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…

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