I spent the past week with Alberto Cairo on a whirlwind tour of three U.S. East Coast cities – Boston, New York, and Washington D.C. – speaking about the physical rehabilitation work of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Afghanistan, including our wheelchair basketball program. The tour was organized by the ICRC’s delegations in D.C. and New York and was a fantastic opportunity to raise awareness among several key audiences about the challenges faced by people with physical disabilities in Afghanistan and what the ICRC is doing to help.

Alberto and I flew from Kabul to Boston, where we gave a keynote presentation at the launch of the ICRC’s new collaborative platform for humanitarian innovation in partnership with Swissnex Boston. The presentation was formatted as a moderated discussion led by NPR’s Tom Ashbrook. We followed addresses from several impressive speakers, including Ban Ki-Moon, recent former Secretary General of the United Nations. Our discussion, which can be viewed here, was very well received by an audience of diplomats, thinkers, and humanitarian leaders. Afterward, Ban Ki-Moon came up and personally thanked each of us for the work we’ve done, saying the presentation was very moving for him, particularly since he had spent time in Afghanistan himself during his years leading the U.N. I’ll admit: it was pretty cool to be thanked by someone who has himself done so much important work in global affairs (and whom people address as “your excellency” in conversation).

While in Boston, we also had the chance to meet with several professors at MIT – including the amazing Hugh Herr – to discuss projects they’re working on to develop breakthrough technologies in the field of physical rehabilitation. It was fascinating to hear about the innovation happening on topics including prosthetics, spinal cord regeneration, and wheelchair design for the developing world. What an amazing opportunity to get to hear from true geniuses about the important work they and their students are doing.

After Boston, we spent parts of two days in New York, where we had a string of meetings and presentations lined up. The first meeting was with the deputy UN representative from Afghanistan who, upon our entering his office, immediately recognized Alberto. It turned out that early in his career he spent a year teaching English at the ICRC Orthopedic Center in Mazar-i-Sharif. Everyone in Afghanistan is connected to Alberto somehow; he’s the Kevin Bacon of Kabul.

The following afternoon, Alberto and I were invited to the Italian delegation to the U.N, where we were scheduled to present our story to members of the U.N’s “Friends of Afghanistan” group as well as members of the U.N. Security Council. We assumed that just a few country representatives would make the time in their busy schedules to join, but the conference room quickly filled to capacity, with U.N. representatives from over 20 countries attending. We again got great feedback, with the representative from Canada speaking for the group in saying that they very rarely get to hear such inspiring stories. It was a great chance to build the foundation for important bonds with such an influential group.

We then spent two days in Washington D.C. meeting with more interesting groups – including one at the State Department – and doing several media interviews, including one at the offices of National Public Radio (for their Goats and Soda international development blog, which should be posted soon).

It was an honor to be able to join a legend like Alberto and tell my small part in the phenomenal story of the ICRC’s work on behalf of people with physical disabilities in Afghanistan. It was also great to draw the attention of several important audiences back to Afghanistan after it has increasingly drifted off the radar of the international community in recent years due to fatigue over what seems to be an endless war. Sitting in meeting rooms in U.S. metropolises may not be quite as exciting as teaching players in conflict zones how to play wheelchair basketball, but I hope taking the opportunities offered to do the former will lead to support that will allow me and the ICRC to do much more of the latter.

I arrived in Gaza today to spend the next week and a half working with players, coaches, the local Paralympic Committee, ICRC colleagues, and my old friend, Ehsan Idkaidek from the West Bank, with the goal of helping Gaza wheelchair basketball take another big step forward in its development.

Two days after the women’s national team returned from the IWBF training camp in Thailand, we held the female national tournament in Kabul. For the 10 players who had traveled to Chon Buri, it was a tall order to get back in their basketball chairs on a single day’s rest after such an eventful week. The three teams (Kabul, Mazar, Herat) tackled the tournament with their usual gusto, though, with the star players pushing through their fatigue to lead their teams to impressive performances and a series of close games throughout. In the final game, Mazar came out victorious over Kabul for the third straight tournament, with Freshta – one of the players who attended the Thailand camp – winning her third straight Most Valuable Player award. Freshta is the five foot-tall Lebron James of Afghanistan women’s wheelchair basketball.

Following the one-day women’s tournament, the girls returned to their home provinces – the national team players undoubtedly overjoyed to see their families (and eat familiar food) again – and we moved onto the men’s tournament. For the second year in a row, we had eight men’s teams competing for the championship, which meant six days of games over a seven day period. The first two days of the tournament went well, with the teams showing noticeable growth in their games since I was here just six months ago. It was clear that the coaches had been pushing their players to take the next step in their development, both from individual and team perspectives. The newest teams – Badakhshan and Maidan Wardak – had started to coalesce and were finally able to put up competitive performances in their first two games against their more experienced opponents. Afghanistan wheelchair basketball was getting closer to reaching an international standard of play.

The best moment of the first few days was seeing Viktor Thiessen, the former director of the Maimana Orthopaedic Center and the architect of the basketball court there (the site of my first experience coaching in Afghanistan), watch the team he’d formed play for the first time since he had departed Afghanistan for Germany back in the summer of 2009. When he last saw the Maimana players they were still kids trying in vain to push huge, three-wheeled offroad wheelchairs around the newly-constructed court, unsure of what to do with the ball he’d given them. Seeing them now, adult athletes playing in a highly-competitive tournament and making mind-blowingly skillful moves in their basketball wheelchairs, his eyes were glistening with pride and awe at how far they’d come. He thanked me for everything I’ve helped them achieve, and I returned the thanks for everything he did to help start this process. It was a beautiful, full-circle moment.

On the third and final day of the tournament’s first round, play opened with a matchup between Maimana and their archrivals from Kabul. The two teams have each won multiple national championships (three for Kabul and two for Maimana) and the winner of the game would take the top seed from their group, along with momentum and a lot of confidence, into the tournament’s playoff round. As expected, the game was hotly contested from the outset. Both teams were playing fast, leading to some hard falls on touch fouls and a bit of trash talking from both sides. Kabul built a 10-plus point lead in the first half, which it maintained through most of the third and fourth quarters despite strong play from Maimana. In the game’s final minute, though, Maimana went on a run that saw it score seven points in 20 seconds on a pair of steals leading to fast break layups followed by a three pointer from Ramazan, their star point guard. Suddenly a comfortable Kabul lead had been cut to five with 30 seconds to play.

When Kabul called a timeout following Ramazan’s three, the cadre of Maimana supporters in the crowd cheered wildly, sensing that a dramatic finish was on the way and that their team still had a chance to steal a victory. Coming out of the timeout, the tournament director cautioned the Maimana fans not to whistle during their cheers, as it could make the players mistakenly think the referees were blowing their whistles to stop play. In response, one of the fans hurled an insult at the director, initiating a heated back-and-forth that nearly ended with the fan’s ejection from the gym. He was ultimately allowed to stay for the game’s conclusion, and the contingent of Maimana fans amped up their support even louder.

In spite of the cheering section for their opponents drowning out their home crowd, the Kabul team managed to score two quick baskets following the Maimana timeout, putting the game out of reach as it neared its end. Following the second goal, which gave Kabul a nine point lead with just six seconds to play, the scoreboard operator neglected to stop the game clock, allowing the final seconds to tick away. I immediately rushed to the scorer’s table to correct the error and told them to put six seconds back on the clock so Maimana would have its final possession. One of the Maimana players, furious at the mistake, met me at the table and shouted that the table staff were all cheating on behalf of the hometown Kabul team. I ushered him away, demanding that he calm down and stop making such inflammatory accusations. I could tell my words were falling on deaf ears as he continued to fume. Maimana finally took the ball and inbounded, time expired, and the game ended with a Kabul victory. Then everything went crazy.

One of the table staff, deeply insulted by the Maimana player’s accusations, grabbed a microphone and started shouting, “KABUL! KABUL!” into the public address system while staring straight at the Maimana players on their bench. Recognizing that this had the potential to get dangerous given the tension in the gym, I immediately ripped the microphone out of his hands. As I did, I heard a commotion on the opposite side of the gym and turned to see Maimana and Kabul supporters in the crowd shouting at and shoving each other. I dropped the microphone and flew across the court to try to stop things from escalating further. Before I could get there, though, the spectator’s section erupted in violence, with punches being thrown in all directions. Suddenly half of the gymnasium was engulfed in a brawl, with several of the players from Kabul wading into the fray. Alberto, myself, and several ICRC security guards attempted to break up the fight, but it was out of control. Chairs were being swung and thrown, crutches were being used as weapons, and fists were flying everywhere. It was hard to tell how long it lasted – it was probably less than five minutes total, but it seemed like it went on for hours as we jostled through the scrum trying to separate people, our commands to stop swallowed by the cacophony.

Eventually things reversed course from punches to shoves to yelling, and finally the group was spent and the fighting ceased. Miraculously, aside from a few bruises and scrapes, no one was seriously injured (thankfully all the chairs in the gym are made of plastic). However, I was in complete shock that something like this could have happened at all.

Perhaps I was being naïve in thinking that our game in Afghanistan would maintain its innocence forever, no matter how skilled and competitive the players became. I see the game evolve here in positive ways every time I visit, but there are elements of team partisanship that have evolved as well. Clearly steps need to be taken to ensure those are channeled in a positive manner as we move forward.

Once the spectators and players had been cleared from the gym and order restored, Alberto and I decided that the only possible response to such a scenario was to cancel the remainder of the tournament. A message had to be sent that violence would never be tolerated in our game – whether by players or fans, and certainly not at the ICRC facility – and we felt that sending everyone home was the most direct way to deliver that message.

There will be additional disciplinary measures for all those who were directly involved in provoking and escalating this situation – something the Wheelchair Basketball Federation of Afghanistan and I hate having to do, but realize is absolutely necessary if we are going to prevent this type of occurrence from ever happening again.

The coaches of all eight teams met the afternoon of the fight, then came to me pledging that each would to commit himself to establishing a team culture in his province that will not allow this type of antipathy to exist in the future. I’ve also talked to the players who were involved and tried my best to make them understand that, no matter what provocation they experienced or what excuses they have for behaving in such an inexcusable manner, they are responsible for their own actions. First and foremost, they need to see that they are always representatives of their teams, their country, and our game, and that their decisions in a moment like this leave a permanent impression about all these entities. It’s a sad end to my time in Afghanistan this spring, but I hope this will be a powerful learning moment for everyone and that we will all be able to grow from a situation I hoped we’d never have to deal with.

Over the past week, the Afghanistan Women’s National Wheelchair Basketball Team participated in a training camp in Thailand held by the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation (IWBF) for teams from all around Asia. The camp was the first of its kind for developing teams (those from countries, like Afghanistan, with relatively new programs) and athletes (those from established programs looking to take a step toward elite-level competition), and was the first opportunity the Afghan women’s team has had to join the international wheelchair basketball community. It’s been a long time coming – I’ve been trying to find an opportunity for the women to travel abroad since Afghanistan became an IWBF member two years ago – but the chance for them to be a part of such a wonderful, unique event made it well worth the wait.

The trip started with me arriving in Bangkok a day ahead of the team so I could be there to greet them at the airport when they landed early the morning of Sunday April 16th. As I alluded to in my previous post, our meeting – and the trip itself – almost didn’t happen due to extreme last-minute scrambling to secure the players’ visas to enter Thailand. Thanks to heroic efforts by my ICRC colleagues in Thailand, Afghanistan, and Pakistan (site of the nearest Thai embassy to Kabul), we managed to secure the visas at the last possible minute. We had been told by authorities in the final days that there was no way the visas would be issued in time, in spite of our having initiated the process well in advance, but refused to concede until the final bell sounded. I spent a few sleepless nights in the week leading up to the camp dreading having to deliver the news to the players that, once again, they would have to wait for their first trip abroad due to circumstances completely outside their control. Thankfully – for them and for me – it didn’t come to that.

So I found myself waiting outside customs with Michael Glowacki – director of the upcoming documentary, The League of Afghanistan (who lives full time in Bangkok) – to see the faces of the players appear. Once they finally rounded the corner and came into view, they lit up with excitement to see us. I could feel the weeks of stress melt away in an instant. It was really happening!


The team gathers upon arrival with me, Michael, and our handmade Dari welcome sign (aforementioned excitement tempered just slightly by their first experience with jet lag)

Adding to the moment was the fact that the team from India – a few of whom I’d had the pleasure of teaching when I conducted a training camp in Chennai in the fall of 2015 – had landed just shortly before the Afghans. After reuniting with both groups and introducing them to each other, we all piled into buses and drove the hour-plus south to Chon Buri, site of the training camp.

The camp kicked off the following morning, with all the participating players – 64 in total from 10 different countries – gathering at the gymnasium. The two coaches running the camp – Irene Sloof from the Netherlands and Ines Lopez from Portugal – had their work cut out for them with such a huge group of players, their instructions being translated into a half-dozen languages, a single court, and no air conditioning during Thailand’s hottest time of the year. Both able-bodied players themselves as well as longtime wheelchair basketball coaches, Irene and Ines handled the situation perfectly. They quickly separated the teams into three groups based on skill and experience in order to make numbers and teaching levels a bit more manageable, and plowed forward, challenging the players (and translators) to keep up. They kept every exercise fun and engaging, but never let the players forget that training with excellent technique and focus was the only way to improve.

Coach Irene teaches the Afghans how to attack with a numbers mismatch (Photo by Matthew Wells, IWBF)

Coach Ines drills Nadia of Afghanistan (left) and Chanty of Cambodia on one-on-one defensive technique (photo by Matthew Wells, IWBF)

The Afghans were placed in a group with players from Cambodia (several of whom I was also happily reuniting with after having coached them back in 2013 and 2014) and Nepal, and made fast friends with their group mates, language barrier or no. Without a doubt, one of the highlights of the whole experience was seeing these players from so many different cultural backgrounds learning each other’s names, snapping group photos at every opportunity, and laughing together as they learned. As Don Perriman, Secretary General of the IWBF Asian-Oceania zone and the primary driver of this camp’s organization, said so eloquently, “If we can evaluate a program on the smile factor alone, this camp has been a raging success.”

Team Afghanistan with members of the teams from Japan, Nepal, and Indonesia

Nadia gets into a selfie with the Cambodian team (Photo by Sieng Sokchan)

In basketball terms, the Afghan women acquitted themselves very well at the camp. I was given unsolicited compliments from the coaches and camp organizers – as well as coaches of other teams in attendance – on the Afghan players’ skills and grasp of the game. Those meant a lot coming from such knowledgeable sources and, if I could possibly be any prouder of this amazing, pioneering group than I already was, that did the trick. I was also encouraged by the growth I saw in the Cambodian and Indian players I’d coached previously. In the years since I taught them in their wheelchair basketball infancy, they’ve developed a great deal as players and as people – I saw competitive instincts coming out in a few of them that I hadn’t even known existed. I hope to have the chance to go back to both countries in the coming year or two and work with them and their compatriots again.

Full group_Matt Wells photo
The full camp crew (Photo by Matthew Wells, IWBF)

One additional note about the Indian team: its youngest player, Poovammal – whom I was meeting for the first time at the camp – took a nasty fall midway through the week, breaking both bones in her forearm and dislocating her wrist. It was a gruesome injury (I saw the x-rays), and she was taken to a nearby hospital to have the arm splinted, wrapped, and put in a sling to immobilize it enough for her to fly home (alone) the following day for surgery. In spite of a devastating end to her first trip overseas, she handled the entire situation with an amazing amount of poise and bravery. She even came to the gym the next morning to say goodbye before going to the airport. I told her she’d be back to 100% in no time and that I looked forward to seeing her new and improved skills the next time we meet.

Poovammal, small but mighty

After the camp concluded on Friday afternoon, we took the Afghanistan team on an outing to the beach on the Gulf of Thailand. Like the men’s team when it went to Italy in 2014, it was the first time any of the players had seen the sea. I watched as the whole group – even the wheelchair users – crossed the beach as fast as they could move, kicked off their shoes, and waded/wheeled directly into the water. Within a few minutes, the entire team was splashing, swimming, and falling into the gentle waves, fully clothed (in very nice clothing, no less), headscarves and all! It was an amazing scene – one that the Thai beachgoers were utterly fascinated by – and I’ll never forget the cacophony of laughter that went on for well over an hour as the group gloried in their discovery of the sea for the first time.

Due to a transportation-related communication breakdown, we ended up stranded at the beach until late that night, but there are worse places to be stuck for five hours than a Thai beach with a warm evening breeze blowing through the palm trees. Somehow it perfectly completed an epic day and week of new experiences in Chon Buri. One of the players, Mulkara, told me the next morning at breakfast, “Sir, we will remember yesterday forever!”

Out of the wheelchairs and into the water!

On Saturday, we hired a bus to take the players on a tour of Bangkok before our late-night flight back to Kabul. We spent a couple hours shopping at the giant Weekend Market, an outdoor bazaar with every type of clothing, souvenir, and anything else the players could have wanted to take back to their families. We visited the Temple of the Sleeping Buddha. We ate ice cream. And we capped the day off by meeting up with my great college friends, Justin and Courtney Hill, who moved from the US to Bangkok late last year, for a team dinner at a huge restaurant, Eathai, which is set up like an indoor Thai food market. Justin suggested Eathai because it was arranged in a way that the players could see the types of food they were choosing from, which we hoped might lead to them actually eating some of it.

I’d spent the entire week trying to get the Afghans to try the delicious local cuisine, but without much success. They were content to subsist on white rice, bread, eggs, and juice for most meals, concertedly avoiding anything that looked different than what they’d grown up eating at home. I figured this final meal was a chance for them to finally break through their reticence and try Thai food. They’d be trapped amid dozens of booths offering a huge range of Thai dishes, so they had no choice! At the conclusion of the meal, I took an informal group poll and was shocked to find that nearly everyone really enjoyed their meals. Success! After a long flight back to Kabul, we landed and several nearby players turned to me and said, “Mr. Jess, we already miss the food of Thailand!” I’d like to think they were at least half serious.

Bangkok panorama
One last team photo in front of the Bangkok skyline (From left: team physiotherapist Shukrullah, Farzana, Sumaya, Mulkara, Kamela, Shabona, Freshta, Nilofar, Nadia, team manager Maimoona, Jamila, Palwasha, coach Tahera)

The minute we got through the airport and outside, the players broke into smiles as they smelled the clear spring air and took in the snow-capped mountain scenery surrounding Kabul. It had been an amazing journey, but it was good to be home.

I’m writing this post on April 15th while flying from Denver to Thailand. Tomorrow I’ll be meeting the Afghanistan women’s national wheelchair basketball team for a one-week player development camp put on by the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation (IWBF) in Chon Buri. I’ve been trying for the past two years to find an opportunity for the Afghan women to wear the colors of their country abroad for the first time. After months of planning and a visa application process for the players that literally came down to the final minute before coming through (we booked all our flights the day before yesterday and the players finally received their visas less than 24 hours before getting on the plane – yikes), it has finally arrived. I’m so excited that the team is going to have this opportunity and am thrilled that I get to share it with them. A few reasons this will be such a landmark event:

  1. The IWBF Asia/Oceania zone is bringing top coaches from around the world to teach female players that are part of developing national programs from all over Asia. It’s an important step in promoting the development of elite wheelchair basketball programs in new countries across the zone, an important focus for the IWBF and a key point of intersection in their work and the ICRC’s.
  2. 10 of the 12 national team players from Afghanistan received permission from their families to attend the camp. While we’ll miss the two who aren’t able to come, it’s amazing to me to see this level of support from so many of the families, many of whom were nervous about the very idea of their girls playing a sport just a few short years ago. I can’t commend them enough for being so progressive and open-minded in allowing the players to break new ground for Afghanistan wheelchair basketball.
  3. I’m so proud of the players themselves for stepping (way) outside their comfort zones to participate in this camp. It is no small thing to travel abroad for the first time, but they all jumped at the chance. I’m looking forward to seeing their impressions of a place as different from Afghanistan as Thailand.
  4. Among the other countries attending (there will be around 60 players in total) are India and Cambodia, two places close to my heart. I coached twice in each country as they were getting their wheelchair basketball programs started, and have fantastic memories of working with the players. It’s been a year and a half since I last visited India and over three years since I last went to Cambodia, so it’s going to be wonderful to reconnect with all the players I worked with early in their development, especially in such a unique, internationally inclusive environment. Getting to see the players from these different countries build friendships with each other is going to be a very special experience for me.
  5. I’ll also have the chance to see many of the wonderful IWBF officials and coaches that I had the chance to get to know when the Afghanistan men’s team competed in Japan in the fall of 2015. I’m thrilled that the Afghan, Indian, and Cambodian women I’ve coached will have the chance to meet and learn from such a knowledgeable, dedicated group of people.

Following the week in Thailand, I’ll accompany the Afghan women back to Kabul, where I’ll spend two weeks holding national tournaments for the country’s men’s and women’s leagues. The IWBF camp participants will come home with a wealth of new knowledge and skills. I’m excited to see them put those to work in competition as well teach them to their teammates at home.

From Kabul, I’ll travel with Alberto Cairo – my partner in developing wheelchair basketball and adaptive sports in Afghanistan – to Boston, New York, and Washington D.C. for a week of presentations, meetings with diplomats and other potential stakeholders, and media interviews. There will be a variety of different events during the whirlwind six day trip, but the broad goal in all of them is to promote U.S. support for the ICRC‘s physical rehabilitation work, with a focus on the power sport has shown in promoting achievement and inclusion for people with physical disabilities.

I’ll head from Washington back across the Atlantic for two weeks in Gaza working with Palestinian players and coaches, a trip I look forward to every year. I’ll finish the final leg of my journey in Switzerland, where I’ll engage with my ICRC Headquarters colleagues in Geneva on plans for further developing the ICRC sports program (more news soon to come on that front).

Whew – that’s a lot of ground to cover in seven weeks. It shall be interesting; we’ll see what happens along the way!

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!

I spent my last eight days in Afghanistan conducting training camps for the men’s and women’s national teams. We had some great experiences during the week in spite of things not going according to the script we had written before I arrived.

The plan, just days before I left Colorado in early October, had been to conclude my visit with a trip for both teams to Iran. Alberto, Shukrullah, and I (representing the Wheelchair Basketball Federation of Afghanistan) had been discussing this possibility with the Iranians since July, but the conversation took much longer that we’d hoped because Iran’s wheelchair basketball federation spent the summer and early fall completely (and understandably) focused on preparing its men’s national team to compete in the Rio Paralympics. As a result, it wasn’t until two weeks before I departed that we finally got the invitation from their wheelchair basketball officials to come to Iran for 10 days. The schedule the Iranians proposed would include a men’s tournament, with our national team playing some high-level Iranian club teams and a weeklong women’s training camp with some of their top coaches, concluding with games against one of their women’s club teams. It was a fantastic opportunity for both our groups, and one that we were excited to present to all the players.

Unfortunately, just two days before I boarded my flight to Geneva on the way to Kabul, we received a message that the Iranian government decided that one month was not enough time for them to process entry visas for all our players and coaches. After taking so long to put in place, the trip was, in that moment, taken off the table. I was in favor of pressing the issue, but Alberto assured me that, if the regime in Iran had given direction not to give us the visas we needed – for whatever reason they chose to cite – there was no way they were going to be processed. I was frustrated and disappointed in equal measure, but I realized that Iran would continue to be one of the best opportunities for our teams (particularly the women) to get international experience outside the infrequent IWBF-sanctioned regional competitions, so I agreed not to push back on the decision in hopes that an arrangement can be worked out sometime in the future.

That left us to conduct another pair of national team training camps without an international trip on the horizon, and I was concerned that the players’ surprise at the last minute cancellation would make it difficult to motivate them. I should have known better. Every one of these players has spent their entire life in a country beset constantly by disappointment and unpredictability. Within that environment, they have lived most or all of their lives until very recently on the margins of society due to their physical disabilities. As a result, they are as resilient emotionally as they are physically. There would be no letdown in focus or hope as a result of the trip’s cancellation – just a lot of questions about when the next one might be.

For the men’s team, we scheduled the training camp in a new structure we’d never used before. Even though we wouldn’t be playing the planned tournament in Iran, I wanted to create the best approximation possible of that type of competitive environment, so I scheduled both the men’s national A team (the traveling team) and the national B team we created last May to train simultaneously and play against each other each day. We held short practices for each team in the mornings, similar to the preparation time we would have access to during a tournament, and played regulation games with referees each afternoon. I coached team A and my assistant coach, Qawamuddin from Herat, coached team B with Mirwais from Kabul acting as his assistant. Thanks to Canada Wheelchair Basketball for introducing me to this competition-style training camp model during my week spent with their national teams this summer – it was a perfect solution to the challenge of having our trip to Iran evaporate at the last minute.

Coaching National Team A through drills during the four-day men’s training camp (Photo courtesy of ICRC/Thomas Glass)

Though national team B has less experience (aside from two former team A players) and are for the most part a bit younger than their team A counterparts, they are all very talented players and came into the camp full of confidence and ambition. They know that every time they roll onto the court, they are each competing for a future spot on the traveling team, so they wanted to make a strong impression. They did just that on day one of the camp, pulling off a 1 point victory over team A in the first game ever played between the two. Their bench exploded at the final buzzer, with coach Qawamuddin leading the cheers (and plenty of playful jeers) in team A’s direction. While the team A players were a bit stunned, having come into the game confident that they could outplay their opponents every day, it was the perfect situation from my perspective. Team B got the jolt of confidence it needed by notching an upset to begin the week, and team A was forced to realize that, if they don’t play focused, consistent basketball, they can lose to anyone.

I took team A into a classroom behind the gym spent the next hour having each player give their impressions of things the team did well and something it could have done better to win the game. The answers were, to a man, insightful and accurate. Another concept I had picked up during my time with the Canadians was the value of letting the players puzzle through dissecting problems rather than just telling them what they did right and wrong (extrinsic vs. intrinsic feedback). It was a powerful approach, and it both brought the team together and prepared it mentally to play better games the rest of the week.

On day two, both teams came out determined to get a victory. They each scored nearly twice as many points as they had in the first game as a result of using the patient offensive principles we’d been going over in practices. Team A could not imagine losing two in a row but, unlike in the first game, they stuck to the game plan we’d developed and trusted that it would get them a win. That in itself was a major step forward. Team B was undeterred, though, and fought hard to take a four point lead into the final seconds of the third quarter. Just as the buzzer sounded, Team B’s youngest player – Mohammad Amiri from Herat (19) – launched a one-handed throw from five feet behind midcourt. Swish. It was the longest shot I’ve seen anyone make here, in practice or in a game, and he was immediately mobbed by his teammates and cheered loudly by his opponents.

Mohammad’s miracle shot gave his team a seven point lead going into the final quarter, but I told team A to stay patient, that if they continued playing the right way and not devolve into individualistic basketball, they would put themselves in a position to win. It worked. Team A gradually ate into the lead and, with 2 seconds to go, trailed by one with the ball out of bounds in its own frontcourt. The inbound pass went to Bilal – one of the young stars of the team that played in Japan last October and the most valuable player of last spring’s men’s national tournament – who turned, took one quick dribble, and launched a shot from just inside the three point line that went straight through the bottom of the net as the final buzzer sounded. Pandemonium ensued. Two games, two one-point margins, and two victors. It was an amazing way to start the week.

Despite losing its starting point guard, Ramazan, to a finger injury on the morning of day 3, Team A kept its momentum from Belal’s buzzer beating shot and won the next two games handily. More important than the victories, though, was seeing the team come together as a brotherhood the way we’d heard preached by Team Australia when we met them in Japan. With players from different provinces, different ethnic groups, several of whom have different first languages, this kind of unity has been something we’ve been working very hard to achieve. It was shown clearly on the final morning of practice.

I came into the locker room early to greet the players as they prepared for their final training session, and noticed that the normally jovial Nazir, the MVP of the just-concluded fall national championship, seemed very tired and withdrawn. I asked him if everything was ok, and he told me that his grandmother, with whom he had been very close, had passed away unexpectedly the night before in his home city of Herat. He was devastated by the loss and struggling with being so far from his family during such a difficult time. I brought the team together to begin practice and told them that Nazir had suffered a death in the family and needed all of us to be there for him as surrogate family members. Without another word being spoken, all the players dropped their heads while Wasiqullah, the team captain, began singing a traditional Afghan eulogy in Nazir’s grandmother’s honor. As he sang, members of the Kabul futsal team, which had just finished practicing on the court, came and sat around the circle of our players, bowing their heads as well. This was brotherhood at its most powerful.

I found this moment so moving that I had to capture a few seconds of it for posterity. Nazir is in yellow.

The women’s training camp was my first time delegating head coaching duties to Tahera Yousufi, a star of the women’s standing basketball national team who has spent the last two years learning the wheelchair game as an assistant coach for the Herat women’s team and the women’s national team. Tahera was clearly nervous to be taking the reins, but I assured her that I’d be there to help every minute. She did a great job and really stepped into the role as the four-day camp progressed.

The competition element of the women’s camp was a bit more challenging to structure than was the men’s since we don’t yet have a second women’s national team for the first to compete against. I still wanted to have a similar structure of practices in the mornings and regulation games in the afternoons, though, so we split team into two groups of six and had them play full games with just one substitute per team. Of course, even playing such heavy minutes, every player was loath to come out of the games even for a short break.

The goal of the women’s camp was to conclude it with the national team playing a game against the men’s team from Maidan Wardak – the first time a women’s team would have ever competed against a team of men in the country. When we proposed the game, we weren’t sure if the women would all be comfortable breaking this social barrier, but as soon as I suggested it to them on the first day of practice, everyone was excited to take on a bigger, stronger team and show them who’s boss. It was exactly the attitude I’d hoped for.

Unfortunately, the next day, about half of the players came to me and said that when they told their families about the planned game, they were forbidden to play against men. I tried speaking with some of the male relatives – fathers, brothers, uncles – who had accompanied the players to Kabul from Mazar and Herat to convince them. I told them that their daughters, sisters, and nieces had already broken down so many perceived walls by becoming women’s wheelchair basketball players in the first place, and that this was the best opportunity for them to improve since there are currently no female players in the country capable of giving them the kind of challenge they will need to learn to play internationally. They listened and considered the plea, but ultimately decided that – unless I could guarantee that there would be zero physical contact between the male and female players during the game – they couldn’t, in good conscience, allow it. Of course I couldn’t say that there would never be a hand slapped or other incidental contact between opposing players – not if we were going to play the game in a way that would give them the type of competition they needed – so we agreed to table the idea for now.

It reminded me of the first days of the women’s teams in Mazar and Kabul, when they wouldn’t allow any men to even see them practicing. A year later, they opened their practices and games to all observers and now, just a few short years later, they play national tournaments in front of news cameras and throngs of screaming fans without a second thought. I hope we’ll see the same type of evolution with respect to playing alongside and against men. I’ll continue to be patient with a cultural paradigm that is different from my own and, as with the Iranian situation, hope that everything will work itself out in the not-too-distant future. These women are strong and getting stronger every day. I know they will eventually find a way to take on all comers.

The ICRC in Afghanistan produced this fantastic clip of footage from the women’s national tournament to promote the program (Thanks to Thomas Glass and ICRC Afghanistan Communications)

A few additional photos from my last week in Kabul:

Future Afghan wheelchair basketball stars

blog-5Young disabled futsal (and hopefully future wheelchair basketball) players – Photo courtesy of ICRC/Thomas Glass

Sunset in Kabul