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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!!”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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