May 2016


It’s hard to believe it’s been two weeks since the end of the men’s tournament in Afghanistan. A lot has happened in that time, so here are a few highlights to bring things up to date.

Motivation

The day before the men’s tournament began, we were joined by two old cohorts – David Constantine, the co-founder of Motivation UK (makers of all basketball wheelchairs our players use in Afghanistan and other places where the ICRC supports wheelchair basketball programs), and his assistant, Johannes. David and Johannes hadn’t been to Afghanistan since 2012, the year of our very first men’s tournament, and hadn’t seen any of the players since they joined us in Italy in 2014. It was wonderful for them to get a chance to see much the game has progressed in the years since and how far the Motivation basketball wheelchairs have taken our players.

David, who is an excellent photographer, managed to capture some amazing images of the tournament action, several of which I included in my previous post.

Blog 8David Constantine and Mohammadullah (Photo by Michael Glowacki)

The Afghanistan Men’s National Team

At the end of the men’s tournament, the third iteration of the men’s national team was named. Two new players – Safi from Kabul and Haidar from Jalalabad – made the roster, joining the 10 players who will return from last year’s team. This is Haidar’s first national team and Safi’s second (he was also on the first version that traveled to Italy in 2014). I spent three days training the team after the tournament concluded. We had a great time working together, and I saw a lot of growth in the players – particularly those who went to Japan last fall.

On the first day of training camp, I asked each of the players to talk about what being on the Afghanistan National Team means to them. The answers were very thoughtful and, in many cases, profound. The theme for all of them was that being a part of this team breaks down so many societal and cultural barriers; it makes them forget that they are from different parts of Afghanistan, that they have different ethnic backgrounds (something that can be very divisive in Afghanistan), and that they are disabled. The assistant coach, Qawamuddin, had perhaps the most poignant comment, saying, “People always assume those with physical disabilities can’t do much for themselves and need to be taken care of. I thought this too when I was asked to coach the wheelchair basketball team in Herat several years ago. I learned very quickly that there are no limits to what people who are driven can accomplish, no matter what their physical barriers. This team is showing that to the whole country – disabled and non-disabled people alike. You will also show the rest of the world that Afghanistan is more than just a place with war and poverty; it is a proud place where people are able to overcome enormous challenges.”  Well said, Qawam. Well said.

The Team of Potential

We also created a new structure this year, naming a second men’s team – the “Team of Potential” – that includes the twelve best players not named to the national team. This will create an opportunity for the next generation of national team players to train together throughout the year, learning from great coaches and preparing themselves for the opportunity to play on the traveling team as soon as it arises. The team is a mix of young players and those with more significant experience – and the team will help the national team train for international competitions by scrimmaging against them several times each year. The new team will be trained by Qawamuddin and another expert teacher, Mirwais from Kabul, who is dealing with an injury and wasn’t able to compete for a player position on the national team this year. Congratulations to the new team and coaches!

Jerusalem

Following the national team training camp, I bade Afghanistan farewell and flew to Israel, where I spent two days recovering in Jerusalem before crossing the border into Gaza. While I was in Jerusalem, I had the chance to spend time with two old friends and colleagues – Greg Halford from the ICRC (Greg and I were together in Afghanistan in 2013 and 2014 and in Gaza last year) and Ehsan Idkaidek of the Palestinian Paralympic Committee in the West Bank. It was great to reunite with both of them and talk about the future of Palestinian wheelchair basketball in both Gaza and the West Bank. Things are naturally very challenging here with the border restrictions for Palestinians, but we are excited to take a major step forward on this trip by bringing several of the top players from the West Bank to Gaza to stage a game between teams from the two sides of Palestine – the first time this has happened in over 15 years. I’m thrilled that this is going to take place while I’m here and can’t wait to reunite with the West Bank players I had the pleasure of training two years ago.

Unfortunately, due to Israeli restrictions currently in place that won’t allow Palestinians from East Jerusalem to cross into Gaza, Ehsan himself won’t be able to join this event. It’s a true shame, as he has been so instrumental in helping to advance sports for people with physical disabilities here and has played an important role in uniting the two sides of the Palestinian Paralympic Committee over the past year. Ehsan, your presence will definitely be missed.
Ehsan Al Jazeera PhotoEhsan Idkaidek (Photo by Al Jazeera)

Getting Started in Gaza

Since I was last in Gaza in February 2015, the Paralympic Committee has managed to bring four new men’s and two new women’s wheelchair basketball clubs on board. This is tremendous progress, and I was amazed and thrilled to hear the game has now reached so many more players than it had just a year ago. I asked the Paralympic Committee to make a plan for how they’d like to structure my visit to – in their view – have the biggest impact on the evolution of their league.

As a result, I spent my first four days here conducting a course for 20 Gazan coaches – twice as many as were here last year – combining classroom theory with on-court practical sessions where they got the chance to coach both new and experienced players in a variety of individual skills and team concepts. I’m so impressed with the assembled group – it includes several members of the able-bodied basketball community, including three players for the men’s able-bodied national basketball team. It’s always fantastic to see people from outside the disabled community getting involved with wheelchair basketball, and Gaza has done a wonderful job of making this integration happen right from the beginning.

The coaches were very engaged and asked fantastic questions throughout the program, though there were a few times where their fervor to get answers got a little out of hand. It’s always a challenge to conduct a class like this in another language because I have to depend on an interpreter to explain to me everything that’s being said by the students (and vice versa, of course). Since Palestinians can get a bit verbose at times – everyone has an opinion on the best answers to everyone else’s questions, even when those questions are being asked only to me – there were instances when a short question would be asked, followed by increasingly loud responses by one, then two, then four, then ten people, leading to everyone in the room trying to yell over the top of each other in what sounded like very aggressive voices (remember, I had no idea what was being said during these repartees). Eventually, I would manage to get everyone to quiet down so my endlessly patient interpreter, Tamara, could explain to me what had been asked. Invariably, the question that had caused the room to explode into a cacophony of raised voices would be something completely innocuous, like, “Is it possible to call two timeouts at the same time if I want to talk to my team for more than a minute?” Each time, once I heard the question translated, I’d burst into laughter in disbelief that that had been the root of the uproar, followed by the entire room of coaches breaking up in laughter at the absurdity of it all.

We all had a wonderful time together during the course, and I think the coaches got a lot out of the experience. Over the coming week, I’ll be working with each of the club teams – men’s and women’s – and their coaches for a day apiece, followed by some competitions and other events next week, as well as the arrival of the team from the West Bank. Things are off to a great start here, and I’m excited to see the momentum continue to build.

Blog 1
Coaches (l-r) Ibrahim 1, Ibrahim 2, and Wahil (Gaza photos by Mohammad Sukhar)

Blog 2Getting started with coaches and players at our first practical session

Blog 4
Coaches Ahab (left) and Mohammad (nickname “Cashtop”) instruct a new player while I observe and Tamera translates

BLog 3
“You’re seriously all yelling at each other about whether it’s possible to use two timeouts at once? Really??”

The 2016 Afghanistan Men’s Spring Championship concluded this morning, and it was an unbelievably wild ride. All the sports-related drama you could possibly ask for – underdog triumphs, falls from grace, comebacks, established stars living up to their hype, unknown players turning into stars, tears, joy – this tournament had it in spades.

With two new teams joining the fold, our pool of teams expanded from six to eight, necessitating a change to a twin bracket format and extending the tournament to five days of games with one rest day in the middle. This was the first time we’ve had a tournament format where each of the teams didn’t play each other in the opening round – with eight teams, we drew randomly to create four-team A and B brackets, with each of the teams playing only the teams in their own bracket. Based on their performances in the opening round, the teams were ranked 1-4 in each bracket, and began a playoff round where the top team played the fourth team from the opposite bracket in the quarterfinals, then the winners of those games moved on to the semifinals, third place game, and championship game.

To set the stage for the unfolding of the tournament and all the surprises that came along the way, I’ll give a brief overview of each team and its history.

Badakhshan
The newest men’s team, formed just three months ago in the city of Faizabad, the team from Badakhshan Province was made up of four players new hometown players who were joined by six Kabul-based men’s players to fill out its fledgling roster. I wrote a post about my time training the team from Badakhshan shortly after arriving in Afghanistan. There was little chance that they would be competitive in their first tournament, but just joining the league was a great accomplishment in itself.

Herat
Coached by my assistant men’s national team coach, Qawamuddin, and boasting a strong and deep roster, Herat has underachieved in its last three tournaments. Last year they finished a disappointing fifth out of six teams and came into this tournament looking for a way to turn things around. I’d heard that their players had been training hard in hopes of finding a way to get their first ever championship, so I was excited to see whether they’d put their talent to work and make a deep tournament run.

Jalalabad
The surprise of the Fall 2014 Men’s tournament, Jalalabad went from never having won a game in its previous two tournaments to a shocking third place finish. In 2015, however, the team regressed and finished last. Their best player, Wasim, has since left to join the Kabul team where he now lives, so they faced long odds for success this year.

Kabul
The defending champions and Afghanistan’s deepest team, Kabul has won two of the last three national titles. Entering this tournament, its roster boasted four of the 12 men’s national team members, with a fifth – Fahim – having recently left to lead the new team from Maidan Wardak (see below). The last three years, Kabul has come into the tournament as the favorites, and this year was no exception.

Kandahar
Last year’s surprise team, Kandahar took third place after never having finished in the medals before. They’re led by Ghafar, the national team’s biggest player who, with his huge size and shy smile, is a favorite of fans and players from all different provinces. The Kandahar team’s previous coach, Ahmad, recently returned to his native Canada, leaving them in the hands of assistant coach Abdullah.

Maidan Wardak
The league’s other new team, joining Badakhshan as a first-time tournament participant, Maidan Wardak was created by a group of former Kabul players whose families are originally from the neighboring province. Fahim, a longtime Kabul-team starter and national team member, is playing and coaching while leading a collection of former Kabul reserves and second-level players.

Maimana
Along with Kabul, Maimana has been the country’s most consistent team, also having won two national titles and having finished second two other years (including 2015 in a down-to-the-wire championship game against Kabul). Three national team starters – Sakhi, Ramazan, and Alem – form the core of the Maimana roster, but due to the small size of their home city, the team lacks depth and is challenged when a starting player needs to be replaced.

Mazar
The team that seen the most marked ups and downs in the brief existence of Afghanistan wheelchair basketball, Mazar won the country’s second national championship and sent four players to Italy in 2014 with the first version of the men’s national team. Only one of those players returned, however, with the other three defecting to Germany along with the former leader of the Maimana team. Following the debilitating loss of its three best players, Mazar began a daunting rebuilding process led by its lone remaining national team member, Basir – a class 1.0 player (meaning he is in the most disabled category of wheelchair basketball players) – who gamely struggled through Mazar’s ensuing Fall 2014 last place finish and its surprising jump to fourth place last year behind a cast of new, inexperienced-but-talented players that I had the pleasure of training for the first time.


The First Round

The Spring 2016 Tournament opened with a slate of intriguing first round games. The first day began with the new team from Badakhshan matching up against the bruisers from Kandahar. While it ultimately lost the game, Badakhshan showed the promise it hopes to realize in the coming year. The team’s founding member, Baset – whom I wrote about in my previous post on training the team – displayed competitive fire even in the face of defeat. Once he and his teammates have the time to get a bit more training under their belts, it is obvious that they will progress quickly and soon reach the level of the rest of the teams here.

The second game was between Kabul and Herat. The history between these two teams has seen a dominating performance by Kabul, which came into the game undefeated against its rivals from the west of Afghanistan. However, despite a strong and confident start by Kabul, Herat was unintimidated and fought its way back during the second half behind excellent play by its center, Nazir. Herat took its first lead late in the fourth quarter and held on behind some shrewd coaching moves by Qawamuddin to pull out a one point victory – its first ever against the team from Afghanistan’s capital. After the final buzzer sounded, Nazir melted into tears, exclaiming, “it has been five years!!”

Blog 1
Nazir of Herat lines up a free throw against Kabul (Photo by David Constantine)

Following Herat’s inspirational win, Jalalabad opened its tournament bid by notching another first – beating Mazar for the first time in its history. After suffering through such a disappointing finish last year and losing its best player to an already-loaded Kabul team, it was the best start Jalalabad could have hoped for. While it had to stomach a close loss, Mazar’s team looked like it had improved significantly, with its newer players haven taken a big step forward and Basir of the old guard having made his own leap in just the six months since I coached him in Japan.

Blog 2
Amanullah of Jalalabad scores against Mazar (Photo by David Constantine)

The remainder of the first round saw Maimana easily dominate its side of the bracket, which featured both new teams along with Kandahar, while Herat edged out Kabul, Jalalabad, and Mazar to take the first seed out of the other, more balanced side. While Maimana seemed to be clearly the strongest team in the field, it was clearly anybody’s game going into the playoff round.

The Playoffs

With Maimana and Herat taking the top positions in their respective brackets, it set up a cross-bracket quarterfinal lineup that matched Herat with the newcomers from Badakhshan while Maimana would have to play their oldest rivals, the resurgent Mazar team that had demonstrated increased confidence and improved play in each of its first round games. While it finished last in its first round bracket due to the fact that it had lost to Jalalabad in its first game, there was no question that Mazar was a dangerous team heading into the second round.

Like an overmatched boxer with nothing to  lose, Mazar came out and threw haymaker after haymaker against Maimana, the two teams battling at top speed and with little regard for their own (or their opponents’) safety. Mazar shockingly came out with a full court press against the faster team from Maimana and, while the strategy was very risky, it worked. Maimana was thrown off its game and ended up committing some uncharacteristic fouls and giving up a lead to Mazar in the early going that it would have to fight and claw its way to recapture late in the game. Once Maimana finally retook the lead, however, Mazar refused to give in. It pushed the action and attacked the Maimana defense until the Maimana team’s starting class 2.5 – Alem of the national team – was whistled for his fifth and final foul. Because of Maimana’s paucity of depth, they didn’t have a viable substitute to put into the game, leaving them with no option but to finish the final minutes of the game with just four players against Mazar’s five. Mazar kept its foot on the gas the rest of the way and stunned the heavy favorites with a huge upset, meaning they would move on to the semifinals while Maimana – just an hour earlier looking like the tournament favorites – would have to settle for playing in the fifth place game. The Mazar team exploded in cheers after the landmark win, with the team piling on top of each other in their euphoria and the Maimana players grudgingly applauding in the face of their shocking defeat.

Blog 7
Basir of Mazar looks to pass against the defense of Maimana (Photo by Michael Glowacki)

In the other quarterfinals, Kabul and Herat easily dispatched the new teams from Maidan Wardak and Badakhshan, while Jalalabad fought out another amazing win, this time against Kandahar, to make their way to the semifinals – sweet redemption a team trying to bounce back after hitting bottom the year before.

Blog 3
Mukhtar of Badakhshan drives against Herat in the quarterfinals (Photo by David Constantine)

In the semis, Mazar continued its ascent, swarming Jalalabad with lightning quick defense and tremendous offensive teamwork, while Kabul eked out a close win against Herat, avenging its first round loss.

In the third place game that opened this morning’s final day festivities, Herat was an efficient machine, dismantling Jalalabad from the opening tip and capturing its first tournament trophy in three years. While it wasn’t quite the championship they had hoped for after six months of hard training, the team was definitely happy with such a marked improvement from their previous two years’ results.

That led us to the championship game – a rematch of the Kabul vs. Mazar final pairing that had previously yielded Mazar’s only championship back in 2013. It was hard to believe a team that had lost its three primary scorers a year later and rebuilt itself around a short, slightly pudgy (no offense, Basir!) class 1.0 point guard could possibly have made it all the way back to the finals in just two years. It was a true story of overcoming all obstacles and never accepting defeat. But Mazar wasn’t interested in being a feel good story. It believed in its ability to take on all comers and its players showed absolutely no fear as they lined up across from the defending champions from Kabul.

As it had done against Maimana, Mazar came out swinging. It built an early lead that Kabul, no matter how hard it pushed, seemed unable to cut down. Every time a Kabul player would make a great play, Mazar would push the pace and set up a scoring run of its own. By the beginning of the fourth quarter, Mazar led by seven points and had controlled the pace of play throughout the game. Basir had led a balanced scoring attack and had even swished a three pointer near the end of the third quarter to push his team’s lead to its current level. All the momentum was on Mazar’s side; they were 10 minutes away from realizing their improbable dream of coming all the way back to the top.

Blog 4
Shah Wali of Mazar drives baseline to score against Kabul in the final (Photo by David Constantine)

In the fourth quarter, Kabul snapped out of its funk and – behind the outstanding play of its star player, Bilal – fought back to tie the game. Basir hit another unbelievable three pointer for Mazar halfway through the quarter, but Kabul continued its assault, ultimately prevailing by two points and repeating as champions. It was the first time a men’s team had won back-to-back titles; ironically, just a week after the women’s team from Mazar had accomplished the same feat in the women’s tournament. Congratulations to the team from Kabul and its new head coach, Khalid, for pulling off such an impressive accomplishment against such a talented field of teams.

Blog 5
Bilal of Kabul saves the ball during his team’s fourth quarter comeback against Mazar (Photo by David Constantine)

Every tournament, during the awards ceremony, I follow the presentation of the team trophies by naming the Most Valuable Player of the tournament. Every previous year, the winner of the MVP was the top player from the winning team and always a higher classification player, either a 3 or 4. This year, however, I knew before the final game ended who had been the most valuable to his team. Basir from Mazar, physically one of the least-likely wheelchair basketball stars anywhere, had led his team back from its lowest point. He had served as the team’s coach until this tournament, had coached the Mazar women to back-to-back titles, and had recruited the stable of players that have so quickly grown into some of the country’s brightest young talents, and all the while had continued working on his own game to maximize his own limited physical resources. He scored 18 points in the final despite being the smallest player on the court. He made huge shot after huge shot when his team needed them the most. Maybe it wasn’t quite enough to win the championship, but it was more than anyone could have expected and, with the talent he now has around him, I have a feeling he’ll have many more chances to win the championship trophy. Basir, you’re the man.

Blog 6
Basir, MVP of the 2016 Spring National Championships (Photo by Michael Glowacki)

It’s hard to believe it’s already been a week since the end of the women’s national championships; there’s a lot to catch up on! Today we’re on a break in the middle of the six-day men’s national tournament, which I’ll cover in a separate entry once it concludes on Saturday. For now, let’s go back to the final day of the women’s tournament after Mazar had won its second consecutive women’s title.

Following the awarding of the championship, second place, and third place trophies, as well as a special trophy welcoming the women’s team from Jalalabad to the league, it was time to name the second iteration of the Afghanistan Women’s National Wheelchair Basketball Team (the first was named in October of 2014). Being the one to select the players of the national team is always something of a double edged-sword for me. On one hand, it is a great feeling to reward the hard work of the players who make the team by recognizing them with the honor of representing their country. On the other, the team only has 12 roster spots, and with the player classification system used in wheelchair basketball (meaning players of a wide range of different severities of disability are needed to comprise a team), that means there isn’t enough roster space to include all the players who played very well for their teams in the tournament and who have worked hard to improve their games over the past year and a half.

The naming of the team began with a euphoric first few players being announced and the gym reverberating with cheers, but the excitement gradually lessened as each successive name was announced and the named players realized that not all of their high-performing hometown teammates would be joining them on the roster. By the time I read the 12th name and a crowd of photographers began snapping pictures of the newly-anointed Afghanistan Women’s National Wheelchair Basketball Team, nearly every player had her eyes downcast, with a few even in tears over the fact that some of their friends wouldn’t be staying with them for the team’s training camp or whatever adventures are to come over the next year.

After the excitement of the tournament’s championship game and the delirious cheering of the Mazar players after their win followed by the elation of the first few national team players’ names being called, the sudden switch to sadness over the few deserving players who weren’t named to the national team was a bit of a stomach punch for me (and for the players who were left off, I’m sure). I spent the next hour trying to console individual players about why they or one of their teammates weren’t named to the team. It’s not the first time I’ve had to deal with this situation, so the disappointment from those who didn’t make it wasn’t unexpected, but with the greatly increased competitive level the women have reached since the last team was announced, the reactions were much more visceral. It gave me a real appreciation for the coaches I’ve played for in the past who had to handle these questions from me and my compatriots and who were so patient in explaining the difficulty of making decisions about who makes the team, who is on the traveling roster, who starts, who gets the most shots, etc, etc, etc. It’s a very difficult part of the job, and it’s hard knowing that there’s no contextualizing their disappointment when it comes to having their dreams of reaching the top level put on hold for one more year.


Training Camp

By the following morning’s opening training session, the outlook of the group had improved only slightly. Between the exhaustion from the tournament they’d just finished and a lingering preoccupation over the faces who weren’t among them, the dynamic was several notches of excitement below what I would have hoped for. As I released the team for their midday break, I called over one player who had been particularly morose and uncommunicative throughout the session, and had a talk with her about leadership and focus in the face of outside challenges. She was angry that one of her teammates hadn’t made the team, which I told her I understood. I explained that she will deal with disappointments like this for the entirety of her basketball career, and she needs to be able to put the grieving process on hold in order to effectively learn and show her new teammates the kind of positive outlook they need from one of their leaders.

She told me she understood and that she would come back ready to play in the afternoon. She made good on her promise, and the smile she brought to the second practice had a huge impact on transforming the attitude of the entire team. Suddenly the girls were following her lead by joking with each other and yelling encouragement when one of their teammates made a mistake; it elevated the level of play and focus for all of them, and made our final three training sessions highly productive and fun. By the final session, which we concluded with an extended scrimmage game, the players were playing great basketball and were smiling and laughing while doing it. It was a wonderful way to conclude the week.

When we named the first women’s national team a year and a half ago, the players were all very new to the game and still a long way from being ready to play internationally. This time the experience was totally different and the progress they made in just two days was excellent. It has been a challenge for me, Alberto, and the other board members of the Wheelchair Basketball Federation of Afghanistan to find a suitable international competition for the women’s team to join. We’re working hard to make it happen, though, and I’m excited to see that they’re finally at a collective level of readiness that will allow them to compete once that chance presents itself (we’re shooting for this fall – fingers crossed).

Blog 10
The 2016 Women’s National Team!

IMG_4271Women’s National Team assistant coach, Tahera – one of the top able-bodied women’s basketball players in Afghanistan – showed up to the first day of training camp wearing a faded Denver Nuggets jersey (the team I play for back home). Nice choice!

IMG_4274We were joined at women’s national team training camp by the team’s newest fan – Marya, a patient at the ICRC Orthopaedic Centre where we practice…

IMG_4282
Marya found a new friend in Michael Glowacki, director of The League of Afghanistan, who’s back in Kabul to finish his filming