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Basketball Diaries: Afghanistan

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Back in the USSR in the 1980s, my schoolteacher warned me that if I didn't study hard, I'd get drafted into the army and sent to die in Afghanistan. I studied hard. I moved to America. Twenty years later, I found myself in Afghanistan anyway.

After finishing my Ph.D. in Biophysics, I realized that I didn't envy my professors' jobs. Instead of continuing on in academia, I shipped out to Jalalabad in December 2010 to join the Synergy Strike Force.

The SSF was assembled by a neuroscientist named Dave Warner, who has spent the past decade trying to apply science and communications to the problems of poverty and isolation, particularly in war-torn regions. The primary goal of the group in Jalalabad was to blanket the city with internet, to teach residents how to keep the internet functioning. The group was technically unaffiliated with the US government, but Dave had many contacts in the military, particularly at DARPA, and they knew we were there.

We operated "outside the wire," that is, not inside the big military base on the outskirts of Jalalabad. We lived at the Taj Mahal Guest House, where the SSF had set up a powerful internet broadcasting system. Antennas on the roof beamed wireless signals to the tallest water-tower in the center of town. The signals reached hospitals, schools, and individual homes via a mesh network of aging routers and makeshift tin-can antennas. This citywide network had been assembled by local geeks trained at the Afghan Fab Lab. A few of the local geeks now worked with the SSF at the Taj Mahal.

When I first met Sudir he was about to graduate from Nangarhar University with a bachelor's degree in English literature. His side hobbies in DIY computer networking, solar power installation, and blogging set him apart from other Afghan boys. Sudir had a spry demeanor and the physical frame of someone who prefers running to walking. A few weeks after we met, he noticed that I wasn't getting any exercise and invited me to play pickup basketball with his friends. I had played some basketball in my hometown of Newton, Massachusetts, so of course I said yes.

The only basketball court in town was at Nangarhar University. Since the school was short on space, the court saw many uses. At sunrise and sunset it was a mosque. During exam time, the court was lined with desks and littered with cheat sheets. We'd clear the desks only to slip on schematics of chemical reactions annotated in Pashto. Beside the court, some Nangarhar University students lived in windowless spaces that resembled maintenance closets. There they did their laundry and defecated beneath the stands.

Most of the Afghan basketball players stepped on the court barefoot; a few wore sandals, others worn-out dress shoes. The vast majority of them wore traditional Afghan baggy pants that Pashtuns call partoug and the American soldiers have nicknamed "man jammies." In time, the hazy fog of Afghan players coalesced into human beings with names: Big Boy Nasrat, Fleet-footed Sudir, Haji Najib, Young Azar, Engineer Izatullah, Lefty Ashoq.

Sudir and his friend Najib stood out. They wore shiny yellow sneakers embroidered with the logo of Afghanistan's National Olympic Committee. The shoes had been distributed at the national basketball tryouts in Kabul the previous year; Sudir and Najib were among the participants. From the moment I laid eyes on those shoes, I wondered what it would take to get a pair.

Najib and I had a special connection; we both spent the '80s in the Soviet school system. After the Mujahideen killed his father, who served as an officer in the Afghan National Army, Najib was raised in an orphanage in the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. He'd lived in half a dozen countries and learned a number of languages, including my native Russian.

In the late 1990s, during the regime of the Taliban, Najib returned to Jalalabad to reunite with his mother and extended family. At the age of 31, he was now married with three small children.

Soon after we met, Najib became my driver, translator, and primary confidant. I relied on his insights and commentary while navigating Afghanistan.

You can learn a lot about a culture from how it plays sports. In Jalalabad, the overall court manner was selfish. The players rarely passed to their teammates, preferring to run head-on into a crowd with a prayer that something spectacular would happen. Instead of giving every call the benefit of the doubt, they argued vehemently for their side.

The bigger player tended to win, and the biggest player was Nasrat. His behavior was disruptive. At the second game, I confronted him over ball possession and immediately regretted it. I feared that I had initiated a showdown with the alpha male without having shored up support. Remarkably, Nasrat relinquished the ball without argument. He brought a whistle to the next match, and handed it to me, thereby conferring on me the role of trusted arbiter.

The court was in the ground path of an active runway at the US military Forward Operating Base Fenty. (It later served as the launching point for the attack on Osama Bin Laden's hideaway in Abbottabad, Pakistan.) Like expert birdwatchers, we learned to identify the low flying specimens by their beaks, tails, and plumage. We distinguished the subspecies of drone (Predator, Reaper, and Global Hawk) by their tail configurations. The military helicopters flew in twos or threes. The terrifying Apaches, sleek Blackhawks, and monstrous Chinooks circled around, and occasionally I thought I could make out a hand waving from the cockpit. The big-bellied blue transport helicopters, owned by a Canadian firm that Americans code-named "Molson Air," always flew alone. Less frequent visitors were the charters and cargo planes from Defense Flight Services, Embassy Air, and the United Nations. The rarest bird of all was the military jet.

Along with a young Englishman named Rory Brown, the only other foreigner playing on the Nangarhar court, I joined the Afghans in watching this dizzying aerial diversity with the awe-filled, wide-eyed stares that little boys reserve for heavy machinery and fire trucks. The drones were almost never out of sight, whether coming, going, or circling overhead. At first, their extremely loud engines puzzled me. But when the continuous buzzing became too commonplace to notice, I realized it was persistence, not stealth, that was their true strength.

A couple of months after our first pickup game, Sudir and Najib told me that a call had come from Kabul. The Afghanistan National Basketball Federation (ANBF) was organizing a tournament and had invited our team to represent Nangarhar Province. They asked me to come along as their coach. Our conversation went something like this:

- You realize that I know nothing about coaching.

- ...still probably more than we know about being coached.

- All I have to offer is common sense.

- It might work well in combination with what we've got.

- I need time to consider.

- There is no time. The tournament is less than two weeks away.

Given the short notice, we had, at most, ten days of practice. I was worried about taking time away from the Synergy Strike Force but Dave Warner encouraged me to give basketball "all the time that it needs." I called up Rory, the Englishman, and he was in, too.

Big Boy Nasrat -- moody, bellicose, and belligerent -- became our official team captain. The tallest among us, he was naturally suited for center. Instead, Nasrat fashioned himself a point guard. He dubbed us the Nangarhar Stars, ignoring the team's opinion that the name was pretentious.

Security posed a challenge. The most deadly terror act in Jalalabad since 2001 had occurred just a few days earlier. Several recent graduates of Taliban training camps located in Pakistan had crossed the border, walked into the main branch of Kabul Bank wearing Afghan National Police uniforms, shot civilians and police officers who were collecting their salaries, then successfully blended with the victims and detonated suicide vests during the rescue operation. Two guards at the Taj Mahal Guest House lost their brother in the attack.

Living "outside the wire" meant being responsible for our own safety. Avoiding patterns was one of our core principles. We didn't plan far in advance, and we didn't advertise our movements ahead of time. Ten consecutive days of practice would constitute an unmistakable pattern. Therefore Rory and I decided to implement an experimental scheduling strategy and test the team's battle preparedness at the same time. The two of us would agree on the time in advance but only share it with Sudir and Najib half an hour before practice. This triggered a series of calls: "Drop what you are doing and come play ball!"

To be less conspicuous, Rory and I came independently. We arrived in our Corollas with a basketball in the trunk. These elaborate precautions failed to deter our most frequent visitors, a pack of boys who seemed to emerge from the lot itself and whom I came to recognize in time. When a new face appeared in the crowd, however, I'd watch the person carefully and review the quickest escape route in my head: Jump over the stands. Luckily, at least at this time, these were harmless and excitable boys who cheered us on and fetched water for the players. After much coaxing, one of them, Azar, joined us on the court.

Rory and I had never coached a team before but we tried to cultivate a team mentality. We used a collective vocabulary even when addressing individual players: "Nasrat, you are the tallest and strongest, and your team needs you to rebound under the basket." We asked players to value their contribution to the whole above individual performance. We tallied assists instead of baskets.

This message of team spirit had to stew in a pot of languages. We were in an ethnically Pashtun region where the most common language was Pashto. Dari, a dialect of Persian, is Afghanistan's other official language. Rory, who was the regional manger for the Afghan NGO Safety Office and had studied languages at Oxford and in the region, was able to converse with the players in their own tongues. I communicated through an intermediary language -- either English or Russian, depending on whether Sudir or Najib was closer. They were fitting translators, since they were also the natural leaders of the team.

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