On Saturday we wrapped up the Fall 2016 Afghanistan Men’s Wheelchair Basketball National Tournament, an eight day epic showdown. We’ve been staging men’s tournaments since 2012, usually twice per year, so at this point things can start to feel a bit predictable every once in a while. But somehow, this tournament managed to deliver even more excitement, inspiration, and shocking triumph than any before it.

For the second tournament in a row, we had men’s teams from eight provinces competing for the national championship. I’ve been working with the first generation of teams – Mazar-i-Sharif, Maimana, Kabul, and Herat – for over five years now. The second generation – Jalalabad and Kandahar – joined the fold in 2013, and the newest two teams – Badakhshan and Maidan Wardak – played in their first tournament just six months ago. Each team is now fully self-functioning, with its own coaches (some of whom are also players), and regular training sessions. Due to the limited time I have to spend in Afghanistan each year, I train the each provincial team’s national team members at semi-annual training camps, but it is then the responsibility of those high-level players and coaches to take the more advanced skills they learn back to their local practices and teach them to the rest of their teammates.

It’s always amazing for me to see the degree to which each of the teams has grown during the half-year between tournaments. Many of the players have become wheelchair basketball junkies, and regularly watch video of top international teams on YouTube to see what the best players and teams in the world are doing. Because of this, I am regularly blown away by new individual tricks and team strategies that they have picked up, but that I haven’t personally taught them. It’s an organically accelerating evolution that I’ve hoped since the beginning we would eventually see here.

The Opening Round

The first three days of the tournament saw two pools of teams playing a round robin round during which the four teams in each group played each of the other three teams in their group once. The goal of the first round was to establish rankings for each team, determining which teams would play against each other as they competed in the second round’s quarterfinals, semi-finals, and placement games. The first round went relatively to script.

Teams prepare for the first round (Photo courtesy of ICRC/Thomas Glass)

The defending champions from Kabul won all three of their opening round games despite playing in pool A, the tougher of the two groups, as did Mazar, the spring tournament’s surprise runners up, in pool B. Herat also played a great first round, losing just one game. The relative newcomers from Badakhshan, despite having improved significantly since their first tournament last May, lost all their opening round games, as did the team from Kandahar in the opposite pool. Kandahar was without its team captain, Hamidullah, but the team played strong games in his absence behind the leadership and post dominance of its lone national team player, Ghafar. Unfortunately, given the strength of its group (which also included Kabul, Herat, and Maimana), Kandahar couldn’t manage to eke out a win despite its consistent effort.

Ghafar of Kandahar looks to shoot over the Herat defense (Photo courtesy of ICRC/Thomas Glass)

The team from Maimana, my first students and always one of the tournament favorites, was playing without two of its best players – Sakhi and Alim, both national team players who were in the middle of exams for their prosthetics & orthotics degrees – as well as their tallest player, Rafi. This left their lone national team player, Ramazan, to do his best Russell Westbrook imitation in trying to carry a young, inexperienced Maimana team (for which he was also serving as the coach) on his back. Despite a herculean effort from Ramazan – he put on the best individual performance I’ve seen yet in Afghanistan – the team only managed one win in the opening round, which set it up as underdogs against a rapidly-improving and much deeper Jalalabad team in the quarterfinals.

A Brief Aside

One of my favorite individual stories from the tournament was that of a brand new player from Badakhshan named Yahya. Yahya is 20 years old and suffered a spinal cord injury in a car accident just 8 months ago. Before getting injured, he was a player on the Badakhshan provincial football (soccer) team; quite an athletic achievement at such a young age. I didn’t know it at the time, but Yahya was probably a patient at the ICRC orthopedic center in Faizabad when I visited there last spring to spend a few days training the newly-formed Badakhshan team on the ortho center court. Upon meeting Yahya and learning a bit about his story, I felt an immediate connection to him since our injury stories are so similar – we were roughly the same age, both had car accidents, ended up with almost the same level of spinal cord injury, and saw the derailing (or, more accurately, rerouting) of promising athletic careers.

Yahya has been playing wheelchair basketball for less than two months, but is already a starter for the Badakhshan team, and has an innate understanding of teamwork, spacing, and movement that was undoubtedly a key to his success as a soccer player. He has a very quiet countenance, but I can see that he is always observing and learning, even when he’s not playing. Within a year, I am confident that he will be one of the leaders of his team and, in the not-too-distant future, could very well make the men’s national team. It’s unbelievable to see a young person with such a new injury leaping immediately back into competitive sports as if he never missed a beat. The Badakhshan team, still yet to experience its first victory, should see rapid improvement and a move up the Afghanistan wheelchair basketball hierarchy if it can follow Yahya’s example.

The Quarterfinals

As expected, Kabul and Herat handily won their quarterfinal games against the young teams from Badakhshan and Maidan Wardak. The game between Mazar and Kandahar was expected to be similar, with an undefeated Mazar, which looked like a serious title contender in the first round, playing a winless Kandahar. However, on the morning of the quarterfinals, Kandahar’s captain, Hamidullah, arrived to rejoin his team. While Hamidullah doesn’t look like a traditional wheelchair basketball star, with his sweatpants hiked high up on his ample belly, a greying beard, and basketball techniques that are fairly rudimentary, he has always been successful and inspires confidence in his teammates. I told Alberto before the game that, despite the fact that Mazar looked like the clear favorite, it was never a good idea to count out Kandahar with Hamidullah on the court.

Hamidullah of Kandahar (Photo courtesy of ICRC/Thomas Glass)

Another surprise Kandahari attendee was Bashir Ahmad Wali, who founded the Kandahar team in 2013, but who stopped playing soon to focus on his business. Bashir has continued to act as a benefactor of sorts for the team in the years since, but I hadn’t seen him in nearly three years. He was in Kabul for a couple days during the tournament, though, and showed up to the gym to sit next to Kandahar’s bench as their self-proclaimed good luck charm. His luck was clearly in full effect that day, as Kandahar came out on an absolute tear, with Ghafar and Hamidullah hitting shot after shot to keep pace with their more-talented opponents from Mazar. In spite of Mazar’s best efforts, they just couldn’t keep pace with Kandahar, and the underdogs pulled off what might be the biggest upset ever in one of our tournaments. This meant they would play in only their second-ever tournament semi-final the following day.

In the last quarterfinal, the lean Maimana squad matched up against Jalalabad, which came into the game with great momentum, having won two of their opening round games behind an excellent young starting lineup. They weren’t favored to quite the degree that Mazar had been over Kandahar – Ramazan is too good an individual player to have his team completely counted out – but it looked highly likely that they would make the semi-finals. Ramazan had different ideas though. As well as he had played through the first round, he was brilliant in the game against Jalalabad. At some points it looked like he was playing one-on-five, but still he would squeeze through tiny seams in the defense, scoring from all over the court and making some gorgeous passes to set up his teammates. We don’t track rebounds or assists at our tournaments yet, but if we did, I would guess Ramazan ended up with a triple double (double figures in points, rebounds, and assists) in dragging his young team to an amazing victory and a semi-final berth that no one saw coming.
Ramazan in 2009 at age 15 and in 2016 (Right photo courtesy of Michael Glowacki)

The Semifinals

The first semifinal game would pit Kabul and Herat – the tournament’s two strongest teams to that point – against each other. Herat had only beaten Kabul one time in the tournament’s history – last spring – and I still remember the tears of relief their top player, Nazir, shed after the game at finally having overcome what had seemed for his entire career like an insurmountable barrier. Kabul had gone on to win the championship in that tournament, however, then won the teams’ first round matchup in this one as well. Needless to say, Herat came into the game very nervous.

Behind a balanced team effort, though, they came out strong and never let up. Kabul employed several different lineup combinations to try to stem the tide of Herat scoring, but they could never find a solution. Herat gained confidence quickly and kept building momentum throughout the game, ultimately winning an extremely well-played game and stamping its ticket to the finals for the first time in three-and-a-half years. While the Herat bench exploded in jubilation the second the final buzzer sounded, the Kabul players were despondent. They had become so used to playing in every final that the thought of losing in front of their home fans and being consigned to the third place game left many of them nearly catatonic. As Alberto and I told them later, learning to lose is just as important a part of being an athlete as learning to win. It was certainly a difficult pill to swallow, but I am hopeful that the Kabul players will use the defeat as motivation to improve even more before the next tournament.
Herat coach Qawamuddin and star player Nazir embrace after beating Kabul (Photo courtesy of ICRC/Thomas Glass)

In the second semifinal, the two surprise teams of the quarters – Kandahar and Maimana – matched up in a game that seemed like it could go either way. However, just an hour before tipoff, Maimana’s two missing star players, Sakhi and Alim, arrived to everyone’s surprise, having driven seven hours straight from their exams in Mazar after they learned the news about their team making the semifinals. With its full lineup back intact, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Maimana would roll over Kandahar and make it back to the finals.

As Kandahar had proven in its win over Mazar, however, nothing should be taken for granted. This time it was an even more unlikely hero that led Kandahar. Siada Jan, a transplant from Kabul who has always had loads of athleticism but has never shown much of a feel for the game (until this tournament he involuntarily closed his eyes each time he shot the ball, which had a predictable impact on his accuracy), exploded, scoring over 20 points against a solid Maimana defense. I exchanged several amazed looks with the scorer’s table staff after Saida Jan made shot after shot from the outside, never seeming to miss. Maimana scrambled to come back in the fourth quarter, taking a five point lead with just two minutes to play. With its good luck charm, Bashir Ahmad, again sitting at the end of its bench, though, Kandahar refused to concede and, behind several clutch baskets, managed to pull off an amazing win.
Saida Jan of Kandahar (Photo courtesy of ICRC/Thomas Glass)

In spite of their stunning loss, Maimana’s players put on one of the best displays of sportsmanship I’ve ever seen, grabbing a hand drum and immediately forming a dancing circle with the Kandahar players to celebrate a phenomenal game and the first time in its history that Kandahar would play in a national tournament final.

Bashir Ahmad, with a grin that made him look 20 years younger, said that he was so happy about his team making the finals that he wanted to throw a feast for all the teams and coaches following the championship the following day, no matter what the outcome. That’s around 120 people! He also presented me and Alberto with hand-stitched traditional Kandahari outfits (one for me and one for my wife, Lindy) as thanks for our support of his team over the years. What wonderful gestures.

The Final

Herat had only made a tournament final in our very first 5-on-5 competition back in 2013, when they finished second to Mazar. Since then, they have always been very well-coached and had solid talent, but have never managed to put everything together consistently enough to make it back to the finals. It was a different atmosphere before this game that we’d seen in any previous final. Both teams were so elated to have made it this far that there was a general positivity pervading the gym; a stark contrast to the usual edgy focus before the biggest game of the tournament.

Team Kandahar greets their opponents from Herat with a pregame “SALAM!” (Photo courtesy of ICRC/Thomas Glass)

Ezatullah, a new coach and referee from Jalalabad and a member of the Afghanistan men’s standing basketball national team, tosses up the jump ball to start the final (Photo courtesy of ICRC/Thomas Glass)

Herat was joined on its bench by the father of its captain, Nazir. I had the chance to greet him before the game; it was so nice to get to tell a parent of a player how proud they should be of their son or daughter. I rarely get that opportunity, and Nazir’s dad was very gracious and thankful. Maybe it was his presence, or maybe it was just the culmination of so much hard work over the past few years, but Nazir and his teammates played their best game ever. Kandahar fought hard, but Herat’s coordinated attack and lock-down defense was too much for them to handle. Herat put the game away early and cruised to its first ever national championship, with Nazir taking home his first tournament most valuable player trophy. When I announced his name as the MVP, he burst into tears of joy and fell over backward in his basketball chair (luckily his teammates were there to catch him before he hit the ground). His father was glowing with pride as he watched his son being mobbed by ecstatic teammates and cheered by players from all the teams.

Nazir celebrates his championship and MVP trophies with his father (left) and coach Qawamuddin (Photo courtesy of ICRC/Thomas Glass)

Following the trophy presentation, Bashir Ahmad from Kandahar made good on his promise and had a massive catered lunch delivered for all the players. It was a perfect way to end the week of fierce competition – players from all over the country sitting down in mixed groups, eating, laughing, and singing together in celebration of another unforgettable wheelchair basketball experience.

Last week I flew to Geneva, Switzerland, where I made a two-day stopover on my way to Afghanistan to meet with all the heads of the ICRC’s Physical Rehabilitation Projects (PRPs) around the world. The heads of PRP all gather once per year at ICRC Headquarters to discuss a variety of issues over the course of a weeklong conclave. This year, I was invited to present to the group on the plan for adaptive sports programs being implemented through ICRC PRPs. I spent the better part of the first half of this year writing the “Guiding Principles for Sport Program Implementations for People with Physical Disabilities” – the ICRC’s first formal set of guidelines for supporting sport programs in the countries in which it works – and this was its official introduction to the people who will be leading its real-world application.

The subject was received enthusiastically by the group and reminded me how lucky I am to be promoting such a positive, exciting, fun topic. The ICRC’s work is absolutely critical for the well-being of people in conflict zones, but it isn’t often described in the context of the joy it brings to people; in this aspect sport stands a bit apart. It was a fantastic experience to see many colleagues I’ve worked with over the years, each of whom (with the exception of the omnipresent Alberto Cairo) have moved on to different countries than those in which we first became acquainted. Each of them is a wonderful, brilliant person in their own right, and several, including Alberto in Afghanistan, Didier Cooreman from Cambodia, Greg Halford from Gaza, and Roberto Ciccone from India spoke powerfully about the impact sport has had on the adaptive athletes they’ve introduced to wheelchair basketball in the early years of our programs in those countries. It was also a privilege to meet the rest of the PRP heads in countries where we hope to start new programs in the near future or support those they have managed to recently launch through their own initiative. It’s a talented, motivated group of people and I’m excited to work with them to see the ICRC’s sport program grow over the coming years.

After the exciting days in Geneva, I flew to Kabul with Alberto to start a packed fall program of training and tournaments for Afghanistan. Since arriving on Saturday, we’ve already held two tournaments (the finals of the Kabul women’s league, as well as the Fall 2016 Women’s National Wheelchair Basketball Championships) and a three-day course for referees. Whew!

The Kabul women’s league was so fun to see. It was the first time I’ve been in the country when the local women’s league was being held, and it was amazing to see national team players playing right alongside teammates who only got in a basketball chair for the first time a couple months ago. The quality of play was a bit up and down, as would be expected with so many new players, but getting to play with and against more experienced counterparts is the best way for the game’s newest generation to learn and grow. I clearly remember my first days as a player in Portland over 15 years ago and how exciting it was to make even the smallest progress at that stage with the help of much more skilled and knowledgeable teammates and coaches. It’s wonderful to see the same learning structures take shape here.

The women’s national championships took place over just one day (an unfortunate necessity based on the flight schedules for players traveling to Kabul from Mazar-i-Sharif and Herat), but it was a day overloaded with competitiveness and thrilling performances. Kabul ended up recapturing the title from two-time defending champions, Mazar, in a 2 point thriller of a final. Kabul had beaten Mazar in the opening round, but Mazar, after a big win over Herat to make the final, came out on fire and built a quick 10 point lead over the home team. Given the way they were dominating, it seemed like a third consecutive championship was a foregone conclusion for the Mazar women. Kabul refused to give up, though, and behind a balanced attack led by eventual tournament MVP, Humaira (not to mention a raucous crowd chanting “KA-BUL! KA-BUL!” at the top of its lungs), put together an impressive fourth quarter run that cemented the victory.

This was the first time we’ve played a women’s tournament with official international competition basketballs, as Wheelchair Basketball Canada sent me home from my August visit to Toronto with two large bags of their own stock of official men’s and women’s balls. It was a challenge for the players to get used to using the smaller, lighter women’s ball after spending their entire basketball lives using the men’s ball, but they adjusted quickly and ended up loving it. Thanks so much to my Canadian friends for the donation!

The one unfortunate note about the women’s national tournament is that it was back down to a field of just three teams. Unfortunately, the women’s team in Jalalabad that was formed last spring – which I wrote about here – has disbanded after the players’ families decided it wasn’t safe for their girls to play at the local court, which is open to surrounding areas and is near areas where soldiers are often wandering around. Given the instability in their region of the country, it’s impossible to fault the families for making this decision, but I was devastated to hear that the players I’d coached for the first time last April are no longer able to play. We will try our best to find a solution that makes everyone feel safe so the team can be restarted as soon as possible. I have been promised that the brand new women’s team in Faizabad is finally ready to start playing, so we should be back to four teams by the next tournament and, hopefully, five soon after that when Jalalabad rejoins the fold.

I’ve spent the last three days giving a refereeing course to a group of about 15 aspiring officials with varying levels of experience. We’ve spent a few hours in the classroom together each day, followed by on-court experience refereeing the scrimmages of the men’s teams who are preparing for their own national championship tournament. The group includes the country’s first female referee trainees, as well as its first able-bodied male player – a brand new coach/referee from Jalalabad who plays for the Afghanistan men’s national team – and all are astute students. It’s always fun to see the level of understanding for players and coaches leap forward when they’re educated on the minutiae of the game’s rules. This is the next generation of wheelchair basketball teachers here in Afghanistan and, even in their relative infancy, they are already showing an impressive aptitude. The group asked so many insightful, detailed questions that we had to spend an extra hour each day just to squeeze all the information in, but we had a blast working through it.

Tomorrow we launch into the men’s national championship, which will take a full week with eight teams competing from around the country. Lots more fun is on the way!

We have started a new tradition in which the disabled kids’ futsal (indoor soccer) players play an exhibition match before each of our wheelchair basketball championship games – they are phenomenal and the crowds love them (Photo courtesy of ICRC/Thomas Glass)

The Mazar players get ready to take the court for the title game against Kabul (Photo courtesy of ICRC/Thomas Glass)

Nadia of Mazar looks to pass around Humaira’s defense as her team builds an early lead in the championship game (Photo courtesy of ICRC/Thomas Glass)

Nilofar of Kabul shoots during her team’s comeback victory over Mazar (Photo courtesy of ICRC/Thomas Glass)

Last week I traveled to Brazil to represent the ICRC at the 2016 Summer Paralympic Games in Rio de Janiero. The purpose of my trip was to take part in the International Paralympic Committee’s Inclusion Summit, a two-day event that is held at each Paralympics with the goal of bringing together organizations and individuals focused on advancing the inclusion agenda for people with physical disabilities, both at the Paralympics itself and in society as a whole. In addition, I would give a presentation on the work I’ve been doing with the ICRC to build the wheelchair basketball program in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and network to establish relationships between the ICRC and potential partners with similar organizational goals. On top of these practical goals, though, I was excited to have the chance to take part in my second consecutive Summer Paralympics, connect with many colleagues and friends in the international wheelchair basketball community, soak in the amazing atmosphere of the Games and, of course, take in as many games as I could squeeze in around a full meeting schedule.

I was very curious to see how the Rio Paralympics would stack up against the 2012 London Games, which had been such a revelation in terms of both public promotion and overall popularity. London had filled its Olympic venues for all the Paralympic events (the Paralympics take place two weeks after the Olympics in the same city and are held in all the same facilities) and, with live coverage of the games on a major British TV channel and billboards, posters, and other promotions for the Games blanketing the city, the visibility of the Paralympics was taken to a previously inconceivable level. It was an incredibly high bar for Rio and all future Paralympics to meet.

There were significant (and legitimate) concerns immediately before the 2016 Games began. Brazil announced to the media just over a week before the opening ceremonies that it had run out of budget and was unsure if it would be able to fund the promised travel expenses for athletes from smaller nations without the financial wherewithal to send the athletes themselves. There had been widespread complaints from Olympians about the quality of the accommodations at the Athletes Village. Petty crime had been a persistent problem during the Olympics. And ticket sales for Paralympic events were much lower than expected in the days leading up to the Games; far behind where London had been.

Thankfully, just under the wire, the Rio Paralympic Organizing Committee came through and made it all work. The atmosphere in the city was infected by the Games, there were visible promotions everywhere, and Rio’s public services had been updated to ensure those with physical disabilities could effectively navigate the distances between the giant city’s various tourist neighborhoods and the area where the Olympic Park was located. The Park itself was packed with throngs of good-natured fans – both Brazilian and foreign – who had snapped up nearly every available ticket once the Organizing Committee decided to lower prices across the board, and armies of colorful-shirted Paralympics volunteers were everywhere to ensure things ran as smoothly as possible. It may not have quite reached the perfection of the London Paralympics, but Rio acquitted itself extremely well, especially given its myriad challenges going into the start of the Games.

The Inclusion Summit, which I had participated in during the London Games as well, was a valuable opportunity to hear presentations on the ways Brazil had prepared to be a fully-inclusive Olympic and Paralympic host country, reflections on the various successes and lessons-learned by London in 2012, and perspectives on various philosophies and strategies for promoting inclusion in the sporting and professional worlds. The presentation that made the most impact on me was by a young athlete named Luis Herazo, a javelin thrower with cerebral palsy from a tiny village in Columbia. He told his personal story of growing up as a relative outcast in his community, mocked and brushed aside in equal parts during his childhood. As a young teenager, Luis was introduced to adaptive sports by a local track and field coach. He couldn’t believe sport was something that could be available to someone like him, but he took to it immediately. In just a few short years, he began to excel as a javelin thrower and sprinter and, in 2016, became the first person from his district to ever win a gold medal at the Columbian national para games. Suddenly he was transformed from an afterthought in his society – and even in his own family – to a celebrity who was known and lauded throughout his home town. Every time visitors come to his family’s home, the first thing his father does is show them the room displaying Luis’s trophies, medals, and ribbons. It’s a story that mirrors that of so many of the athletes with whom I’ve been able to work in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Palestine, and India over the past several years, but one that never ceases to inspire.

The day after the Inclusion Summit, I was invited to give a presentation at the House of Switzerland – a temporary enclave set near Copa Cabana Beach that allowed locals to experience Swiss culture and history. The Swiss Embassy gave the ICRC its own presence at the House, which included a room full of large, high-resolution photos of the organization’s recent move to support sport in the nations in which it works. It was amazing for me to roll into the room and see posters of so many athletes I’ve coached all captured in one place. There was even a photo of me coaching players in New Delhi, India. It made me feel proud and nostalgic at the same time. It also made me miss some of the athletes I haven’t seen in several years.

I delivered my presentation through an interpreter since the majority of the audience were Portuguese speakers. I’ve coached through interpreters in all the places where I’ve worked, but I’d never given a speech with one, and it was a bit challenging at first since the translation was happening simultaneously with my speaking – both of us using microphones – so I had to figure out the pacing of telling the story, ensure I wasn’t getting too far ahead for the interpreter and audience to keep up, and try not to confuse myself in the process. We quickly hit our stride, though, and the audience was great. Once I finished the presentation, I spent the next 30 minutes answering a fantastic bunch of insightful questions from nearly every member of the audience. I’d given similar presentations in a few different venues over the past year, but I’d never presented to a general audience with no specific tie to the subject matter – it was really fun to interact with the Brazilian public in that way. Many thanks to the House of Switzerland and the ICRC for inviting me to do it!

Each day I was in Rio, I spent the whole day in presentations and meetings, then took a taxi with my Brazilian ICRC colleague, Flavio, to the Olympic Park to catch the last wheelchair basketball game or two of the night. Before our first game – the men’s semifinal between the U.S. and Turkey – Flavio and I had to track down our accreditation badges, graciously provided by the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation (IWBF), which would allow us access to all the games as well as the “backstage” areas of the arena designated for players, teams, and officials. Unfortunately, the accreditation office with the badges had closed minutes before we arrived. However, we met two wonderful volunteers – one Brazilian and one British – who helped us get into the arena through back channels so we wouldn’t miss the USA game. While we were outside waiting for one of the volunteers to plead our case with a security guard, sitting in a dark corner in the massive expanse of the Olympic Park, I heard from behind me an Italian-accented voice call out my name. It was the wonderful Silvia Galimberti – the communications director of Italy’s wheelchair basketball champions, Briantea84. Sylvia was the person primarily responsible for inviting me, Alberto Cairo, and the Afghanistan men’s national team to Italy in 2014 to play our first games outside Afghanistan. Silvia has an irrepressibly positive personality and it was such an unexpected pleasure to reconnect with her so far from where we’d met. We shared a rooting interest in that night’s game, as U.S. player, Brian Bell, is the star of Silvia’s Briantea84 team during the Italian league season.

Getting back to the Games themselves, there were some major surprises during this Paralympic wheelchair basketball tournament, particularly on the men’s side. Turkey and Spain both made the semi-finals (against the U.S. and Great Britain, respectively), which was a big leap forward for both countries. The men’s teams from Australia and Canada had won all the gold medals in the past four Paralympics and, with Britain and the US, had comprised the medal competitors in nearly every Games during that time. Spain and Turkey had been rapidly developing both in their national professional leagues and in their international success the last several years, and making the medal rounds of the Paralympics was a culmination of that growth. Behind stifling defense and an innovative “small-ball” lineup featuring unbelievable team speed, the U.S. overwhelmed Turkey to make the gold medal game. In another surprise in a tournament full of them, the ascendant Spanish team upset Great Britain to set up a gold medal matchup with the Americans.

The following night, I had one of my absolute highlights of the week when I watched the women’s gold medal wheelchair basketball game between the U.S. and defending Paralympic gold medalists Germany. The U.S. team included two players I’ve spent the last two years coaching for the Denver Lady Rolling Nuggets – Christina Schwab and Natalie Schneider. I was so excited to see them play at the Paralympic level, especially in the championship game. Christina had won two Paralympic gold medals previously (and was a track & field racer in London after taking a few years off from basketball) and Natalie had won one Paralympic gold during several years as a national team member. The U.S. was trying to come back from a disappointing fourth place finish in 2012. Having practiced against them a couple times last year as they prepared for the North American Paralympic qualifying tournament, I knew how talented the team was and how focused they would be behind the coaching of Stephanie Wheeler, another multiple gold medalist as a player before moving into coaching full time. True to form, the U.S. women came out with complete determination. Behind an amazing 33 point, 8 rebound, 6 assist performance from star guard Becca Murray, the U.S. controlled the game from the outset and won by a comfortable 17 point margin to take home the gold. I felt so lucky to be able to watch my countrywomen, including Christina and Natalie, win the ultimate prize in our sport.

The next evening, the wheelchair basketball tournament concluded with the U.S. vs. Spain men’s gold medal game. While I didn’t have any players I had the same close relationships with as I did with the women’s team, it was still wonderful to watch the U.S. men represent the country with their exciting, fast-paced style. While the game was a bit closer than the women’s through the first half, the U.S. used a balanced defense-focused attack to gradually wear down the Spaniards, then broke the game open behind some incredible clutch three point shooting. In the end, the U.S. won by 16 points, securing our second gold – the first time the U.S. men and women had both won wheelchair basketball Paralympic gold medals in 28 years. It was also the first time the U.S. men and women swept the basketball gold medals in both the Olympics and Paralympics. Amazing.

One final anecdote from the Games that was fleeting but very impactful for me – as I arrived at the stadium for the men’s gold medal game and came in through the player’s entrance, I ran into Brad Ness, the captain of the Australian men’s team. I first met Brad back in October when I coached Afghanistan in the Asia Paralympic Qualifying Tournament in Japan, which Australia ended up winning to earn its spot in Rio. Brad came up to me in the early days of the tournament and introduced himself, offering to sit down with the Afghans and talk to them about the way the Australians had developed a positive, winning team culture. He also invited us to join an otherwise closed Team Australia practice so the Afghans could get an impression of how an elite team prepares for its games. Both experiences were invaluable to our growth, and Brad subsequently offered that anytime I ever needed help of any kind with spreading the game in Afghanistan or elsewhere, all I needed to do was give him a call. It was an incredible series of gestures on Brad’s part, and really set him apart in my mind as a global ambassador of the game.

When I saw Brad in Rio, however, something was different. Though he greeted me warmly when we saw each other, he looked completely shocked and dismayed. I knew Australia would have just finished the 5th place game against Brazil – itself a bit of a disappointment because Australia was so accustomed to playing for a gold medal in every Paralympics, but a game everyone expected the Aussies to win very easily. I asked Brad how the game went, and he responded, “Mate… I had a 17 footer to win it at the buzzer and I blew it.” This was Brad’s 5th Paralympics. He has been instrumental in Australia’s dominance and has won a gold and two silver Paralympic medals. In spite of his good-natured personality off the court, he is a fierce competitor on it. I couldn’t imagine how gutting it must be for him to have his team finish out of the medals and then miss the potential game winning shot to end the final game.

I tried my best to say something consoling, knowing nothing I said could ease the sting so soon after a loss. As we shook hands and started to go our separate ways, though, Brad turned and said, “Hey, Jess, you’re doing some really amazing work. I want you to tell the Afghanistan guys that I was really impressed with them in Japan. That was some good basketball they played, and I can tell they’re right on the verge of having everything click and becoming the kind of winning team they want to be. Really, any time you guys could use my help, I’m there.” I can’t properly express how much it meant for a guy going through what Brad was at that moment to step outside his own disappointment and take the time to say that. I also can’t think of a better personification of the Olympic/Paralympic spirit. I head back to Afghanistan in October, and I’ll definitely pass along Brad’s message. It will mean the world to the players.

Thank you to the city of Rio de Janiero and all the colleagues, players, and friends I reconnected with or was able to meet for the first time. It was a great, if all too brief, Paralympic experience.


Early in August, I had the opportunity to spend a week in Toronto learning from the incredible group of coaches, players, and staff that make up Canada Wheelchair Basketball. Mike Frogley, formerly the head coach of the University of Illinois and a legendary wheelchair basketball coach and innovator, was an early mentor in my coaching career. I spent several days at U of I back in 2011 studying his teaching techniques as I was first dipping my toe into coaching in Afghanistan; it was an experience that contributed hugely to my moving into coaching and sport program development as a full time career.

Coach Frogley (known by everyone simply as “Frog”) is now the head of the Wheelchair Basketball Canada National Academy. Created in 2013, the Academy is the world’s first full-time, year-round, daily training environment for high performance wheelchair basketball athletes. Though it had been several years since we’d last seen each other, Frog, who has continued to follow the progress of the Afghanistan wheelchair basketball program from afar, invited me to come to the Academy to spend some time with the Team Canada men’s and women’s teams as they went through their final preparations for the Summer Paralympics, taking place from September 7th-18th in Rio de Janiero, Brazil. Always looking for ways to improve my knowledge and skills as a coach, I jumped at the chance.


I knew going into the experience that I’d have the chance to learn from some of the best wheelchair basketball minds in the world during my time in Canada, but I assumed that learning would be primarily from the perspective of a passive observer trying to internalize as much information as possible without interrupting the flow of the program’s training camp. I should have known that Frog would never allow me to take such a predictable approach. My first morning there, he asked if I would be up for coaching the Black Aces – a team of extremely talented players from around Canada that was formed to give the men’s national team the best possible competition in its preparation for international tournaments (the Red Aces play a similar role with the women’s team). I’ve built up a decent amount of coaching experience working with players in the various developing countries where I’ve helped to start programs, and have had the honor to coach some world class individual players with the men’s and women’s Rolling Nuggets teams in Colorado the past three years, but I’d never coached a full group of players at this high a level, not to mention against the defending Paralympic gold medalists from the Canadian men’s team. Beyond that, I didn’t even know any of their names! But if Frog had the confidence that I could handle the job, who was I to argue?

The experience turned out to be fantastic. The Black Aces are a terrific group and an amazingly athletic, intelligent team. They were very patient with me as I stumbled over their names during timeouts during that first game. What I didn’t learn until later was that several of the Aces aren’t even disabled. They’re able-bodied players who have spent years competing as part of local wheelchair basketball club teams in their home cities alongside disabled teammates. They were so impressive in their wheelchairs that I never would have known had someone not told me.

I’d played against a few able-bodied players back in the early years of my playing career. I was still a fairly new player with the Portland Wheelblazers when we traveled north to Vancouver, B.C. to play the team there in 2003. It’s been a common model for Canadian teams for a while. Such a massive country with a very diffuse population meant teams needed more bodies in order to have enough players for practices and games, so they opened up wheelchair basketball to anyone who was interested in playing. Several countries have since adopted this concept, with each team being allowed a limited number of able-bodied players. It has created an ongoing debate about whether allowing able-bodied players to join wheelchair basketball teams should be a standard practice everywhere. Both sides of the argument make compelling points:

One side contends that allowing non-disabled athletes to play would potentially reduce the number of opportunities for disabled athletes – the ones for which wheelchair basketball was originally created – and could sully the insular environment that has been created to ensure the game remains pure.

The other says that the only way for the game to gain the kind of broad appeal it deserves – and reach the highest possible level of play – is to allow the best athletes to compete with and against each other, whether they are physically disabled or not. It also points to the fundamental idea of inclusion of people with disabilities – and how the only way that can be promoted to its fullest extent is if everyone is able to be included in the sport.

One thing that was made clear to me in working with the Black Aces was that there is fundamentally no physical difference between an able-bodied player and a minimally disabled player once they are in basketball wheelchairs and competing on the court. I’ve been playing wheelchair basketball for over 15 years and coaching it for seven, and I had no idea four of the players I was coaching were any different than the rest of the high-classification players on the court. When they succeeded, it was due to their skill and intelligence, not any unfair physical advantage. When they failed, it was because their opponents on the Canadian national team – all of whom were disabled – pushed harder or made better physical moves and mental decisions.

The other thing that became clear to me over the course of the week, as I got to know the players on the Black Aces better, was that the able-bodied players were every bit as passionate and dedicated to the game of wheelchair basketball as the rest of us. It was strange to realize that, as a group of people that is accustomed to being marginalized in our societies and is constantly pushing for acceptance as equals, our disabled community is, in this particular case, promoting a similar kind of discrimination by keeping these athletes from having the opportunity to play their chosen sport at the highest level. In Canada and a few other countries, at least there is integration between able-bodied and disabled players at the local level. In the U.S, there is no opportunity for non-disabled players to compete in wheelchair basketball at all.* From my perspective, not allowing skilled, committed athletes to join our game is an anachronistic practice that I hope to see fade away in the near future.


In addition to the invaluable practical experience I got coaching the Black and Red Aces against the Canadian men’s and women’s teams, I also had tons of opportunity to dialogue with and pick the brains of the coaching and technical staff of Canada Wheelchair Basketball. Each person, from the head coaches of the teams to the youngest intern, had knowledge that I knew would help me immeasurably in my ongoing development as a coach and program developer. In addition, the players themselves have a massive collective knowledge base, from which I gleaned as much as I possibly could in both game environments and in strategy sessions. Everyone was so generous with their time, and I tried to have individual conversations with as many people from around the program as possible in order to learn from each of their unique perspectives.

While I can’t say enough to thank everyone for welcoming me into their circle during such an important training environment, I have to give a special thank you to Frog. Not only did he invite me to be a part of this experience for no other reason than a desire to see wheelchair basketball spread around the world as effectively as possible, but he carved out hours each day to sit down with me and explain all aspects of their player and team development approaches, how they’re using analytics and game video in new and innovative ways, how they plan practices over extended time frames, and how they prepare their players for tournaments like the Paralympics. I could not have asked for a richer, more impactful learning environment than the one he provided.


The one thing Frog asked of me in exchange for the phenomenal growth opportunity he and his program were providing was that I give a presentation to the men’s and women’s national teams, the Red and Black Aces, and all the staff and coaches about my experiences coaching in Afghanistan and elsewhere. He is constantly looking for ways to expand the basketball education they are delivering through the Academy and national team programs to encompass larger concepts, including the ways the members of the program can use basketball to make an impact off the court as well as on it.

I was honored to be asked to give the talk, and spent about an hour giving an overview of the story of my first trip to Afghanistan in 2009 all the way up to the Afghanistan men’s national team competing in the Paralympic Qualifying Tournament for Asia last October. I hoped the story and photos I shared would strike a chord with at least a few of the 50 or so people in the room and help them see similar possibilities for their own futures. I had no idea how broadly that message would resonate, though, and was amazed to see several people (who will remain nameless to protect their tough athlete reputations) with tears in their eyes by the end of the talk. Once I concluded and answered some questions, there was immediately a line of players wanting to talk to me and find out how they could help with the initiative I’m building with the ICRC. One of the coaches, Paul Bowes, with whom I had the pleasure of coaching the Black and Red Aces, told me afterward that he had never seen the group of players that focused for that long without a single person checking their phones, dozing off, or losing attention in any way. What a compliment.

I’ve hoped for several years that eventually the ICRC sports program for people with physical disabilities would grow to the point that we would be able to engage other coaches in bringing wheelchair basketball and other sports to developing countries dealing with conflict around the world. Knowing that such a knowledgeable group as Wheelchair Basketball Canada is be willing to be a part its evolution is unbelievably exciting.


The day before I came home, I had a chance to meet up with two very good friends, Pat and Anna Anderson, and their one-year-old son, Stanley. We went out to breakfast and, while sitting at a table near the entrance, a man walked into the restaurant, looked over, and said to me, “Salam alaikum. Khoubasten?” (“Peace be with you. How are you?”) in Dari, the primary language in Afghanistan. I instinctively responded in the same language, “I’m fine, thanks. How are you?” before stopping and saying, in English, “Wait a second… how did you know I’d understand that??” He smiled and pointed to my shirt, which had a small Afghanistan flag on the chest. We introduced ourselves – he had moved to Canada years before from Kabul – and he asked why I was wearing the shirt. When I told him I coach wheelchair basketball in Afghanistan, he could hardly believe it. He was elated to hear about the program and wished me and the players there great luck in our future endeavors.

One last fun experience I had just before leaving was talking with Pat for the first episode of a wheelchair basketball-focused podcast he’s planning to launch soon. Pat played for the Canadian national team for many years, winning three gold medals, but retired following the 2012 London Paralympics. He’s still a great ambassador and advocate for the game, and his podcast should be a great mechanism through which to engender discussion on important topics and bring further awareness of the game to the broader public. I don’t know exactly when the first episode will be available, but I’ll be sure to post it here once it is.

In about 2 weeks, I’ll be flying down to Rio to represent the ICRC at the last few days of the Paralympics, during which I’ll be attending a summit focused on continuing to use sport as a lever through which to promote inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of society, as well as giving a similar talk to the one I did in Toronto. I’ll also have the chance to watch a couple of Team USA players I’ve coached with the Nuggets (go Christina and Natalie!) as well as see my new friends from Canada compete for men’s and women’s medals. Good luck to all!






* The one exception in the US is in the collegiate division, where a recently-adopted rule allows newly-formed collegiate teams to roster able-bodied players until they have a chance to develop their program fully enough to have an entire team of disabled players.

It’s the first of June and somehow my three weeks in Gaza are already about to conclude. It’s been a truly wonderful experience – one in which I’ve felt very connected to the people here. Like most things in Palestine these days, though, it hasn’t been without its challenges and sobering realities.

I spent my second week here working with each of the eight men’s club teams and the two women’s teams. I used a different structure this time than I have in the past, with a focus on continuing the development of the coaches after our four-day theoretical course that kicked off the program. Instead of setting the training agendas for the teams myself as I normally do, I sat with each coach and created a plan together so they could take an active role in analyzing their teams and deciding what they most needed to learn in my day with each of them. It was a fun approach that gave me great insight into the thought processes of the coaches – I continue to be excited by the commitment and teaching talent here. The league will have a great chance to flourish with such a solid foundation

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Coach Cashtop instructs new player, Mahmoud, on proper shooting technique (© Jesus Serrano Redondo – ICRC Media Delegate and Spokesperson)

A few of the newer men’s clubs that have been formed in Gaza since I visited last year are primarily made up of disabled victims of the most recent war between Hamas, the governing party in Gaza, and Israel. The war took place in the summer of 2014, so those players are all less than two years post-injury. I’m continually stunned by the resilience and emotional fortitude of the people here. To lose a limb (or limbs in many cases), suffer a spinal cord injury, or deal with any other type of life-altering physical transformation, particularly as part of a war in which the affected individuals have no control, is obviously a massively traumatic event. The collateral damage can be far worse, though.

I learned that one of the new players had his family’s house destroyed in the 2014 war and lost his leg just above the knee in the incident. He was one of 19 family members living in the house and the only one who survived. To move forward from that at even the most basic level takes an inconceivable amount of inner strength. And yet, just this short time later, he has already become the captain of his new wheelchair basketball team and is a relentlessly positive and vocal presence for them on the court. I’m in awe and utterly humbled by what he – and so many of his fellow players – are overcoming in order to be a part of this basketball program.

I mentioned in my last post that we were excited to have the first official game in many years between teams from the West Bank and Gaza here at the end of my trip. We received bad news a few days ago, though, when we learned that the authorities had denied the issuance of permits for all the West Bank players to cross into Gaza. We knew there was a good chance that some of the players would be denied, but to have them all rejected was a huge, huge disappointment. I hoped – probably naively – that something as inspirational as a wheelchair basketball game between long-separated countrymen might sway the authorities to make a positive gesture. Unfortunately, it was not to be. My deepest apologies to the players in the West Bank, whom I was so excited to see again after coaching them two years ago – I will continue to work with my colleagues here to do whatever we can to ensure this game happens in the future.

The last group I worked with was the group of women’s players – about half of whom have been playing since I came a little over a year ago, but with a substantial lapse during the time in between. Many of the conversations my colleagues and I have been having with the Palestinian Paralympic Committee have focused on the need to promote the women’s game just as much as the men’s. It is challenging because of cultural assumptions about sports and whether they are an appropriate pursuit for women here – the Paralympic Committee and several clubs have run into obstacles with families of potential players not being supportive of the idea of their daughters, sisters, and wives joining teams. We’re pushing them to continue to push the issue though, and I told them how quickly the game has grown among women in Afghanistan despite similar societal pressures. The disabled women here in Gaza are much newer to playing sports, but they are quickly falling in love with basketball and – if given an equal chance to play – I know their story will begin to resonate with other women and girls and their families, hopefully prompting more and more players to join in the fun.

AP photo
AP Photo/Khalil Hamra (The Associated Press)

Abs Winston Tweet
Photo and caption courtesy of @AbbsWinston on Twitter

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Hanan shoots and scores! (© Jesus Serrano Redondo – ICRC Media Delegate and Spokesperson)

I also got the chance to visit a brand new sports club exclusively for disabled women – the first of its kind in Gaza – and sit with the players for a couple hours discussing all kinds of things. Because it is uncommon for disabled women here to frequently leave their homes, having the social outlet of their own club is a huge step forward. The conversation was so easy and natural; they were very interested in learning about my experience as a disabled person from a different culture, and we bonded immediately. One of the many great questions they asked was, “in America, how do people look at you as a disabled person?” It was a powerful question to consider, and one I had to think about for a minute before answering. I told them that I don’t think everyone sees me the same way, but in general, I don’t really think about my interactions with people in this way, whether I’m in the U.S. or anywhere else; rather than approaching people with an understanding that they will see my disability first, I present myself according to the way I feel, not necessarily the way I look. I told them I always make eye contact with people. Once people see what is behind your eyes, they will know much more about who you are than if they only see the outer physical picture of your disability. They all nodded excitedly and agreed that this is how they will approach people from now on. Go get ‘em, ladies!

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Chatting with the members of the Al Farisad Sports Club for Disabled Women

The one other great experience I had over the last week was getting to meet an able-bodied basketball team for girls that is being coached by a couple of the wheelchair basketball coaches I’ve been working with the last couple weeks – Ibrahim and Mohammed. The team is for girls aged 15 to 18 and was just formed about six months ago. The girls were so awesome! They’ve come a long way for having only played for such a short time, and are 100% invested in their new sport. I taught them how to do dribble-spin moves during my visit to their practice – something I had to spend a second remembering how to do myself since it’s been 20 years since I last did it without a wheelchair! Ibrahim and Mohammed are doing an amazing job with the group – good luck, girls!

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Coaches Ibrahim (second from left) and Mohammed (back right) and their team of 15-18 year old girls

This afternoon I’ll have one last meeting with all the coaches to go over what we learned during our time together. Then tomorrow we have a closing ceremony that should be a really cool experience with all the players and (hopefully) lots of local and international media present. Gaza, I’ll miss you. Until next time.

It’s hard to believe it’s been two weeks since the end of the men’s tournament in Afghanistan. A lot has happened in that time, so here are a few highlights to bring things up to date.


The day before the men’s tournament began, we were joined by two old cohorts – David Constantine, the co-founder of Motivation UK (makers of all basketball wheelchairs our players use in Afghanistan and other places where the ICRC supports wheelchair basketball programs), and his assistant, Johannes. David and Johannes hadn’t been to Afghanistan since 2012, the year of our very first men’s tournament, and hadn’t seen any of the players since they joined us in Italy in 2014. It was wonderful for them to get a chance to see much the game has progressed in the years since and how far the Motivation basketball wheelchairs have taken our players.

David, who is an excellent photographer, managed to capture some amazing images of the tournament action, several of which I included in my previous post.

Blog 8David Constantine and Mohammadullah (Photo by Michael Glowacki)

The Afghanistan Men’s National Team

At the end of the men’s tournament, the third iteration of the men’s national team was named. Two new players – Safi from Kabul and Haidar from Jalalabad – made the roster, joining the 10 players who will return from last year’s team. This is Haidar’s first national team and Safi’s second (he was also on the first version that traveled to Italy in 2014). I spent three days training the team after the tournament concluded. We had a great time working together, and I saw a lot of growth in the players – particularly those who went to Japan last fall.

On the first day of training camp, I asked each of the players to talk about what being on the Afghanistan National Team means to them. The answers were very thoughtful and, in many cases, profound. The theme for all of them was that being a part of this team breaks down so many societal and cultural barriers; it makes them forget that they are from different parts of Afghanistan, that they have different ethnic backgrounds (something that can be very divisive in Afghanistan), and that they are disabled. The assistant coach, Qawamuddin, had perhaps the most poignant comment, saying, “People always assume those with physical disabilities can’t do much for themselves and need to be taken care of. I thought this too when I was asked to coach the wheelchair basketball team in Herat several years ago. I learned very quickly that there are no limits to what people who are driven can accomplish, no matter what their physical barriers. This team is showing that to the whole country – disabled and non-disabled people alike. You will also show the rest of the world that Afghanistan is more than just a place with war and poverty; it is a proud place where people are able to overcome enormous challenges.”  Well said, Qawam. Well said.

The Team of Potential

We also created a new structure this year, naming a second men’s team – the “Team of Potential” – that includes the twelve best players not named to the national team. This will create an opportunity for the next generation of national team players to train together throughout the year, learning from great coaches and preparing themselves for the opportunity to play on the traveling team as soon as it arises. The team is a mix of young players and those with more significant experience – and the team will help the national team train for international competitions by scrimmaging against them several times each year. The new team will be trained by Qawamuddin and another expert teacher, Mirwais from Kabul, who is dealing with an injury and wasn’t able to compete for a player position on the national team this year. Congratulations to the new team and coaches!


Following the national team training camp, I bade Afghanistan farewell and flew to Israel, where I spent two days recovering in Jerusalem before crossing the border into Gaza. While I was in Jerusalem, I had the chance to spend time with two old friends and colleagues – Greg Halford from the ICRC (Greg and I were together in Afghanistan in 2013 and 2014 and in Gaza last year) and Ehsan Idkaidek of the Palestinian Paralympic Committee in the West Bank. It was great to reunite with both of them and talk about the future of Palestinian wheelchair basketball in both Gaza and the West Bank. Things are naturally very challenging here with the border restrictions for Palestinians, but we are excited to take a major step forward on this trip by bringing several of the top players from the West Bank to Gaza to stage a game between teams from the two sides of Palestine – the first time this has happened in over 15 years. I’m thrilled that this is going to take place while I’m here and can’t wait to reunite with the West Bank players I had the pleasure of training two years ago.

Unfortunately, due to Israeli restrictions currently in place that won’t allow Palestinians from East Jerusalem to cross into Gaza, Ehsan himself won’t be able to join this event. It’s a true shame, as he has been so instrumental in helping to advance sports for people with physical disabilities here and has played an important role in uniting the two sides of the Palestinian Paralympic Committee over the past year. Ehsan, your presence will definitely be missed.
Ehsan Al Jazeera PhotoEhsan Idkaidek (Photo by Al Jazeera)

Getting Started in Gaza

Since I was last in Gaza in February 2015, the Paralympic Committee has managed to bring four new men’s and two new women’s wheelchair basketball clubs on board. This is tremendous progress, and I was amazed and thrilled to hear the game has now reached so many more players than it had just a year ago. I asked the Paralympic Committee to make a plan for how they’d like to structure my visit to – in their view – have the biggest impact on the evolution of their league.

As a result, I spent my first four days here conducting a course for 20 Gazan coaches – twice as many as were here last year – combining classroom theory with on-court practical sessions where they got the chance to coach both new and experienced players in a variety of individual skills and team concepts. I’m so impressed with the assembled group – it includes several members of the able-bodied basketball community, including three players for the men’s able-bodied national basketball team. It’s always fantastic to see people from outside the disabled community getting involved with wheelchair basketball, and Gaza has done a wonderful job of making this integration happen right from the beginning.

The coaches were very engaged and asked fantastic questions throughout the program, though there were a few times where their fervor to get answers got a little out of hand. It’s always a challenge to conduct a class like this in another language because I have to depend on an interpreter to explain to me everything that’s being said by the students (and vice versa, of course). Since Palestinians can get a bit verbose at times – everyone has an opinion on the best answers to everyone else’s questions, even when those questions are being asked only to me – there were instances when a short question would be asked, followed by increasingly loud responses by one, then two, then four, then ten people, leading to everyone in the room trying to yell over the top of each other in what sounded like very aggressive voices (remember, I had no idea what was being said during these repartees). Eventually, I would manage to get everyone to quiet down so my endlessly patient interpreter, Tamara, could explain to me what had been asked. Invariably, the question that had caused the room to explode into a cacophony of raised voices would be something completely innocuous, like, “Is it possible to call two timeouts at the same time if I want to talk to my team for more than a minute?” Each time, once I heard the question translated, I’d burst into laughter in disbelief that that had been the root of the uproar, followed by the entire room of coaches breaking up in laughter at the absurdity of it all.

We all had a wonderful time together during the course, and I think the coaches got a lot out of the experience. Over the coming week, I’ll be working with each of the club teams – men’s and women’s – and their coaches for a day apiece, followed by some competitions and other events next week, as well as the arrival of the team from the West Bank. Things are off to a great start here, and I’m excited to see the momentum continue to build.

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Coaches (l-r) Ibrahim 1, Ibrahim 2, and Wahil (Gaza photos by Mohammad Sukhar)

Blog 2Getting started with coaches and players at our first practical session

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Coaches Ahab (left) and Mohammad (nickname “Cashtop”) instruct a new player while I observe and Tamera translates

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“You’re seriously all yelling at each other about whether it’s possible to use two timeouts at once? Really??”

The 2016 Afghanistan Men’s Spring Championship concluded this morning, and it was an unbelievably wild ride. All the sports-related drama you could possibly ask for – underdog triumphs, falls from grace, comebacks, established stars living up to their hype, unknown players turning into stars, tears, joy – this tournament had it in spades.

With two new teams joining the fold, our pool of teams expanded from six to eight, necessitating a change to a twin bracket format and extending the tournament to five days of games with one rest day in the middle. This was the first time we’ve had a tournament format where each of the teams didn’t play each other in the opening round – with eight teams, we drew randomly to create four-team A and B brackets, with each of the teams playing only the teams in their own bracket. Based on their performances in the opening round, the teams were ranked 1-4 in each bracket, and began a playoff round where the top team played the fourth team from the opposite bracket in the quarterfinals, then the winners of those games moved on to the semifinals, third place game, and championship game.

To set the stage for the unfolding of the tournament and all the surprises that came along the way, I’ll give a brief overview of each team and its history.

The newest men’s team, formed just three months ago in the city of Faizabad, the team from Badakhshan Province was made up of four players new hometown players who were joined by six Kabul-based men’s players to fill out its fledgling roster. I wrote a post about my time training the team from Badakhshan shortly after arriving in Afghanistan. There was little chance that they would be competitive in their first tournament, but just joining the league was a great accomplishment in itself.

Coached by my assistant men’s national team coach, Qawamuddin, and boasting a strong and deep roster, Herat has underachieved in its last three tournaments. Last year they finished a disappointing fifth out of six teams and came into this tournament looking for a way to turn things around. I’d heard that their players had been training hard in hopes of finding a way to get their first ever championship, so I was excited to see whether they’d put their talent to work and make a deep tournament run.

The surprise of the Fall 2014 Men’s tournament, Jalalabad went from never having won a game in its previous two tournaments to a shocking third place finish. In 2015, however, the team regressed and finished last. Their best player, Wasim, has since left to join the Kabul team where he now lives, so they faced long odds for success this year.

The defending champions and Afghanistan’s deepest team, Kabul has won two of the last three national titles. Entering this tournament, its roster boasted four of the 12 men’s national team members, with a fifth – Fahim – having recently left to lead the new team from Maidan Wardak (see below). The last three years, Kabul has come into the tournament as the favorites, and this year was no exception.

Last year’s surprise team, Kandahar took third place after never having finished in the medals before. They’re led by Ghafar, the national team’s biggest player who, with his huge size and shy smile, is a favorite of fans and players from all different provinces. The Kandahar team’s previous coach, Ahmad, recently returned to his native Canada, leaving them in the hands of assistant coach Abdullah.

Maidan Wardak
The league’s other new team, joining Badakhshan as a first-time tournament participant, Maidan Wardak was created by a group of former Kabul players whose families are originally from the neighboring province. Fahim, a longtime Kabul-team starter and national team member, is playing and coaching while leading a collection of former Kabul reserves and second-level players.

Along with Kabul, Maimana has been the country’s most consistent team, also having won two national titles and having finished second two other years (including 2015 in a down-to-the-wire championship game against Kabul). Three national team starters – Sakhi, Ramazan, and Alem – form the core of the Maimana roster, but due to the small size of their home city, the team lacks depth and is challenged when a starting player needs to be replaced.

The team that seen the most marked ups and downs in the brief existence of Afghanistan wheelchair basketball, Mazar won the country’s second national championship and sent four players to Italy in 2014 with the first version of the men’s national team. Only one of those players returned, however, with the other three defecting to Germany along with the former leader of the Maimana team. Following the debilitating loss of its three best players, Mazar began a daunting rebuilding process led by its lone remaining national team member, Basir – a class 1.0 player (meaning he is in the most disabled category of wheelchair basketball players) – who gamely struggled through Mazar’s ensuing Fall 2014 last place finish and its surprising jump to fourth place last year behind a cast of new, inexperienced-but-talented players that I had the pleasure of training for the first time.

The First Round

The Spring 2016 Tournament opened with a slate of intriguing first round games. The first day began with the new team from Badakhshan matching up against the bruisers from Kandahar. While it ultimately lost the game, Badakhshan showed the promise it hopes to realize in the coming year. The team’s founding member, Baset – whom I wrote about in my previous post on training the team – displayed competitive fire even in the face of defeat. Once he and his teammates have the time to get a bit more training under their belts, it is obvious that they will progress quickly and soon reach the level of the rest of the teams here.

The second game was between Kabul and Herat. The history between these two teams has seen a dominating performance by Kabul, which came into the game undefeated against its rivals from the west of Afghanistan. However, despite a strong and confident start by Kabul, Herat was unintimidated and fought its way back during the second half behind excellent play by its center, Nazir. Herat took its first lead late in the fourth quarter and held on behind some shrewd coaching moves by Qawamuddin to pull out a one point victory – its first ever against the team from Afghanistan’s capital. After the final buzzer sounded, Nazir melted into tears, exclaiming, “it has been five years!!”

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Nazir of Herat lines up a free throw against Kabul (Photo by David Constantine)

Following Herat’s inspirational win, Jalalabad opened its tournament bid by notching another first – beating Mazar for the first time in its history. After suffering through such a disappointing finish last year and losing its best player to an already-loaded Kabul team, it was the best start Jalalabad could have hoped for. While it had to stomach a close loss, Mazar’s team looked like it had improved significantly, with its newer players haven taken a big step forward and Basir of the old guard having made his own leap in just the six months since I coached him in Japan.

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Amanullah of Jalalabad scores against Mazar (Photo by David Constantine)

The remainder of the first round saw Maimana easily dominate its side of the bracket, which featured both new teams along with Kandahar, while Herat edged out Kabul, Jalalabad, and Mazar to take the first seed out of the other, more balanced side. While Maimana seemed to be clearly the strongest team in the field, it was clearly anybody’s game going into the playoff round.

The Playoffs

With Maimana and Herat taking the top positions in their respective brackets, it set up a cross-bracket quarterfinal lineup that matched Herat with the newcomers from Badakhshan while Maimana would have to play their oldest rivals, the resurgent Mazar team that had demonstrated increased confidence and improved play in each of its first round games. While it finished last in its first round bracket due to the fact that it had lost to Jalalabad in its first game, there was no question that Mazar was a dangerous team heading into the second round.

Like an overmatched boxer with nothing to  lose, Mazar came out and threw haymaker after haymaker against Maimana, the two teams battling at top speed and with little regard for their own (or their opponents’) safety. Mazar shockingly came out with a full court press against the faster team from Maimana and, while the strategy was very risky, it worked. Maimana was thrown off its game and ended up committing some uncharacteristic fouls and giving up a lead to Mazar in the early going that it would have to fight and claw its way to recapture late in the game. Once Maimana finally retook the lead, however, Mazar refused to give in. It pushed the action and attacked the Maimana defense until the Maimana team’s starting class 2.5 – Alem of the national team – was whistled for his fifth and final foul. Because of Maimana’s paucity of depth, they didn’t have a viable substitute to put into the game, leaving them with no option but to finish the final minutes of the game with just four players against Mazar’s five. Mazar kept its foot on the gas the rest of the way and stunned the heavy favorites with a huge upset, meaning they would move on to the semifinals while Maimana – just an hour earlier looking like the tournament favorites – would have to settle for playing in the fifth place game. The Mazar team exploded in cheers after the landmark win, with the team piling on top of each other in their euphoria and the Maimana players grudgingly applauding in the face of their shocking defeat.

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Basir of Mazar looks to pass against the defense of Maimana (Photo by Michael Glowacki)

In the other quarterfinals, Kabul and Herat easily dispatched the new teams from Maidan Wardak and Badakhshan, while Jalalabad fought out another amazing win, this time against Kandahar, to make their way to the semifinals – sweet redemption a team trying to bounce back after hitting bottom the year before.

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Mukhtar of Badakhshan drives against Herat in the quarterfinals (Photo by David Constantine)

In the semis, Mazar continued its ascent, swarming Jalalabad with lightning quick defense and tremendous offensive teamwork, while Kabul eked out a close win against Herat, avenging its first round loss.

In the third place game that opened this morning’s final day festivities, Herat was an efficient machine, dismantling Jalalabad from the opening tip and capturing its first tournament trophy in three years. While it wasn’t quite the championship they had hoped for after six months of hard training, the team was definitely happy with such a marked improvement from their previous two years’ results.

That led us to the championship game – a rematch of the Kabul vs. Mazar final pairing that had previously yielded Mazar’s only championship back in 2013. It was hard to believe a team that had lost its three primary scorers a year later and rebuilt itself around a short, slightly pudgy (no offense, Basir!) class 1.0 point guard could possibly have made it all the way back to the finals in just two years. It was a true story of overcoming all obstacles and never accepting defeat. But Mazar wasn’t interested in being a feel good story. It believed in its ability to take on all comers and its players showed absolutely no fear as they lined up across from the defending champions from Kabul.

As it had done against Maimana, Mazar came out swinging. It built an early lead that Kabul, no matter how hard it pushed, seemed unable to cut down. Every time a Kabul player would make a great play, Mazar would push the pace and set up a scoring run of its own. By the beginning of the fourth quarter, Mazar led by seven points and had controlled the pace of play throughout the game. Basir had led a balanced scoring attack and had even swished a three pointer near the end of the third quarter to push his team’s lead to its current level. All the momentum was on Mazar’s side; they were 10 minutes away from realizing their improbable dream of coming all the way back to the top.

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Shah Wali of Mazar drives baseline to score against Kabul in the final (Photo by David Constantine)

In the fourth quarter, Kabul snapped out of its funk and – behind the outstanding play of its star player, Bilal – fought back to tie the game. Basir hit another unbelievable three pointer for Mazar halfway through the quarter, but Kabul continued its assault, ultimately prevailing by two points and repeating as champions. It was the first time a men’s team had won back-to-back titles; ironically, just a week after the women’s team from Mazar had accomplished the same feat in the women’s tournament. Congratulations to the team from Kabul and its new head coach, Khalid, for pulling off such an impressive accomplishment against such a talented field of teams.

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Bilal of Kabul saves the ball during his team’s fourth quarter comeback against Mazar (Photo by David Constantine)

Every tournament, during the awards ceremony, I follow the presentation of the team trophies by naming the Most Valuable Player of the tournament. Every previous year, the winner of the MVP was the top player from the winning team and always a higher classification player, either a 3 or 4. This year, however, I knew before the final game ended who had been the most valuable to his team. Basir from Mazar, physically one of the least-likely wheelchair basketball stars anywhere, had led his team back from its lowest point. He had served as the team’s coach until this tournament, had coached the Mazar women to back-to-back titles, and had recruited the stable of players that have so quickly grown into some of the country’s brightest young talents, and all the while had continued working on his own game to maximize his own limited physical resources. He scored 18 points in the final despite being the smallest player on the court. He made huge shot after huge shot when his team needed them the most. Maybe it wasn’t quite enough to win the championship, but it was more than anyone could have expected and, with the talent he now has around him, I have a feeling he’ll have many more chances to win the championship trophy. Basir, you’re the man.

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Basir, MVP of the 2016 Spring National Championships (Photo by Michael Glowacki)