Away game in Afghanistan

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Jess Markt is a member of the New York Rolling Knicks, a wheelchair basketball franchise team. He recently returned from a trip to Afghanistan, and he speaks with anchor Marco Werman about the conditions and coaching players there.

MARCO WERMAN: Afghanistan is getting more western assistance from an unlikely source, the New York Knicks. Now the Knicks aren't doing too well themselves, in fact, they're in last place in this young NBA season. But their wheelchair franchise team, the New York Rolling Knicks, is sufficiently confident to export its expertise to Afghanistan. Thirty-two year old Jess Markt is a New York Rolling Knick. He just came back from Kabul. And Jess, I guess you'll do anything to get away from the stench of your parent team if you go to Afghanistan. What were you doing there?

JESS MARKT: <laughs> Well, I was over there, working actually in a town in the north of Afghanistan called Maimana, and I was working with a relatively new wheelchair basketball team there, helping to coach and teach them the game.

WERMAN: And how did that go? How many people were you coaching? What was the age range?

MARKT: I was coaching a team of 12 guys, and the age range was between 16 and I'm guessing about 45, with most of the players in their late teens and 20s, and it was great. It was an absolutely fantastic experience, a great group of guys and a good group of players, with a lot of potential.

WERMAN: They know the NBA. Do they know about the New York Knicks and do they know about the New York Rolling Knicks?

MARKT: Well, they do now. I think they, as a group, knew very little about the NBA. Basketball's actually not a super popular sport in Afghanistan, but being that these guys, they all have disabilities of one sort or another, basketball was a game that they could all come together around and try to start learning, so that's how they got into the sport, even though they weren't super familiar with it.

WERMAN: Now the physiotherapy center in Maimana is managed by the organization International Assistance Mission. Can you tell us a little bit about how some of the players you were working with there, some of the Afghan players, were actually injured?

MARKT: Yeah, I don't know the stories behind all their injuries, but there was one player who was a paraplegic like me, who was injured in a motorcycle accident several years ago when he was a teenager. A couple of the players were amputees, and then many of the players suffered from either conditions from polio, or I think other birth or disease related mobility difficulties.

WERMAN: And you yourself I understand you became a paraplegic in a car accident when you were 19, right?

MARKT: Yeah, that's correct, yeah, back when I was living near Portland, Oregon.

WERMAN: So I imagine there was some discussion among you after you were off the court out of scrimmages about how you kind of cope, is that right?

MARKT: Yeah. We talked a little bit about that, though the majority of our time was spent working on basketball stuff. We talked both about our personal situations a little bit, as much as we could through the language barrier we were dealing with, and then also about issues surrounding Afghanistan and where they were living, and things like that.

WERMAN: And the town of Maimana, how close is it to some of the fighting in Afghanistan right now?

MARKT: Well, actually, fortunately, it's sort of on the other end of the country from where a lot of the fighting is focused. So from what I understand, the majority of the fighting is going on down in the south eastern part of the country near Kandahar and in that area, along the Pakistan border. And Maimana is in the northwest corner of the country, actually very close to the Turkmenistan border.

WERMAN: Now I can't imagine there are too many ramps and things that make life easy for people in wheelchairs. What was it like for you getting around Afghanistan?

MARKT: Yeah, getting around Afghanistan in a wheelchair was certainly a bit of a trick. Not only are there not ramps or obviously elevators or things like that, but there are actually very few paved roads in the area I was in. So it was a lot of wending my chair, which was designed for New York City streets where I live, over a lot of gravel and dirt roads, mud and dust and things like that. So yeah, it was a bit of a challenge in that regard.

WERMAN: And what about the guys playing basketball. What kind of wheelchairs do they have? Are they kind of designed for the local environment?

MARKT: Well yeah, the chairs that they have access to are actually designed specifically for that local environment. Unfortunately, the issue is that they're using those chairs for basketball, and the chairs, while they're designed well for getting over and around the terrain in Afghanistan, are designed about as differently from a proper basketball chair as you could want.

WERMAN: What do they actually look like?

MARKT: If you're familiar with what a racing wheelchair looks like, it's a three wheeled chair that sort of long, with a front wheel extending out in front of the chair. It's a larger front wheel, which makes the chairs sort of long and not good for turning quickly or moving quickly. It makes for a lot of running into each other and colliding, because you can't move them very quickly to avoid other chairs. Not to mention, I think they're constructed completely from steel, so they're extremely heavy as well.

WERMAN: So a lot of accidents on the courts. Nothing life threatening, but I suppose a lot of repairs too.

MARKT: Yeah, a lot of repairs. Nobody ever got hurt and everybody had a very good sense of humor about the whole thing, but daily when we were practicing, at least one chair would have a wheel shear off or some part of the chair break. And between practices, one day and the next, they would just weld the chairs back together and trot them back out the next day.

WERMAN: And just for listeners who don't really know much about wheelchair basketball, what is the biggest difference in terms of rules between wheelchair and regular standing basketball as you call it?

MARKT: The only real significant difference is the rule about traveling. So as everybody knows, you are playing stand up basketball, regular basketball, you have to dribble the ball while you're moving, and if you pick up the ball and move forward without dribbling, you're called for a travel. It's a violation and you turn the ball over to the other team. So in wheelchair basketball, the difference is that you need to dribble the ball one time every two forward pushes of the chair. So you can hold onto the ball between pushes, so if you're coasting down the court, and you can pick the ball up, push again, dribble and pick it up and push again. So there's no double dribble rule, which is a violation, if you pick the ball up and then dribble after picking it up in regular basketball.

WERMAN: How are the Afghans with trash talk?

MARKT: <laughs> That's actually, it was one of the biggest surprises for me, was the level of dynamism and positivity and energy that I saw from these guys, right from the beginning. I went over there, I guess naïvely expecting that given the level of challenges these guys were having to deal with on a day to day basis, you know, living with disabilities in such a disability-unfriendly environment, that it was going to be a case where I was going to have to really help pull them out of their shells, that they were going to be quiet, somewhat withdrawn. But playing with them was just like playing with any teammate I've had in the US, whether playing basketball in wheelchairs or any sport before I was in a wheelchair. They trash talked all the time. They were laughing, they were goofing around on each other. It's just an amazing group of people with an incredibly positive outlook, despite all the challenges they were facing.

WERMAN: Did they teach you how to say "Your Mama?"

MARKT: I think I was doing my best to remember "hello" and "thank you" in Dari. But if I was there for another week, I would have gotten to trash talking lingo.

WERMAN: Jess, cool story.

MARKT: Thanks very much.

WERMAN: Jess Markt, a small forward on the New York Rolling Knicks basketball team. Thanks so much for speaking with us.
MARKT: You're very welcome. Thanks for having me on.