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??”