Late last month I had the opportunity to coach in Bangladesh for the first time. I didn’t know much about the country before leaving; just that it had dealt with some very serious humanitarian issues in the past, is extremely impoverished, and had recently been the destination of the mass exodus of the Rohingya people from Myanmar. I also knew that the ICRC had been supporting a fledgling wheelchair basketball program in Bangladesh for the past couple years, so I was excited to meet them for the first time and see what kind of progress we could all make in a week together.

From the perspective of the upper floor of the Dhaka hotel where I stayed my first night in Bangladesh, the capital city appeared to be an endless expanse of mid-sized apartment buildings. There are around 19 million people living in the greater Dhaka area and it is the second most densely populated major city in the world. Elements of it reminded me of other places I’ve been – Gaza and Kabul, in particular – but on a far more massive scale.

The court where I would be conducting my training camp was located on the main campus of the Center for Rehabilitation of the Paralyzed (CRP) – the ICRC partner organization that provides nearly all of the physical rehabilitation services in Bangladesh for people with physical disabilities – which is located just an hour or so outside Dhaka. Once I arrived at the CRP, it felt like a little village unto itself despite its proximity to Dhaka’s overwhelming press of humanity. Inside its walls I found a fully functioning community, primarily made up of people with physical disabilities, that was permeated by a pleasant, tranquil atmosphere. The grounds are scattered with coconut trees and other subtropical vegetation, adding to the natural, peaceful feeling of the place. At the center of the campus was a full-size, nicely appointed outdoor basketball court. On that court – already playing despite the sweltering heat and the fact that the beginning of the official training session was still over an hour away – were 22 smiling, shouting male and female wheelchair basketball players.

From the first moment of introducing myself to the players, I could tell they were a special group. They had a vitality and excitement about them that was a bit different than what I’m used to experiencing when meeting a new group for the first time. Normally it takes me a day or two to establish a connection with new players, but the group in Bangladesh was 100 percent ready to go from minute one, warmly welcoming me, volleying questions, and asking to get started as soon as possible.

I soon learned one of the reasons why they were so enthusiastic and confident. They’d had the advantage of working with a coach – a young staff member at the CRP named Nahid Tonmay – who had dedicated himself to learning as much about wheelchair basketball as possible over the last two years and passing that information on to the players. I knew of Tonmay from emails and messages he’d posted on my blog over the past year asking for information about coaching and wheelchair basketball strategy as well as any insights that would help him build a sustainable program in Bangladesh.

I was already excited that a young coach would reach out to me of his own volition, but once I got a chance to meet him in person, I found out that he’d also been sending similar requests to coaches all over the world in an attempt to gain knowledge from as many sources as possible. What a go-getter! He told me that of all the messages he sent out, I was one of the only people who responded, yet he refused to give up and kept up his outreach to learn to be the best coach he could.

Tonmay’s dedication has already had a clear impact on the players in Bangladesh, and I was impressed by the level of knowledge he (and they) already had about the game. He is exactly the kind of coach I’ve hoped to develop in all the countries in which I’ve worked – intellectually curious, self-motivated, and interested in both creating opportunities for as many people as possible and helping those who show promise and interest develop into high-level athletes. He’ll be a very important leader for the program as it moves forward.

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Chatting with coach Nahid Tonmay on the campus of the CRP (all photos courtesy of the CRP)

The other participants who joined Tonmay for three-day classroom courses on coaching, refereeing and classification were equally interested, even though it was the first time most of them were learning about wheelchair basketball. Many of the students were either experienced coaches or former players from Bangladesh’s able-bodied basketball federation, while others were physiotherapists or occupational therapists at the CRP learning to become classifiers. The head coach of the Bangladesh men’s national basketball team even took part, as did the coaches of the army, navy, air force and police teams (most of the best basketball players in the country apparently come through its military system). Despite their strong backgrounds in running basketball, all of them were extremely respectful, focused and curious throughout the courses. It was great also that everyone, no matter what their primary area of focus, decided to participate in all three courses. Without me even telling them, they understood that having a broader understanding of all the technical aspects of wheelchair basketball would give them a better foundation from which to grow in their chosen disciplines.

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Being short on business cards led to a good-natured scrum where every coach tried to grab one of my final two

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Teaching the basics of wheelchair basketball classification to students during an on-court session

The one briefly unpleasant moment of the classes was when, partway through the final morning, Tonmay stopped me in mid-sentence to calmly-but-urgently point out a spider that was right behind my wheelchair. I casually turned around to look at it, assuming it would be like most spiders I’ve seen before. When I saw that it was almost as big as my hand, I let slip a few words of… um… alarm. Apologies to the class for my temporary lack of professionalism, but seriously, look at that thing!

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The rest of the week with the players was fantastic. They’re all still relatively new to the game, but Tonmay’s work with them had given them a nice jump start. Their fundamentals were a lot better than most new players I work with as a result. By the time we played an ad hoc tournament between three teams on the last day, they were scoring, defending, and setting picks like old pros. It was a ton of progress in a very short amount of time and, seeing how focused they and their coaches were throughout the week, I’m excited to watch their growth in the coming years.

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The newly-formed Bangladesh men’s and women’s national teams will be traveling to Indonesia for the 2018 Bali Cup tournament in July – the same tournament the Afghanistan women won in their first international competition last summer. It will be a wonderful experience for them culturally and competitively, and I know they’ll learn a great deal. With Coach Tonmay on their bench and the players’ can-do attitudes, I have a feeling they’ll surprise people.

Bangladesh, see you again next year. Until then, keep up the great work and good luck!

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