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

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.