January 2017

I’m home in Colorado after two amazing weeks in South Sudan, which absolutely flew by. It was an unbelievably positive, beautiful experience with a group of players and coaches that I’m so proud to have built a relationship with through teaching. Each of them invested themselves in the process and I know they’ll all grow so much because of it.

In my first post, I didn’t talk much about the challenging situation South Sudan is dealing with right now, so I feel like I’d be remiss in not providing at least a small bit of that context as a frame of reference through which to better understand the people with whom I interacted there.

South Sudan gained its independence from Sudan in 2011. In 2013, the young country devolved into civil war as government and rebel factions (largely divided along tribal lines) began fighting after the president accused his deputy and others of attempting to stage a coup. The war has resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths, nearly 3 million people being internally or externally displaced (a full quarter of the country’s population) after fleeing their homes during outbreaks of violence, and vast portions of the populace without regular access to clean water, sanitary toilet facilities, and food.

Juba, the country’s capital and largest city, was the site of the civil war’s most recent major incident. In July 2016, a year after a peace agreement had been signed between the warring factions, conflict broke out again. The fighting resulted in the second largest ethnic group in South Sudan, the Nuer people, being expelled from Juba by the largest group, the Dinka (the president is of the Dinka and his former deputy/vice president is of the Nuer). Many of the Nuer are now living in camps either outside Juba or in neighboring countries like Uganda and Kenya. While the camps are obviously extremely difficult places to live, and Juba is the area with the most opportunity, it is still filled with extreme poverty. The city – and indeed the entire country – doesn’t have municipal water, electricity, or many other basic necessities for its people, and the vast majority of homes I saw are made of uninsulated sheet metal. All the places where I’ve done this work deal with extreme poverty, but South Sudan is on a different level. It was ranked #2 on the Fragile States Index in 2016 after having been #1 the previous year. By comparison, Afghanistan is #9 on the list.

The players I was working with came from three different areas: many live in Juba itself, several live in one of the “Protection of Civilians (PoC)” camps for displaced people outside the city, and another group traveled all the way from Yirol in the center of the country (a three day drive over what I understand is terrain so rough that it can barely be considered a road), staying in Juba for two weeks for the training camp. While economic status is rarely something we think about or discuss while we’re playing, there were a few instances that brought home just how much many of the players (probably all of them if I’m being realistic) are struggling just to get by in such a difficult situation.

One of those reminders came when I was speaking to a player after one of the practices. As we talked, the player’s sandal broke and fell off his foot. Something that would normally prompt mild annoyance and even a rueful chuckle in my experience caused the player to go silent and his face to fall as he held the broken half of his only pair of shoes in his hand. I asked if he thought he could fix the flip flop, to which he said no. I asked if he had enough money for a replacement pair. He kept his eyes on the ground as he again softly replied in the negative. I only carried a small amount of local currency with me to the basketball stadium, but thankfully it was just enough to buy him a new pair of sandals. It made my day  to see him walk into the afternoon practice with a smile and two new flip flops on his feet.

When we finished the 10 days of training and prepared for a final day-long tournament to conclude the camp, I suggested to the coaches that we split the players up into four teams based on experience and ability rather than based on the players’ home regions. This way we could ensure that the teams were relatively equal and the onus would be on the players and coaches to determine the winner by how well the teams and individuals executed the skills and strategies we’d worked on together.  I expected some pushback from the coaches, who I thought would be more interested in seeing their regular teams assert dominance over the teams from the other areas, but surprisingly, they all readily agreed with my recommendation. Despite all the aforementioned tension between different ethnic and regional groups in the country, and even though the players and coaches I worked with were mostly either Dinka or Nuer, I didn’t see a single instance of antipathy due to the tribal or regional differences between them, either during the training or when we held the tournament. Sport, as I’ve seen so many times in different country contexts, bridged these divides on the court.

The four teams were the Tiger Team (led, fittingly, by Coach Tiger), the Nile Stars, the Elephants, and a local word for Lions, which I can’t for the life of me remember. The tournament itself gave each team a chance to play a game in the morning, with the losers of the morning game playing for third place in the afternoon and the winners playing for first. The day was the hottest yet, topping out at 110F (44C), but that didn’t slow the players down a bit. At the urging of their coaches, they employed the team strategies they’d learned during the week to great effect. Unfortunately, since the one they executed the best was a defensive strategy (the teacup), scoring was very difficult despite their shooting and passing technique being much improved.

For the afternoon games, we had a great crowd, with around 30 ICRC staff coming to the stadium to cheer on the players, along with several other NGO employees and a good contingent of local fans – all told, a cheering section of around 100 people. The players were a bit nervous to be the centers of such attention, but they played through it and put on a great show.

The final game pitted the Elephants against the Tiger Team. It came down to the wire, with the lead seesawing several times over the final few minutes. At one point, with all the players’ adrenaline levels at their peak, I held the ball before handing it to a player on the Elephants who was preparing to inbound. Suddenly, before I could pass it to him, the ball was snatched out of my hand and passed directly to the inbounding player by none other than Peter Bol, the precocious new player I wrote about in my previous entry. I looked at Peter with my eyes wide and mock incredulity in my voice, and asked, “Peter Bol, why did you take the ball from me??!” He responded, as calm as could be and in total seriousness, “we were ready.” It was the perfect bit of levity to break the tension of the moment.

A few minutes later, Peter Bol’s Elephants captured the first tournament championship in South Sudan wheelchair basketball, winning by two points. They played the best team basketball, did all the things we’d talked about, and deserved to take first place. Congratulations to the Elephants and coach Noel on a well-played game, and to the Tiger Team for putting up such a great fight in the final.

After the tournament concluded and I said goodbye to all the players, I went back to my hotel for one final dinner before departing for home the following morning. At the hotel’s outdoor restaurant, I ran into an ICRC team member named Mia, who had spent the previous year attending most of the Juba team’s practices to help out in any way she could. Mia is originally from New York, but was introduced to adaptive sports when she got involved with a wheelchair race in Alaska, where she was living a few years ago. Since then, she’s taken every opportunity she could to help promote sports for people with physical disabilities. When she arrived in Juba a year ago and heard the ICRC and some local partners intended to put together a wheelchair basketball program, she immediately asked if she could help. She told me those practices were the highlight of every week for her. Mia had been traveling outside the country for the first eight days of our training camp, but she returned just in time to see the last couple training sessions and watch the final games of the tournament.

When she came up to me at the restaurant after everything concluded, she was buzzing with excitement. “I’m leaving in just a few days to go back home and I have to tell you, that tournament was the best going away present I could have asked for,” she said. “I can’t believe how much better they are than just two weeks ago! They used defensive strategies and worked together – I’d never even seen them play defense at all before this. They were just so good! And the best thing was their smiles!! Nobody ever smiles here. There’s not much to smile about, as I’m sure you can imagine. But that basketball court was glowing today!” It was the best feedback I could have gotten, especially from someone who has watched the players progress over an entire year.

Thank you, Mia. Thank you, players and coaches. Thank you Corrie, Venkat, and the rest of the ICRC colleagues I got to meet. And thank you, Alyona Synenko, the communications coordinator for ICRC South Sudan, who created this beautiful montage of the amazing photos she took during one of our training sessions.

South Sudan, I hope to see you again soon!

A little over a week ago, I departed Colorado for my first trip to South Sudan – indeed, my first to Africa – to coach a small group of the country’s initial crop of aspiring wheelchair basketball players for two weeks. It feels strange to say, but traveling to a place I’ve never been on a continent I’ve never visited – even a place as volatile as South Sudan – strikes me now as kind of… normal. The ongoing experience of interacting with new people and cultures in the places where the ICRC has given me the opportunities to do this work – all places experiencing some degree of conflict and instability – has certainly changed my view of those places over the past five-plus years. It feels good to be excited about visiting countries that I would have, until not-that-long-ago, considered far outside my personal purview. That’s why, when I got my first view of this place after 36 hours of travel while being bodily carried by two airport attendants off the plane and into the blazing Juba sun… it was with a smile on my face.

I’m not sure my colleagues could have described Juba International Airport in a way that would have done it justice, so I’m almost glad they didn’t try. As the plane landed, I was focused on hoping the ground crew would bring me my wheelchair (a rare service in developing countries) so I could more easily track down the ICRC folks who would be picking me up, neither of whom I had met. I needn’t have worried. Not only did the crew bring both my chairs to the base of the staircase that met the plane on the runway, but my colleagues, Corrie and Greg, were standing at the base of the stairs with Red Cross badges, waving cheerily up at me as I exited the door and was awkwardly dropped into my chair by my well-meaning bearers.

Juba International Airport might best be described as “under construction.” There is the shell of a terminal that was started several years ago, but hasn’t been completed, so all the arriving travelers are shuttled through a single-file passport control line outside immediately next to the runway itself. Once past the immigration process, everyone files into the baggage claim area – a crowded open tent with an old desk on which bags are placed one at a time as they are delivered by the ground crew. Every passenger from the plane mills about in the heat of the tent hoping their luggage will appear next. I waited just outside the tent as Greg waited for my bags to show up – there literally wasn’t space for me to fit into the crowd around the baggage claim in my chair – and marveled at the press of humanity, the heat, and how no one was the least bit rude or angry even in such uncomfortable conditions. It was a remarkably peaceful introduction to one of the least peaceful places on the planet.

I was so amazed by the whole scene that I decided to snap a quick photo with my phone. About 30 seconds later, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around and was greeted by a South Sudanese guy, dressed like any other traveler in the area, asking if he could have my phone. My immediate assumption was that he had seen it when I took the picture and thought it was nice – and that he’d like to have it. I’ve gotten similar requests in previous places I’ve been, so I replied with a smile, “I’m sorry, but no. I need to keep this one.” He good-naturedly persisted. “Why not?” I was a bit confounded, but mostly amused. “Seriously, it’s my only phone, man. My wife would be pretty put out with me if I gave it away in South Sudan and couldn’t call her.”

Then his face got serious. “Why did you take the picture?”

I swore audibly at myself, realizing now why he was so interested in my technology. He held out his hand for me to give him the phone, suddenly taking on the bearing of the plain-clothes security officer he was. I stammered, “Sorry! Look, here’s the picture… and here’s me deleting it. My mistake!” Thankfully, he was feeling magnanimous in spite of my stupidity and let me off with a stern warning. It turns out photography in public places is illegal in South Sudan without a permit. Whoa. That could have gone a lot worse. So much for blending in.

Thankfully, I made it through the rest of my first day without violating any other cultural or legal boundaries. The ICRC booked the Juba basketball stadium – an old but well-structured outdoor facility – every morning and afternoon for our training sessions, so Corrie took me by to get a look at it the afternoon of my arrival. There was an able-bodied league game taking place when we showed up and I was immediately blown away by the size of the players. I’m a pretty tall guy (6’6”; 2 meters), but it seemed like half the people in the stadium – players and fans alike – were taller than I am. Then I looked around and saw several guys wearing Portland Trailblazers t-shirts. That’s my team! I learned later that Luol Deng, the famous South Sudanese NBA player, now with the L.A. Lakers, recently sent over a package of miscellaneous NBA gear for the players in the Juba league. It just so happens that most of the t-shirts that made the trip have the Blazers logo across the chest. Between suddenly being of average height for the first time in my life, being surrounded by Blazer “fans,” and being greeted warmly by many of the people in the stadium, I could tell immediately that I was going to feel right at home here.

At halftime of their game, each of the able-bodied teams invited me to join them for a team photo

The following morning, I was up before dawn to get ready for my introduction to the group I’d be coaching for the next 10 days. When I got to the stadium a little before 8am, the weather was perfect for basketball – around 75 Fahrenheit/24 Celsius. I greeted each player as they came across the court and could see the excitement on their faces. The group I was working with in the morning were all playing for the first time, so they were also a little nervous, but the atmosphere and attitude was great. We were also joined by several members of the local and international media, who were excited to promote such a positive story in South Sudan.

Meeting the players for the first time (photo courtesy of Albert Gonzalez Farran/AFP)

Speaking with Juba media representatives, who have been very supportive of our program (Photo courtesy of Maura Metbeni Ajak)

Short video piece from Al Jazeera

The on-court work for the next four days went as well as I could have hoped. The players are all very raw, but there’s a lot of potential. It usually takes a couple days for a new group to warm up to the structure of formal practices, but all the players here were eager to learn everything I was able to teach them. Even when the wonderful early morning weather gave way to temperatures north of 100F/40C and no shade in the late morning and afternoon, they were willing to push as hard as they had to in order to pick up the basic skills of the game. By the end of the fourth day, they were showing fantastic progress and the enthusiasm was continuing to build. The morning group of beginners would even come out onto the court while the afternoon group were on a water break and start doing agility drills I’d taught them earlier in the day. That’s the spirit!






The preceding six (incredible!) photos courtesy of Alyona Synenko/ICRC

My favorite memory from the first few days came when I was teaching the beginning group the fundamentals of shooting the basketball. One of the players, Peter Bol, has post-polio symptoms that affect not only both legs, but his entire torso, leaving his frame twisted and bent, but with extremely long, wiry limbs (even by South Sudanese standards). If he were able to stand with his back straight, Peter would be well over six feet/180cm, but he probably weighs under 120lbs/55kgs. Despite these physical challenges and having never played a sport before, Peter was dead set on learning this game. At first, even the most basic skills of pushing the wheelchair and dribbling the basketball in a straight line were difficult for him, but he wouldn’t give up. By the time I taught them to shoot on day 3, I wasn’t sure if he would have the strength to get the ball up to the basket, particularly using the one-handed technique I was teaching them. As he had with the other skills, though, Peter gave it his all. About 10 minutes into our first shooting practice, he made his first shot and blurted out, “OH MY GOD!!!” The whole group of instantly started cheering for him. I would give anything to have a photo of the look of shock and wonder on his face at that moment.

The inimitable Peter Bol executes his first bounce stop

We’ll be training the rest of this week and I’ll also be continuing a series of classroom sessions with an amazing group of new coaches – many of whom were or are standing basketball players and coaches themselves – to give them the primary technical wheelchair basketball knowledge they’ll need to help lead the players to the next level. We’re off to a great start. More to come soon!