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.

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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.

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

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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!

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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.

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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!