culture like they were born here

Beginning the Tournament
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Following the opening ceremonies, we played our first game of the tournament on Saturday the 10th against United Arab Emirates. Coming into the tournament, I had the goal of learning as much as possible from each game, win or lose, and told the players that as long as we managed to improve from game to game, I’d be happy no matter what our record. That said, of the five teams in our group, UAE was the team we had the best chance of beating, so I was nervous heading into the game. I really wanted to get a win on the books out of the gate, knowing that it was going to be unlikely that we’d be able to hang with teams as strong as Thailand, Japan, Korea, and China (the other teams in our opening round group) this early in our development.

We started off quite strongly – not shooting particularly well, but playing effectively aggressive defense and using that to play evenly with UAE through the first half. At halftime, I was sure we’d be able to beat them if we could play as well in the second half and wear them down with our speed. Unfortunately, the consequence of combining aggressive defense with the best referees we’ve ever played with was a lot of fouls – so many that four of our five starters were disqualified by the end of the third quarter! With a short rotation and limited lineup options available, we couldn’t keep up with the more experienced UAE team and they ended up beating us by 20 points. The game was much closer than the score indicated, but it was a clear sign that we need to clean up our play before we’re going to be able to play at this level. The players – particularly those who fouled out of the game – were very upset over the loss, but I kept emphasizing the fact that this is a learning experience and that we have to use the lessons learned from losing if we want to learn how to win.

Our second game was against Thailand, a team that, under the guidance of an excellent Iranian coach, has grown by leaps and bounds over the past couple years. We went in knowing the game was going to be a very tough test. The Thais are taller than us (a few of them, anyway), faster as a team, and have excellent team chemistry. Our team came out very nervous to play against their best competition yet and, while we played pretty decently, the ball simply wouldn’t go in the basket. We scored four first half points and trailed by 40 at halftime. This was my first real test in team motivation – it was an unwinnable game, but we had 20 minutes left to play and I needed the team to remain focused and play as hard as they can in order to build upon the game leading into the rest of the tournament. In the second half we managed to raise the intensity even further, our shots started to fall a bit more regularly, and we played the Thai team much more closely. The final score was still extremely lopsided, but we finished strong and put 20 points on the board in the second half – a big improvement and a success that we could take into our next game.

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Huddling during the game against Thailand

Our third game of the tournament, which took place last night, was going to be our toughest test. We played Japan – an elite team on the world stage – on the arena’s main court (the first two games had been on the second court, which is in a small gymnasium that can only accommodate a handful of standing spectators; the main court is huge with stadium seating for probably 5,000 people), with the game being broadcast live on Japanese TV. We had a great, focused practice for an hour on the morning of the big game and I told the players to play as though they were back home in Afghanistan; forget the crowd, the cameras, and the peripheral distractions and just play to the best of their ability while supporting each other from the beginning to the end. It was the first game before which I didn’t feel particularly nervous. We had prepared well and had nothing to lose, so I just tried to do the same thing I told the players to do; relax and enjoy the moment.

Before the game, the head coach of Japan, Shimpei Oikawa – whom I had gotten to know in 2011 when we both went to the University of Illinois to learn from master wheelchair basketball coach, Mike Frogley – came to me and told me how much he respects our team and how impressed he is by far we’ve come in such a short time. It meant a lot for him to say that, and I told him we would learn as much as we possibly could from the experience of playing his outstanding squad.

Our team came out under the bright lights and, despite some early game jitters and the unfamiliar surroundings – not to mention a large crowd that was very partisan for the home team – played its best basketball ever. They worked together, played outstanding team defense, and made a few remarkable plays. At one point, Mohammadullah – a class 1.0 player with very little trunk balance – was fouled by a Japanese defender while shooting and converted the shot while absorbing the contact. The bench exploded, as did the crowd, who momentarily forgot who they were rooting for. Everyone on the team played in the game, and all of them played their best.

The final score was 91-12 in favor of Japan. It was the biggest loss I’ve ever been involved in since I started playing basketball when I was 9, yet I felt euphoric after the final buzzer sounded. Our team finally figured out how to play together, rather than as a collection of individuals, and they played their best game against the best opponent they’ve ever faced. The final score is irrelevant. They finally made the mental leap to understanding how to play at this level, and they will only grow from here.

After the game ended, Mohammadullah was so overwhelmed by the moment that he was in tears – tears of happiness that he had just played against one of the best wheelchair basketball teams in the world on live television, representing his entire country, supported by his team of brothers, and he had scored. He will never forget that moment. Neither will I.