Last week I flew to Geneva, Switzerland, where I made a two-day stopover on my way to Afghanistan to meet with all the heads of the ICRC’s Physical Rehabilitation Projects (PRPs) around the world. The heads of PRP all gather once per year at ICRC Headquarters to discuss a variety of issues over the course of a weeklong conclave. This year, I was invited to present to the group on the plan for adaptive sports programs being implemented through ICRC PRPs. I spent the better part of the first half of this year writing the “Guiding Principles for Sport Program Implementations for People with Physical Disabilities” – the ICRC’s first formal set of guidelines for supporting sport programs in the countries in which it works – and this was its official introduction to the people who will be leading its real-world application.

The subject was received enthusiastically by the group and reminded me how lucky I am to be promoting such a positive, exciting, fun topic. The ICRC’s work is absolutely critical for the well-being of people in conflict zones, but it isn’t often described in the context of the joy it brings to people; in this aspect sport stands a bit apart. It was a fantastic experience to see many colleagues I’ve worked with over the years, each of whom (with the exception of the omnipresent Alberto Cairo) have moved on to different countries than those in which we first became acquainted. Each of them is a wonderful, brilliant person in their own right, and several, including Alberto in Afghanistan, Didier Cooreman from Cambodia, Greg Halford from Gaza, and Roberto Ciccone from India spoke powerfully about the impact sport has had on the adaptive athletes they’ve introduced to wheelchair basketball in the early years of our programs in those countries. It was also a privilege to meet the rest of the PRP heads in countries where we hope to start new programs in the near future or support those they have managed to recently launch through their own initiative. It’s a talented, motivated group of people and I’m excited to work with them to see the ICRC’s sport program grow over the coming years.

After the exciting days in Geneva, I flew to Kabul with Alberto to start a packed fall program of training and tournaments for Afghanistan. Since arriving on Saturday, we’ve already held two tournaments (the finals of the Kabul women’s league, as well as the Fall 2016 Women’s National Wheelchair Basketball Championships) and a three-day course for referees. Whew!

The Kabul women’s league was so fun to see. It was the first time I’ve been in the country when the local women’s league was being held, and it was amazing to see national team players playing right alongside teammates who only got in a basketball chair for the first time a couple months ago. The quality of play was a bit up and down, as would be expected with so many new players, but getting to play with and against more experienced counterparts is the best way for the game’s newest generation to learn and grow. I clearly remember my first days as a player in Portland over 15 years ago and how exciting it was to make even the smallest progress at that stage with the help of much more skilled and knowledgeable teammates and coaches. It’s wonderful to see the same learning structures take shape here.

The women’s national championships took place over just one day (an unfortunate necessity based on the flight schedules for players traveling to Kabul from Mazar-i-Sharif and Herat), but it was a day overloaded with competitiveness and thrilling performances. Kabul ended up recapturing the title from two-time defending champions, Mazar, in a 2 point thriller of a final. Kabul had beaten Mazar in the opening round, but Mazar, after a big win over Herat to make the final, came out on fire and built a quick 10 point lead over the home team. Given the way they were dominating, it seemed like a third consecutive championship was a foregone conclusion for the Mazar women. Kabul refused to give up, though, and behind a balanced attack led by eventual tournament MVP, Humaira (not to mention a raucous crowd chanting “KA-BUL! KA-BUL!” at the top of its lungs), put together an impressive fourth quarter run that cemented the victory.

This was the first time we’ve played a women’s tournament with official international competition basketballs, as Wheelchair Basketball Canada sent me home from my August visit to Toronto with two large bags of their own stock of official men’s and women’s balls. It was a challenge for the players to get used to using the smaller, lighter women’s ball after spending their entire basketball lives using the men’s ball, but they adjusted quickly and ended up loving it. Thanks so much to my Canadian friends for the donation!

The one unfortunate note about the women’s national tournament is that it was back down to a field of just three teams. Unfortunately, the women’s team in Jalalabad that was formed last spring – which I wrote about here – has disbanded after the players’ families decided it wasn’t safe for their girls to play at the local court, which is open to surrounding areas and is near areas where soldiers are often wandering around. Given the instability in their region of the country, it’s impossible to fault the families for making this decision, but I was devastated to hear that the players I’d coached for the first time last April are no longer able to play. We will try our best to find a solution that makes everyone feel safe so the team can be restarted as soon as possible. I have been promised that the brand new women’s team in Faizabad is finally ready to start playing, so we should be back to four teams by the next tournament and, hopefully, five soon after that when Jalalabad rejoins the fold.

I’ve spent the last three days giving a refereeing course to a group of about 15 aspiring officials with varying levels of experience. We’ve spent a few hours in the classroom together each day, followed by on-court experience refereeing the scrimmages of the men’s teams who are preparing for their own national championship tournament. The group includes the country’s first female referee trainees, as well as its first able-bodied male player – a brand new coach/referee from Jalalabad who plays for the Afghanistan men’s national team – and all are astute students. It’s always fun to see the level of understanding for players and coaches leap forward when they’re educated on the minutiae of the game’s rules. This is the next generation of wheelchair basketball teachers here in Afghanistan and, even in their relative infancy, they are already showing an impressive aptitude. The group asked so many insightful, detailed questions that we had to spend an extra hour each day just to squeeze all the information in, but we had a blast working through it.

Tomorrow we launch into the men’s national championship, which will take a full week with eight teams competing from around the country. Lots more fun is on the way!

blog-1
We have started a new tradition in which the disabled kids’ futsal (indoor soccer) players play an exhibition match before each of our wheelchair basketball championship games – they are phenomenal and the crowds love them (Photo courtesy of ICRC/Thomas Glass)

blog-4
The Mazar players get ready to take the court for the title game against Kabul (Photo courtesy of ICRC/Thomas Glass)

blog-2
Nadia of Mazar looks to pass around Humaira’s defense as her team builds an early lead in the championship game (Photo courtesy of ICRC/Thomas Glass)

blog-3
Nilofar of Kabul shoots during her team’s comeback victory over Mazar (Photo courtesy of ICRC/Thomas Glass)