On Saturday we wrapped up the Fall 2016 Afghanistan Men’s Wheelchair Basketball National Tournament, an eight day epic showdown. We’ve been staging men’s tournaments since 2012, usually twice per year, so at this point things can start to feel a bit predictable every once in a while. But somehow, this tournament managed to deliver even more excitement, inspiration, and shocking triumph than any before it.

For the second tournament in a row, we had men’s teams from eight provinces competing for the national championship. I’ve been working with the first generation of teams – Mazar-i-Sharif, Maimana, Kabul, and Herat – for over five years now. The second generation – Jalalabad and Kandahar – joined the fold in 2013, and the newest two teams – Badakhshan and Maidan Wardak – played in their first tournament just six months ago. Each team is now fully self-functioning, with its own coaches (some of whom are also players), and regular training sessions. Due to the limited time I have to spend in Afghanistan each year, I train the each provincial team’s national team members at semi-annual training camps, but it is then the responsibility of those high-level players and coaches to take the more advanced skills they learn back to their local practices and teach them to the rest of their teammates.

It’s always amazing for me to see the degree to which each of the teams has grown during the half-year between tournaments. Many of the players have become wheelchair basketball junkies, and regularly watch video of top international teams on YouTube to see what the best players and teams in the world are doing. Because of this, I am regularly blown away by new individual tricks and team strategies that they have picked up, but that I haven’t personally taught them. It’s an organically accelerating evolution that I’ve hoped since the beginning we would eventually see here.


The Opening Round

The first three days of the tournament saw two pools of teams playing a round robin round during which the four teams in each group played each of the other three teams in their group once. The goal of the first round was to establish rankings for each team, determining which teams would play against each other as they competed in the second round’s quarterfinals, semi-finals, and placement games. The first round went relatively to script.

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Teams prepare for the first round (Photo courtesy of ICRC/Thomas Glass)

The defending champions from Kabul won all three of their opening round games despite playing in pool A, the tougher of the two groups, as did Mazar, the spring tournament’s surprise runners up, in pool B. Herat also played a great first round, losing just one game. The relative newcomers from Badakhshan, despite having improved significantly since their first tournament last May, lost all their opening round games, as did the team from Kandahar in the opposite pool. Kandahar was without its team captain, Hamidullah, but the team played strong games in his absence behind the leadership and post dominance of its lone national team player, Ghafar. Unfortunately, given the strength of its group (which also included Kabul, Herat, and Maimana), Kandahar couldn’t manage to eke out a win despite its consistent effort.

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Ghafar of Kandahar looks to shoot over the Herat defense (Photo courtesy of ICRC/Thomas Glass)

The team from Maimana, my first students and always one of the tournament favorites, was playing without two of its best players – Sakhi and Alim, both national team players who were in the middle of exams for their prosthetics & orthotics degrees – as well as their tallest player, Rafi. This left their lone national team player, Ramazan, to do his best Russell Westbrook imitation in trying to carry a young, inexperienced Maimana team (for which he was also serving as the coach) on his back. Despite a herculean effort from Ramazan – he put on the best individual performance I’ve seen yet in Afghanistan – the team only managed one win in the opening round, which set it up as underdogs against a rapidly-improving and much deeper Jalalabad team in the quarterfinals.


A Brief Aside

One of my favorite individual stories from the tournament was that of a brand new player from Badakhshan named Yahya. Yahya is 20 years old and suffered a spinal cord injury in a car accident just 8 months ago. Before getting injured, he was a player on the Badakhshan provincial football (soccer) team; quite an athletic achievement at such a young age. I didn’t know it at the time, but Yahya was probably a patient at the ICRC orthopedic center in Faizabad when I visited there last spring to spend a few days training the newly-formed Badakhshan team on the ortho center court. Upon meeting Yahya and learning a bit about his story, I felt an immediate connection to him since our injury stories are so similar – we were roughly the same age, both had car accidents, ended up with almost the same level of spinal cord injury, and saw the derailing (or, more accurately, rerouting) of promising athletic careers.

Yahya has been playing wheelchair basketball for less than two months, but is already a starter for the Badakhshan team, and has an innate understanding of teamwork, spacing, and movement that was undoubtedly a key to his success as a soccer player. He has a very quiet countenance, but I can see that he is always observing and learning, even when he’s not playing. Within a year, I am confident that he will be one of the leaders of his team and, in the not-too-distant future, could very well make the men’s national team. It’s unbelievable to see a young person with such a new injury leaping immediately back into competitive sports as if he never missed a beat. The Badakhshan team, still yet to experience its first victory, should see rapid improvement and a move up the Afghanistan wheelchair basketball hierarchy if it can follow Yahya’s example.


The Quarterfinals

As expected, Kabul and Herat handily won their quarterfinal games against the young teams from Badakhshan and Maidan Wardak. The game between Mazar and Kandahar was expected to be similar, with an undefeated Mazar, which looked like a serious title contender in the first round, playing a winless Kandahar. However, on the morning of the quarterfinals, Kandahar’s captain, Hamidullah, arrived to rejoin his team. While Hamidullah doesn’t look like a traditional wheelchair basketball star, with his sweatpants hiked high up on his ample belly, a greying beard, and basketball techniques that are fairly rudimentary, he has always been successful and inspires confidence in his teammates. I told Alberto before the game that, despite the fact that Mazar looked like the clear favorite, it was never a good idea to count out Kandahar with Hamidullah on the court.

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Hamidullah of Kandahar (Photo courtesy of ICRC/Thomas Glass)

Another surprise Kandahari attendee was Bashir Ahmad Wali, who founded the Kandahar team in 2013, but who stopped playing soon to focus on his business. Bashir has continued to act as a benefactor of sorts for the team in the years since, but I hadn’t seen him in nearly three years. He was in Kabul for a couple days during the tournament, though, and showed up to the gym to sit next to Kandahar’s bench as their self-proclaimed good luck charm. His luck was clearly in full effect that day, as Kandahar came out on an absolute tear, with Ghafar and Hamidullah hitting shot after shot to keep pace with their more-talented opponents from Mazar. In spite of Mazar’s best efforts, they just couldn’t keep pace with Kandahar, and the underdogs pulled off what might be the biggest upset ever in one of our tournaments. This meant they would play in only their second-ever tournament semi-final the following day.

In the last quarterfinal, the lean Maimana squad matched up against Jalalabad, which came into the game with great momentum, having won two of their opening round games behind an excellent young starting lineup. They weren’t favored to quite the degree that Mazar had been over Kandahar – Ramazan is too good an individual player to have his team completely counted out – but it looked highly likely that they would make the semi-finals. Ramazan had different ideas though. As well as he had played through the first round, he was brilliant in the game against Jalalabad. At some points it looked like he was playing one-on-five, but still he would squeeze through tiny seams in the defense, scoring from all over the court and making some gorgeous passes to set up his teammates. We don’t track rebounds or assists at our tournaments yet, but if we did, I would guess Ramazan ended up with a triple double (double figures in points, rebounds, and assists) in dragging his young team to an amazing victory and a semi-final berth that no one saw coming.
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Ramazan in 2009 at age 15 and in 2016 (Right photo courtesy of Michael Glowacki)

The Semifinals

The first semifinal game would pit Kabul and Herat – the tournament’s two strongest teams to that point – against each other. Herat had only beaten Kabul one time in the tournament’s history – last spring – and I still remember the tears of relief their top player, Nazir, shed after the game at finally having overcome what had seemed for his entire career like an insurmountable barrier. Kabul had gone on to win the championship in that tournament, however, then won the teams’ first round matchup in this one as well. Needless to say, Herat came into the game very nervous.

Behind a balanced team effort, though, they came out strong and never let up. Kabul employed several different lineup combinations to try to stem the tide of Herat scoring, but they could never find a solution. Herat gained confidence quickly and kept building momentum throughout the game, ultimately winning an extremely well-played game and stamping its ticket to the finals for the first time in three-and-a-half years. While the Herat bench exploded in jubilation the second the final buzzer sounded, the Kabul players were despondent. They had become so used to playing in every final that the thought of losing in front of their home fans and being consigned to the third place game left many of them nearly catatonic. As Alberto and I told them later, learning to lose is just as important a part of being an athlete as learning to win. It was certainly a difficult pill to swallow, but I am hopeful that the Kabul players will use the defeat as motivation to improve even more before the next tournament.
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Herat coach Qawamuddin and star player Nazir embrace after beating Kabul (Photo courtesy of ICRC/Thomas Glass)

In the second semifinal, the two surprise teams of the quarters – Kandahar and Maimana – matched up in a game that seemed like it could go either way. However, just an hour before tipoff, Maimana’s two missing star players, Sakhi and Alim, arrived to everyone’s surprise, having driven seven hours straight from their exams in Mazar after they learned the news about their team making the semifinals. With its full lineup back intact, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Maimana would roll over Kandahar and make it back to the finals.

As Kandahar had proven in its win over Mazar, however, nothing should be taken for granted. This time it was an even more unlikely hero that led Kandahar. Siada Jan, a transplant from Kabul who has always had loads of athleticism but has never shown much of a feel for the game (until this tournament he involuntarily closed his eyes each time he shot the ball, which had a predictable impact on his accuracy), exploded, scoring over 20 points against a solid Maimana defense. I exchanged several amazed looks with the scorer’s table staff after Saida Jan made shot after shot from the outside, never seeming to miss. Maimana scrambled to come back in the fourth quarter, taking a five point lead with just two minutes to play. With its good luck charm, Bashir Ahmad, again sitting at the end of its bench, though, Kandahar refused to concede and, behind several clutch baskets, managed to pull off an amazing win.
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Saida Jan of Kandahar (Photo courtesy of ICRC/Thomas Glass)

In spite of their stunning loss, Maimana’s players put on one of the best displays of sportsmanship I’ve ever seen, grabbing a hand drum and immediately forming a dancing circle with the Kandahar players to celebrate a phenomenal game and the first time in its history that Kandahar would play in a national tournament final.

Bashir Ahmad, with a grin that made him look 20 years younger, said that he was so happy about his team making the finals that he wanted to throw a feast for all the teams and coaches following the championship the following day, no matter what the outcome. That’s around 120 people! He also presented me and Alberto with hand-stitched traditional Kandahari outfits (one for me and one for my wife, Lindy) as thanks for our support of his team over the years. What wonderful gestures.


The Final

Herat had only made a tournament final in our very first 5-on-5 competition back in 2013, when they finished second to Mazar. Since then, they have always been very well-coached and had solid talent, but have never managed to put everything together consistently enough to make it back to the finals. It was a different atmosphere before this game that we’d seen in any previous final. Both teams were so elated to have made it this far that there was a general positivity pervading the gym; a stark contrast to the usual edgy focus before the biggest game of the tournament.

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Team Kandahar greets their opponents from Herat with a pregame “SALAM!” (Photo courtesy of ICRC/Thomas Glass)

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Ezatullah, a new coach and referee from Jalalabad and a member of the Afghanistan men’s standing basketball national team, tosses up the jump ball to start the final (Photo courtesy of ICRC/Thomas Glass)

Herat was joined on its bench by the father of its captain, Nazir. I had the chance to greet him before the game; it was so nice to get to tell a parent of a player how proud they should be of their son or daughter. I rarely get that opportunity, and Nazir’s dad was very gracious and thankful. Maybe it was his presence, or maybe it was just the culmination of so much hard work over the past few years, but Nazir and his teammates played their best game ever. Kandahar fought hard, but Herat’s coordinated attack and lock-down defense was too much for them to handle. Herat put the game away early and cruised to its first ever national championship, with Nazir taking home his first tournament most valuable player trophy. When I announced his name as the MVP, he burst into tears of joy and fell over backward in his basketball chair (luckily his teammates were there to catch him before he hit the ground). His father was glowing with pride as he watched his son being mobbed by ecstatic teammates and cheered by players from all the teams.

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Nazir celebrates his championship and MVP trophies with his father (left) and coach Qawamuddin (Photo courtesy of ICRC/Thomas Glass)

Following the trophy presentation, Bashir Ahmad from Kandahar made good on his promise and had a massive catered lunch delivered for all the players. It was a perfect way to end the week of fierce competition – players from all over the country sitting down in mixed groups, eating, laughing, and singing together in celebration of another unforgettable wheelchair basketball experience.