Afghanistan Wheelchair Basketball Project

In Memory of a True Humanitarian

From November 29th to December 1st, the ICRC held the first annual Hanna Lahoud International Wheelchair Basketball Cup – its first ever international wheelchair basketball tournament – in Tripoli, Lebanon. The Cup was intended to be an opportunity for players in West and Central Asian countries receiving support from the ICRC Physical Rehabilitation Programme (PRP) to come together and demonstrate their skills and the power of sport to stimulate the inclusion of persons with physical disabilities, even in some of the most challenging places in the world. Teams participated from Afghanistan, India, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. It was a fantastic event that generated some incredible stories as well as powerful friendships among the various participants.

Hanna Lahoud, for whom the tournament was named, was a Lebanese-born ICRC delegate who was tragically killed in the line of duty in April of this year while serving in Yemen. While I never had the opportunity to meet Hanna in person, we share many common friends and I know he was a universally beloved colleague who brought great joy to all those who had the good fortune to pass through his orbit. Hanna was also a great fan of wheelchair basketball. He even organized – and played in – regular pickup games in Guinea Bissau, where he was posted before moving to Yemen. He was personally dedicated to pushing for the social inclusion of people with disabilities during his life, and I can’t think of a better namesake for what will hopefully become an annual ICRC event. Thank you to Hanna for everything he contributed and for all the lives he touched. His legacy will continue to impact many more.

The tournament promotional poster featuring Hanna (in black) playing wheelchair basketball in Guinea Bissau

I was excited to see the team from Afghanistan, with which I was supposed to have spent two weeks in late September before my mission was canceled at the last minute due to security issues. Not having been with them in person since I coached the team at a tournament in Bangkok, Thailand last March, I was excited to see how they’d grown in the months since. This would be the first tournament in which the Afghan men’s team has ever participated where they weren’t entering as massive underdogs (all their previous international experiences have been at Asia zone-level qualifiers with elite teams like Australian, Iran, Japan, Korea, etc. I also chose this as the first tournament in which I wouldn’t act as the team’s coach. Given that it was the first ICRC tournament and my role is to support the development of sports programs in all the countries where we work, it felt like I should be an unattached supporter of all the teams, so I handed the coaching reins over for the first time. Qawamuddin Ghafoori, my long-time assistant coach with the national team, would take over as head coach, and the team captain since its inception four years ago, Wasiq Sediqqi, would transition from player to assistant coach. I was confident in Qawam and Wasiq to lead the team in the right direction, but was curious to see how they would respond when faced with inevitable adversity.

Not surprisingly, it was a very strange feeling to sit in the gym watching as a team I’ve coached in every game they’ve ever played took the court without me on the bench. There have been less than a handful of total wheelchair basketball competitions – in any country – where I haven’t been a coach or a referee, so it felt a bit awkward to not have a clearly defined role (thankfully the classifiers invited me to join them so I wouldn’t go completely stir crazy). During the first game of the tournament, in which Afghanistan played a solid Iraq team (not the national team of Iraq, but a very strong group of promising young players) I found my heart pounding the same way it had during every game in which I’ve coached them in the past. I tried to create some emotional distance – I was rooting for both teams equally, right? – but it was difficult. After Iraq took an early lead, the teams went back-and-forth for the second and third quarters. I continued to sweat. Finally, in the fourth quarter Afghanistan hit its stride and pulled away. The Afghan coaches did a great job running substitutions to keep their players fresh, which had the team playing its best in the latter stages of the game.

I have to say, though, better even than seeing the team play well and get a win to start the tournament was the way they all comported themselves during the game. They were perfect gentlemen even during the most intense parts of the game: reaching out to tap an opposing player on the shoulder if they fouled him, helping Iraqi players up if they fell out of their chairs, behaving respectfully toward the referees even if they didn’t agree with all the calls. It warmed my heart to see them playing well, but also playing the right way and exemplifying the ideals of the tournament itself.

The Afghanistan team pulled together to play its best tournament yet (photo courtesy of ICRC/Hussein Baydoun)

I was similarly looking forward to seeing the Indian team play for the first time since Thailand – which had been their first official IWBF tournament; always a huge challenge – and catch up with the players I had coached back in 2014 and ‘15 when they were first getting started. India had a new head coach in Lebanon as well – Sharad Nagane, who was among my first group of Indian coach trainees when I visited the city of Pune in 2014 – who joined longtime assistant coach, Thayumana Subramaniam, in leading the team. Team India was coming off a training camp conducted by coaches Joe Higgins from Canada and Alphonsus “Fonzie” To from Canada/Hong Kong, whom I’d sent to India in late October to give the team a dose of their significant international experience and knowledge. The training camp went fantastically well, by all accounts, and I was excited to see what new skills and coordination the team would bring to the tournament and observe how Sharad and Thayumana would shepherd them into the next stage in their development.

The Indians played Syria in their first game and, while they looked infinitely better than they had just seven months before in Bangkok, their consistency hadn’t yet caught up with their newfound understanding of the game. Syria – which, to my understanding had never played together outside Syria before – played its heart out and never let up the pace, holding on at the end for a close victory. I talked to the Indian coaches after the game and told them to focus on keeping their team’s confidence up. They had shown that they were capable of playing at this level – I actually felt they played a better game than the Syrians; they just couldn’t knock down the shots they needed – and needed to retain that focus in the coming days to show the rest of the tournament field the kind of team they could be.

During the remainder of the tournament, the games got better and more competitive as the teams settled into their respective grooves. Afghanistan managed to win each of its four round robin games, sending it to the championship match on Saturday afternoon. The other four teams showed great parity, splitting games between each other and coming down to the final round robin game to decide which position each would play for on the final day. In the last game of the round robin, India managed to eke out a one point victory over Iraq to secure its place in game for third place. Finally putting everything together and using strategy and technique to pull out their first close win in international competition was massively cathartic for the Indians, and they were absolutely glowing after the game. They carried that energy into the third place game and dominated from start to finish to win the tournament’s bronze medal. It was the first step in what I know will be a rapid rise for that team.

The Iraq bench sends energy to its players during the game against India (photo courtesy of ICRC/Hussein Baydoun)

India, led by up-and-coming star player Javed (center), celebrates its one point victory over Iraq (photo courtesy of ICRC/Hussein Baydoun)

Syria, following the aforementioned win against India in its first game, managed to win enough to punch its ticket to the championship game against Afghanistan. Syria may not have been the most technically proficient team, but they definitely had the most heart. They were led by Nabih Chabaan, a class 4.0 who played like a wheelchair basketball version of Charles Barkley – not the tallest or fastest player on the court, but one of the strongest and one who always found a way to convert baskets when his team needed them. Syria fed off Nabih’s energy and leadership and played at the top of their capability throughout the tournament.

Nabih from Syria tries to take off on a fast break while Assad from Afghanistan applies… questionable… technique on defense (photo courtesy of ICRC/Hussein Baydoun)

The other player on the Syrian team that most astounded me was Laith Mubayed. Laith is a class 1.0 player who has overcome some of the most challenging impairments I’ve ever seen in a wheelchair basketball player. He was born with very short legs – so short his feet barely reach the edge of his wheelchair cushion – and his arms are truncated just above each elbow. This means that Laith pushes his wheelchair (quite fast, I should point out), dribbles, passes and shoots with no hands and no forearms. During warmups, he was shooting – and making – three point shots. I’ve never seen anything like it in all my years in the game. To shoot a ball any distance using two biceps seems almost impossible. To shoot it over 22 feet (6.75 meters) with accuracy is just completely unbelievable. Laith was at the center of the Syrian team’s energy whether he was playing ferocious defense in the game or cheering from the bench. He would get so fired up between plays on the court that he’d bounce his wheelchair up and down, jumping all four wheels off the floor. The concept of a player being “an inspiration” starts to become redundant in a wheelchair basketball tournament peopled entirely by physically disabled players coming from countries dealing with war and conflict, but Laith definitely inspired everyone who saw him play. I can’t wait for the rest of the world to meet him once Syria’s national team starts to play in international tournaments on a more regular basis.

Laythe Mubayid of Syria (photo courtesy of ICRC/Hussein Baydoun)

A quick aside: Lebanon as a country is crazy for basketball – maybe the only place I’ve visited outside the US where basketball is more popular than soccer. They have a high-level pro league in which the star players are national celebrities similar to NBA players here in the US. The communications team at the ICRC delegation in the capital city of Beirut managed to convince several of the best players in the country – all members of the Lebanese national team – to support our tournament by both participating in online ads beforehand to build public awareness and excitement and by playing in an exhibition game in wheelchairs against some of the players on the Lebanese wheelchair team preceding the tournament final. I had the pleasure of coaching the able-bodied stars during the game, which meant I had approximately 30 seconds to explain how to move their wheelchairs while controlling the ball before they hit the court in front of a raucous crowd. The players were great sports and threw themselves fully into trying to get the hang of the game on the fly. After a few minutes of being run off the court by the Lebanese wheelchair team – and falling behind 10-0 – they started to get the hang of it and brought their shooting and height to bear in mounting a comeback. In the end, one of the able-bodied players buried a three pointer to tie the game at the final buzzer, sending the crowd (and his teammates) into pandemonium. The tie score was a perfect way to end a game that was all about equality and inclusion. The players graciously took photos with anyone who asked following the game. It was a wonderful experience for everyone – hopefully they’ll be ready to come back next year!

I called a late timeout to give the Lebanese pro players the “green light” to shoot threes in their comeback attempt. They were excited (photo courtesy of ICRC/Hussein Baydoun)

And the excitement paid off with a game-tying three at the buzzer! (photo courtesy of ICRC/Hussein Baydoun)

In the final game, Afghanistan and Syria played a classic. The gymnasium seats were packed with supporters from the ICRC and the community, as well as the family and friends of Hanna Lahoud. The game was played at a fast tempo throughout, with both teams reaching their highest scores of the tournament. Nabih scored 28 points for Syria, keeping them in the game until the end against a balanced scoring attack from Afghanistan. When the final buzzer sounded, the Afghans had preserved one last victory and collapsed into a pile of tears and laughter – a team that had never won an international game until earlier this year was now the tournament champions.

Ramazan runs the Afghanistan offense in the tournament final (photo courtesy of ICRC/Hussein Baydoun)

Belal, who had been away from the national team for over a year, returned to lead the team to the championship in Lebanon (photo courtesy of ICRC/Hussein Baydoun)

It’s easy to forget sometimes in the endless swirl of training camps and competitions what a rare and beautiful thing victory can be. Not a single member of the Afghanistan team has lived a day of their lives without the specter of war looming over them. They have all embraced wheelchair basketball as their salvation. This was finally the (first) culmination of all the hours they’ve spent working diligently to learn a game most of them had never seen before they first picked up a ball a few short years ago. Watching them spread their wings and achieve this victory together was a wonderful, but admittedly slightly strange, feeling. I wanted nothing more than to embrace each of them and tell them all how proud I was of them, but I knew that I needed to hold back – at least for that moment – and let them feel the power of having done something very powerful all on their own.

Players and coaches from Team Afghanistan hoist the championship trophy

The final moment of the tournament was the presentation of the award for the most valuable player by the Hanna Lahoud Foundation. The Foundation was formed recently by Hanna’s wife, Patricia, who also works for the ICRC and whom I’d gotten to know during my last visit to Afghanistan in February, and several family members and close friends of Hanna’s. The Foundation’s first act was to raise money that would be given to the MVP to help them get an education, start a business or develop another project designed to either generate income or improve their community. The MVP was voted on by each of the coaches with the instruction that their choice should exemplify not only impressive skill on the court, but also excellent sportsmanship and leadership (the coaches were not allowed to vote for their own players). When the votes were tallied, the player who stood above all others was Nabih from Syria. When he heard his name announced, his hands flew to his face and he dissolved in tears of joy. I don’t know much about Nabih’s story – though I hope to learn more in the coming years – but I can only imagine the journey he’s been through during the last several years in Syria. He definitely earned that award.

Endless thanks to everyone at the ICRC in Lebanon, the Hanna Lahoud Foundation, the Tripoli Disabled Sports Association, and the other partners who helped to make this tournament happen. It was a perfect representation of what the ICRC’s sport and inclusion program is all about and was a true credit to Hanna’s legacy. Until next year.