April 2016


The Spring 2016 Afghanistan Women’s Wheelchair Basketball National Tournament is a wrap after three days of amazing performances by all four teams. As has been the case every time we hold one of our semi-annual tournaments, the teams each took their level of play to new heights and showed greater competitive intensity than they ever had before.

The first round of the tournament saw fairly predictable results, with the defending champions from Mazar-i-Sharif winning all their games (though Kabul gave them a run for their money in the first game of the tournament), and Jalalabad gamely struggling through their first-ever competition with their cobbled-together roster of brand new Jalalabad players and dedicated fill-ins from Kabul’s second tier. Jalalabad gradually improved with each game of the first round, but only managed to score two points in each of its games before finally clicking in its semifinal against Mazar and putting 8 points on the board. It was a great way to end the newest team’s first two days of the tournament and gave them hope and confidence that they would be able to grow quickly in the coming six months and come back ready to compete with the rest of the teams at the next tournament.

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Zeba of Jalalabad takes in her first competitive wheelchair basketball experience (all photos in this post courtesy of Michael Glowacki)

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Jelwa of Jalalabad goes all out chasing down a loose ball…

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…and bravely picks herself up afterward.

The surprise of the first round for me was seeing how much the team from Herat had improved. They took their last place finish in the fall championship very hard and clearly used it as motivation to prepare for this tournament. Despite its best efforts, Herat narrowly lost to both Mazar and Kabul in the first round, setting them up for a semifinal matchup with Kabul, a team they had never beaten in the year-and-a-half since their team was formed. The semi-final was an incredible game – very low scoring due to the great defense played by both teams, yet captivating the entire time. It felt more like a soccer match than a basketball game, with the crowd cheering wildly when a player would finally break free for a shot, even if she didn’t manage to score. The gymnasium was so deafeningly loud at points that none of the players could hear my referee’s whistle, leading to plays continuing for several seconds after fouls – twice resulting in scores that I had to waive off – while I tried in vain to get the players’ attention over the deafening cacophony. In the end, Herat gutted out one of the hardest-fought victories I’ve ever seen, with its young star, Sumaya, converting a layup with under 30 seconds to play that iced a four point win. Their celebration after the game was as joyous as any championship celebration. Even the Maimana men’s team joined in, leading a spirited dance circle that had the entire gymnasium clapping along. The huge smiles on all the Herat players’ faces showed the clear relief that they had finally beaten a Kabul team that had been so untouchable to them for the entirety of their existence. They would play Mazar for the championship the next day and they were positively beaming with excitement and anticipation of that matchup.

Between the third place game and the final this morning, the ICRC held an exhibition futsal match between two teams of disabled children playing on prosthetic limbs built here at the ICRC Orthopedic Center along with kids with polio and cerebral palsy. The players ranged in age from around 6 to 12, and their play was unbelievable! I’d seen a bit of futsal (soccer played in a gymnasium on a pitch the same size as a basketball court) played by adults here, but it was my first time watching players this young. They were dribbling, passing, and shooting with incredible skill – some on above-knee prostheses! It was so much fun, and the kids were elated to be playing in front of such a large and vocal contingent of new fans.

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Young futsal stars wow the crowd

As the time for the championship game arrived, the magnitude of the moment was showing clearly on the faces of the Herat players. Mazar, which has won two championships and played in two other finals, was much more calm and jumped out to a dominant first quarter performance. Mazar built an early 15-2 lead, and the gathered crowd started to sense that they would run away with the championship.

No one told that to the Herat players, though, and in the second quarter they came out with a new determination. They slowly chipped away at the Mazar lead behind fantastic defense and unselfish team play on offense. By the end of the third quarter, they had taken a two-point lead and the team bench was jubilantly chanting “HER-AT! HER-AT!” along with most of the 200 fans across the court.

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Sumaya of Herat drives to the basket against Nadia of Mazar

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Shabana of Herat basks in the glow of leading her team’s comeback

In the fourth quarter, Mazar leaned on its experience to shake off the torpor it had fallen into during Herat’s stirring comeback. The two teams battled back-and-forth throughout the final frame, but Mazar’s players made multiple clutch plays on offense and defense to just edge the by-now-exhausted Herat team, finally winning 30-24.

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The Mazar players and coach Basir huddle during a timeout before staging their game-winning rally

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Khalida cheers from the bench as her Mazar team pulls off its second consecutive championship

This was the first time an Afghan team – male or female – has managed to defend its title and repeat as national champions. The Mazar players and their coach, Basir, celebrated wildly their well-deserved victory. Congratulations to all on a truly amazing tournament. The momentum of women’s wheelchair basketball in Afghanistan is only going to continue to build with these types of performances.

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I spent two days this week working with the new women’s team from Jalalabad for the first time. The most experienced of the players have only been playing since January, so they are all very new to the game. As I mentioned previously, I didn’t think forming a basketball team for women (much less a team for disabled women) in a place as socially conservative as Jalalabad was a realistic possibility – at least not yet. I was thrilled to be proven wrong, however, and am proud of the ICRC leadership and coaches in Jalalabad for pushing the envelope and giving their disabled women the chance to join the league.

Before the Team Jalalabad training camp – and their participation in their first women’s national tournament – could take place, we ran into a few challenges. First, many of the families of the players decided that, even though they had given approval for their sisters and daughters to join the weekly practices at home in Jalalabad, sending them to Kabul to play in front of large groups of strangers in the big city was an entirely different matter. Even after the coaches pleaded for the reticent families to reconsider, only five of the 15 players were given permission to make the trip.

Then, while I was in Badakhshan training the new men’s team last week, there was a tragic Taliban attack in Kabul that killed over 70 people and injured over 350 (thankfully none of the players or my colleagues were affected). As a result, another of the players’ families decided that Kabul was not a desirable destination right now and pulled their daughter from the traveling roster, dropping the number of team members to just four. The family’s decision in light of the attack is completely understandable, of course, but it’s eye-opening to think that people living in a place as volatile as Jalalabad would see Kabul as comparatively unsafe; no differently, I suppose, than how my own family and friends back home must feel when they see war-related news from this part of the world, particularly when I’m here. I was sad to hear that I’d have one less player to work with as a tangential result of more senseless violence, but I focused on giving the four that would be coming the best experience possible to get them excited about dedicating themselves to their new sport.

Luckily, the pool of female players in Kabul has grown to a point that there were many who were happy to join the Jalalabad contingent as surrogate team members, both during the training camp and in the tournament. Six additional players were selected – most of whom I hadn’t had the chance to coach previously, which was great – and I had a fantastic two days teaching the combined group the basics of the game. It had been a while since I’d had the opportunity to coach a brand new group of players here – the last was the team from Herat over a year and a half ago – and, as always, it was both challenging and fun to try to find engaging ways to get them to learn as quickly as possible.

I hope I’ve made some progress as a teacher since my first days coaching the team in Maimana over six years ago(!), but each group of new players comes with their own unique personalities and ways of learning that constantly keep me on my toes. The Jalalabad women were no different, but they made great progress in just two days and left the training feeling as ready as they could be for their first leap into competition. They’ll have all they can handle trying to keep up with the much more experienced teams from Mazar, Kabul, and Herat in the tournament, but they’ll learn so much and, I hope, come away even more excited to continue their journey and bring their teammates who stayed behind in Jalalabad along for the ride next time.

Good luck to Ferishta, Jellwa, Zeba, and Ghul Rukh and their coaches Taj and Inam this week!

After a one day postponement due to my flight getting canceled and further delays the next day as we waited out another set of spring storms, I finally made it to Faizabad in Badakhshan Province. It was my first time training the new men’s wheelchair basketball team on their freshly-built outdoor court at the ICRC’s new Faizabad Orthopedic Center, and the experience, while all too brief, was wonderfully memorable.

I was joined in Badakhshan by two Kabul players and longtime pupils of mine – Safi, who had spent the previous three weeks coaching the new team in their first practices, and Ashraf, who served as my interpreter on the trip – and had a lot of fun getting to spend some quality time with both of them. It was so gratifying to see my former students – now full-fledged players in their own right – doing their part to bring the game to Afghan wheelchair basketball’s next generation.

As I mentioned in my previous post, this was also the first chance I’ve had to travel outside Kabul since the spring of 2013. A combination of heightened security precautions and rapid growth in the number of players and teams around the country have conspired to keep me rooted in one place to maximize the limited time I have here each year, with the teams I’ve coached each coming to Kabul for training rather than me traveling to teach them in their home cities. It’s obviously very exciting to have seen the league expand so rapidly, but I had really missed my experiences absorbing the distinct cultures and meeting the vibrant people in each of the provinces I had visited earlier in the program’s development. As a result, I was thrilled to have the chance to go to a brand new province, particularly one as famously beautiful as Badakhshan.

Baset

The birth of Badakhshan wheelchair basketball actually started way back in 2012, when a young paraplegic from the province named Baset was visiting the ICRC Orthopedic Center in Kabul. The timing of his visit allowed Baset to be a spectator during our first men’s national wheelchair basketball championship tournament in Afghanistan, and he was instantly bitten by the basketball bug. He’s traveled to Kabul to watch several subsequent tournaments and has been asking each time when he can start a team himself. When Alberto Cairo managed to secure a land grant to expand the site of the new orthopedic center the ICRC was building in Faizabad last year, there was finally a place to build Baset his home court and start the team he’d been waiting four years to be a part of.

Baset hadn’t been able to come to the last couple national tournaments, so I was surprised when he greeted me upon my arrival to see how much he had matured over the previous year and a half. Now 24, he’s handsome, tall, and muscular, with a light beard that completes the striking transformation from the baby-faced kid my wife Lindy found so endearing when she met him during her 2013 visit to Afghanistan (Lindy has lent her voice to Baset’s cause ever since, regularly asking me when he was getting his team in Faizabad; she was understandably thrilled when I told her it had finally happened and that I’d be going to coach them). When we hit the court for the first time just two hours after our plane landed, it was clear that Baset has grown into a natural leader as well, having taken on the role of managing the team while also showing early signs of becoming one of its best players in spite of his relatively high injury level.

Seeing how invested Baset already is in his new passion brought home to me again the impact wheelchair basketball is having on the ever-growing group of players across Afghanistan. I have no doubt that getting to see him take the next step in his journey when he returns to Kabul in two weeks to participate in his first national tournament as a player is going to be one of the all-time highlights of my ongoing Afghanistan experience.

Scenes from Badakhshan

Below are a few photos of my time in Faizabad to give a sense of what may be the most visually stunning place I’ve seen yet in Afghanistan (not that my limited photography skills can do it justice) and to capture some of the memories I’ll take from my two days there.

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I can confidently say I’ve never played on a basketball court with a setting as gorgeous as the one in Faizabad

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I went out for lunch with a few players and colleagues – my first meal out in Afghanistan in 3 years. Where did we go? KFC: Kabul Faizabad Chicken. The logo may have been familiar, but the menu items were… different.

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Enjoying the mountain scenery with (l-r): ICRC colleague Maryam, Faizabad players Baset and Basir (standing), and Kabul player/coaches Ashraf and Safi.

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Baset, Ashraf, and Safi take in the view of Faizabad and the surrounding hills.

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An afternoon drive in a Land Cruiser up a steep dirt track led to a chance meeting with a group of young Afghan goatherds and their charges.

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Wildflowers grow up through the rusting metal runway left behind by the Russians next to Faizabad Airport.

 

I arrived in Kabul on Saturday for my annual spring trip coaching in Afghanistan. I’ll be here for a month, then will travel to Palestine to spend three weeks coaching the players in Gaza I first worked with a little over a year ago. I’m excited to see all my players and colleagues in both places and to get a chance to work with new teams and players as well.

Today I’m at the airport preparing to fly to the Northeastern city of Faizabad in Badakhshan province, where I’ll be teaching a brand new men’s team that was formed about a month ago. Faizabad is situated in a steep mountain valley and yesterday saw thunderstorms looming over the top of the city, so the ICRC flight I was supposed to take was canceled. While missing a day training the team in Faizabad was unfortunate, it gave me the chance to stay in Kabul and work with another new team – this one from the province of Wardak to the immediate south. The team is made up of players of varying levels of experience who live in Kabul and have, until now, been training with the ever-growing pool of players in the capital city. All the players’ families are originally from Wardak, though, so they petitioned to start a team of their own. I know all the players from previous training sessions, and it’s great to have yet another new solid group that, coupled with Faizabad, will bolster the number of men’s teams this year from six to eight.

Today we are still at the mercy of the unpredictable spring weather, but I’m hoping to take off soon with my old friend and longtime interpreter, Ashraf, on a United Nations flight north to Faizabad. This is the first time I’ll have traveled to train a team in a city outside Kabul in nearly three years and it will be my first time ever seeing Badakhshan Province. It’s a famously beautiful part of Afghanistan, so I’m excited to finally experience it firsthand.

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Day 2 of waiting in the airport with Ashraf

Following two days teaching the new team in Faizabad, I’ll return to Kabul, where I’ll get to coach another new team – this one a women’s team from Jalalabad. Jalalabad sits alongside the Pakistan border east of Kabul and is a socially conservative city that I didn’t think would be a realistic place to form a women’s team in the near future. The fact that they have already succeeded in establishing the fourth women’s team in Afghanistan is a great credit to the wheelchair basketball program leadership and coaches there, and certainly to the female players who are willing to take a huge leap in being the first women to play wheelchair basketball in an eastern province. I can’t wait to meet them for the first time.

After training the teams from Faizabad and Jalalabad, they will join the rest of the existing teams in national championship tournaments for the women and men, following which we will select new national teams for each, whom I’ll train to further prepare them for their next international competitions.

I’ll be joined in late April by Michael Glowacki, the director of The League of Afghanistan documentary, for what should be his final filming session before the film is completed. We will also be joined by David Constantine, the founder and president of Motivation UK, the wonderful organization that designs and builds all the basketball wheelchairs used in Afghanistan. This will be David’s first visit to Afghanistan since 2012, when he was here to witness the first ever national wheelchair basketball tournament held in the country. David is a very accomplished photographer, and I’m excited to see and share some of the images he will capture during his time here.

It’s going to be an exciting seven weeks. Much more to come soon!