Over the course of seven days last week, the Afghan men’s and women’s national teams were in Bangkok, Thailand competing in the IWBF Central and East Asian Regional Qualifying Tournament for the Asian Para Games. The qualifier included eight men’s and six women’s teams vying for four spots each in the continent-wide summer Para Games, to be held in Jakarta, Indonesia in October 2018. The qualifier was a tournament packed with exciting games, impressive growth and memorable first time experiences for many of the teams.

Joining the field of teams in Bangkok along with the Afghans were my former students from India (both men and women) and the women’s team from Cambodia, all of which are supported by the ICRC Physical Rehabilitation Program. I ran into the Cambodians just as their bus was arriving at the hotel after a day-long journey from Battambang to Bangkok (including getting detained at the border for several hours before being allowed to cross into Thailand) and, almost before I had time to realize who was getting off the bus right next to me, was surrounded by a shrieking, smiling throng of players. Getting to reconnect with all of the Cambodians and Indians – many of whom I hadn’t seen since their first days playing the game back in 2014/15 – and watch them play in international competition for the first time was a truly special experience.

So much happened over the course of the week with so many players and teams, so I’ll tackle it chronologically to hopefully remember all the main highlights.

The Teams
Men
Pool A: China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia

Pool B: Afghanistan, Chinese Taipei, India, Thailand

Women
Afghanistan, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Iran, Laos

The men’s teams played round robin formats in each pool, followed by cross-pool quarter finals leading to semi-finals and placement games. The women’s teams played a longer round robin followed by placement games based on their records.

The Action

After the opening ceremonies on Sunday, March 4th, the tournament kicked off with the Afghanistan men taking on the very strong Thai team on their home floor. Thailand and China were the clear favorites on the men’s side, with those two separated a tier above the rest of the field in international performance. With barely any time to train together before the tournament, the Afghan men had their work cut out for them.

They started the game strong, though, scoring a couple early baskets and playing solid defense to keep the game close through the first five minutes and even leading at one point. However, after waking up (and inserting their starters), the Thai team took over. The game – which I knew would be our hardest of the tournament – was predictably one sided the rest of the way, with Afghanistan playing better strategic basketball on both ends of the court than it had in the past, but unable to finish many of its easy shot attempts. As I reminded the guys after the game, though, our goal (at least mine) wasn’t to come in and shock the world by beating a far superior Thai team in the first game, it was to get better quarter-by-quarter, half-by-half, and game-by-game as the tournament proceeded. They nodded grudgingly and gave a half-hearted shout of “meisha” (“we will do it”).

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Alem of Afghanistan shoots against the Thai defense on day 1 (all photos in this post courtesy of the ICRC)

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Saber looks to attack

The rest of the field would have their first game the following day. The Afghan women’s team opened against India, whom they had played on the way to their championship at the Bali Cup in July 2017. The night before the game, I asked the women’s head coach, Tahera Yosoufi from Herat, if she was confident coaching by herself or if she would like me to join her as an assistant. I’ve been grooming Tahera – the captain of the Afghanistan national standing basketball team – to take over coaching the women’s wheelchair national team for a couple years and, after their success in Bali and Herat’s recent national championship, I hoped she’d be ready to take the reins at this tournament. She answered confidently that she was ready to do it on her own… at least for the first game. I wished her luck and did a silent fist pump as we parted, knowing that she would do well and happy that she was willing to embrace the challenge.

With several years more experience and a much more competitive league back home, the Afghans were too much for the Indians, running out to a big opening victory. It was clear immediately that, while the Afghan women certainly need to train more back home in order to maximize their potential, their competitive experience was at a completely different level than that of the Indian players. Many of the Indian women were relatively new – having started since I was last there in the fall of 2015 – with only a few holdovers from the first days of the programme. It was natural that they’d be at a disadvantage to the Afghans, but it was also obvious that they had been playing basketball more as a social outlet than as a competitive pursuit (not a bad thing when social interaction is the goal of the program, but not enough to prepare them for this level of international competition). The lack of focused training showed on the court and, I think, motivated them to return home ready to get to work in order to improve their performance at future tournaments.

While I was happy for the Afghan women to get an opening victory, I was also concerned. To that point, their entire international experience – starting with the Bali Cup victory – had been against teams at the relative beginning of their development. I was worried that the Afghans would get overconfident and wouldn’t be mentally prepared once they had to play tougher competition later in the tournament.

With the Afghan men having the day off following their loss to Thailand on Sunday, I joined the Cambodian women’s team for their opening game against Laos, their first game ever at an IWBF tournament. What a first game it was! The Cambodians had improved a great deal since I had last coached them – thanks in large part to the aforementioned IWBF development camp last year, followed by a two-day visit from Mike Frogley, Bo Hedges, and David Eng from Wheelchair Basketball Canada that fired them up to improve their skills. Laos was tough, though, using their size advantage to repeatedly score inside against the faster Cambodians. I was sitting behind the Cambodian bench just to give them encouragement, but with the intent of staying out of any strategic decision-making since they had a new coach on the bench. Over the course of the game, though, it became clear that their coach had never been involved in wheelchair basketball before – it turned out he was a representative of the Cambodian Paralympic Committee – an experienced coach of track and field, but with next to no knowledge about wheelchair basketball.

By the time I realized this, the Cambodian team had built a five point lead with just a minute to go. Given the paucity of scoring late in the game, it seemed safe enough that I let it play out, continuing my role as an unofficial cheerleader rather than getting more intrinsically involved. However, right as I made that decision, Laos staged a furious comeback, scoring five points in just over a minute, leading to a tie game at the end of regulation time. The Cambodian players and coach were so inexperienced that they weren’t even sure what was supposed to happen when the game ended with a tie score. I explained that they would play an additional five minute overtime period, which brought cheers as they realized they could still pull off a victory against their neighbors to the north.

The first overtime followed a similar script, with Cambodia racing out to a quick lead, then Laos fighting back to tie the game at the end, sending it to a second overtime – this in the first IWBF tournament game for either team. What a classic!

The Cambodian team went out in the second extra period and, in spite of their exhaustion, kept their composure and executed perfectly. Laos didn’t score in the second overtime and Cambodia came away with a hard-earned, well-deserved victory in their first game ever. They celebrated like they’d just won the world championship, screaming and hugging each other with complete abandon.

One of my favorite stories from all my time coaching overseas has been that of Sila, a Cambodian player with cerebral palsy that affects both her legs and completely incapacitates one arm. Despite such a massively challenging set of obstacles – playing wheelchair basketball with one arm has certainly been done, but not by many people at the international level – Sila approached the game with a positive, can-do attitude and never made excuses; she knew there was a way to make this sport work for her and she wouldn’t give up until she found a way to play at the highest level. As a result, she made the first Cambodian national team and, in the game against Laos, played key minutes that helped her team get its first win. Her smile and enthusiasm – whether she was on the court or cheering from the bench – was nothing short of life-affirming for me to see. After the game, when I was giving all the players congratulatory high fives, Sila threw out her one good arm and gave me a huge hug. While she grinned from ear to ear, I struggled to hold back tears. I’m beyond grateful that I was able to be a part of that moment with her and the rest of the team.

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Sila cheers her team on to victory against Laos

The next day, the Afghan men lost a tough game against Chinese Taipei – an experienced and talented team that had added their strongest player to a roster that had beaten Afghanistan in Beijing last October by a narrow two point margin. The Afghans played a strong first quarter, but succumbed again to inconsistent shooting and passing, leading to a 23 point loss. Again they were disappointed in the result, but again they took a step forward, getting a bit better and playing well for a bit longer than they had against Thailand.

The Indian men and women both lost their second games in a row as well against more experienced competition – the men to Thailand and the women to the tournament favorites from Iran. The Indian men showed notable improvement despite playing a better team (they had lost to Chinese Taipei) than on the first day, and gave themselves a game from which to build.

The Cambodian women came back to earth in their second game, losing by a wide margin to a very solid Thai team. They came to me that night at dinner – I hadn’t been able to watch their game since it was at the same time as the Afghan men’s – and were very disappointed. I told them not to get down, that they needed to learn from a loss just like they build from a win.

The next day the Cambodians were slated to play the Afghan women, and I was torn about how I should approach the game. The Afghans were more experienced and, by all previous results, considerably favored. They also had a knowledgeable coach in Tahera, while the Cambodians were doing their best with an inexperienced coach and a player-coach assistant who were both getting their first tastes of international competition. Even if they lost by a lot, it was important to me that the Cambodians – both coaches and players – learn from the experience, so I asked Tahera if she would be opposed to me helping the Cambodian coaches out as a sort of consultant on loan. I thought it might also help to give the Afghans a bit more of a challenge than the games they’d played previously, something they desperately needed as they got ready for the harder games in their schedule against Thailand and Iran. To her great credit, Tahera was completely open to the idea and said it was the right thing to do for both sides. So, as the two teams lined up for their third game, I was sitting behind the Cambodian bench as a temporary Afghan defector.

The Cambodian players and coaches were surprised and delighted when I offered to be on their side for the game, and they carried that enthusiasm onto the court. Their approach was disciplined, their speed was an advantage over the Afghans, and they truly believed that they could win a game that everyone else in the gym assumed wouldn’t be close. They looked like a completely different team even than the one that had narrowly beaten Laos.

The Afghans were shocked as the Cambodians played them to a draw at the end of the first quarter and kept the game close throughout the first half. In the third quarter, Afghanistan finally hit its stride and started to pull away, building a double digit lead, but Cambodia never gave up. In the fourth quarter they went on a run that closed Afghanistan’s lead to three points as the end of the game neared. Tahera called a smart timeout to compose her team and lay out a strategy, while I helped the Cambodian coaches put a press defense in place that we hoped would lead to a couple turnovers and easy baskets. The Afghans were smart, though, and used their size advantage to pass over the speedy Cambodian defense, leading to a couple late baskets that put the game away. Still, a 7 point difference at the end was far closer than anyone expected. Anyone except Team Cambodia, that is. It was a wake-up call for Afghanistan – they couldn’t just steamroll the competition after all – and a huge leap forward for Cambodia. Despite not getting the win, they – and everyone else – saw their true potential in the performance.

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Somaya and Kamela of Afghanistan – the team’s two best players in the tournament – race for the ball against Cambodia

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Sinet of Cambodia tries to drive against the tough defense of Afghanistan

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Coach Tahera Yosoufi diagrams a play for Team Afghanistan at the end of the game

Later that afternoon, I had another meeting of opposing students, as the Afghan and Indian men played each other. India was coached by Tom Kyle, an experienced Australian coach who joined India’s men’s and women’s teams just before the tournament for the first time, and assistants Thayumana and Pererra, both of whom I had worked with in my visits to the country. Since the Indian men were in knowledgeable hands – and had shown themselves to be formidable opponents against Thailand – I repatriated and returned to my spot as the head coach of the Afghan men’s team.

In their third international tournament, this was the first time Afghanistan’s men had played a less experienced team than themselves, and they knew it was an opportunity they couldn’t afford to let slip away. Playing ferocious defense and sticking to the game plan with their offense, they played their best game ever. Despite some great play by a few of the Indian players – particularly Partha, a young class 4.0 whom I first met in 2015 and who was immediately apparent as an up-and-coming star – Afghanistan kept its foot on the gas and parlayed a team-wide effort into a resounding victory. It was the team’s first win in IWBF competition and, expected or not, was a huge weight off their collective shoulders. Both teams played their best game and Afghanistan got its first win – the perfect outcome from my perspective.

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Improved play by Team India kept Afghanistan focused throughout the first half

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Indian star Partha (in white) showed his full potential in a great performance against Afghanistan, scoring 24 points to lead all scorers

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Taking a big second half lead against India let Nazir (11), assistant coach Qawamuddin, and Assad (14) finally relax and have fun during an international game.

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Mohammadullah and Safi share in the accomplishment of finally getting their first victory

Unfortunately for both the Afghan teams, their success was to be short-lived. The following day the men lost to a very strong Malaysian team despite playing excellent first and fourth quarters, knocking them out of the top four qualifying spots for the Asian Para Games. They would go on to play a great game – their best ever – against Hong Kong the following day, but would lose in a close battle to finish sixth.

The Indian men, however, built upon the things they learned from their early losses and finished the tournament with a win – their first in IWBF competition – over Indonesia to capture seventh place. It was great for them to end the tournament on such a high note.

The Afghan women lost their first international game ever to Thailand (a team they had beaten just a week earlier in a friendly pre-tournament game), then played Iran to decide whether they would make the championship game or play for third place. Iran had clearly been the women’s tournament’s best team, winning all of its games by over 20 points leading up to its final round robin game against the Afghans. They were a better-shooting, taller, more consistent team. But Tahera saw that the underdog Afghans had one potential advantage – their speed.

With me and the men’s team sitting across the court cheering them on, the Afghan ladies came out with a vicious full-court press defense that caught the Iranians completely off guard. Before they knew what hit them, Afghanistan had taken an 18-8 lead at the end of the first quarter and looked completely in control of the game. However, Iran was not prepared to go so quietly, and fought back with a surge in the second quarter that gave them a 10 point lead at the halftime break. It was clear that, while the Afghans had surprised them, Iran’s superior depth, size, and conditioning was going to be too much to overcome over the course of a full game. After an even second half, Iran came away victorious, earning a championship game appearance that they would ultimately win over Thailand.

This meant Afghanistan and Cambodia would meet again for 3rd place in the tournament. I joined the Cambodian bench for a second time, as coach Tahera from Afghanistan wanted to give her players the best challenge possible to finish the tournament. She did a wonderful job motivating them, and they played a very strong game even with the Cambodians matching their previous best effort. Afghanistan got the victory, but both teams were winners in the end. As the third and fourth place finishers in the qualifying tournament, the Afghanistan and Cambodian women are going to Indonesia in October for their first ever Asian Para Games! Congratulations, ladies. You earned it.

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The teams from Cambodia and Afghanistan will see each other soon in Indonesia

Congratulations also to the Chinese men, who beat an ascendant Thai team by a narrow three point margin to take the men’s championship.

This was the most enjoyable, exciting wheelchair basketball tournament I’ve ever experienced at any level. The growth of the women’s game in countries across Central and East Asia was phenomenal to witness. The leaps forward that the men from Afghanistan and India took were extremely promising. Getting to be a part of so many of these players’ journeys – and seeing them take the next major steps in their development – is a gift I’ll keep with me always.