Jess Markt was a pretty serious athlete when he broke his back. It was 1996 and he was 19. The car crash stole his sporting ability, or so he thought then. He had been playing basketball since he was nine years old, and competing in track athletics. Four years passed before he returned to sport. When he did, it was in a wheelchair, and more ambitious than ever, he went on to play for affiliates of NBA basketball teams like the Portland Trail Blazers, the New York Knicks and the Denver Nuggets. Then, after a chance email, he found himself coaching the sport in Afghanistan. In the past month the 36-year-old has been doing the same here in Cambodia, in collaboration with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and local NGO Cambodian National Volleyball League.
As a male coach, how were you received in Afghanistan, a country where the genders are so segregated?
The second time I went back they had formed a few teams and this women’s team had been formed in Mazar-e-Sharif [Afghanistan’s second largest city]. They said: we want you to train them. I was shocked. [I thought] as a man and as a foreign man there’s no way they would let me interact directly with them. They decided that partly because I’m a teacher and I’m in a wheelchair. Being a foreigner was also to my advantage because they look at foreigners – men and women – as a third gender.
We started a team in Kabul two years ago. They have a court surrounded by a chain fence, and they used to lower screens over the fences when we played so nobody could see them play because they’re faces weren’t covered and they were doing something athletic.
But this past spring, we had the first women’s national tournament between the teams that were there, and they had us take down the screens so that everyone could see them play: the Mazar women and the Kabul women. It was phenomenal.
What was the attitude towards covering player’s bodies?
The two cities took different approaches. The Kabul women played in very casual outfits. They played in T-shirts with long sleeves underneath. Most wore a headscarf but some played even without headscarves, just visors. The Mazar women showed up with custom tailored flowing silk with built-in black headscarves. They were the fanciest basketball uniforms I’ve ever seen.
What are the differences and similarities you have found between the players in Afghanistan and Cambodia?
The women here were a little less shy at the beginning than the Afghan women but in both cases within a few days of training them they were laughing and being young women and total goofballs the entire time.
But in Afghanistan, if I’m teaching a woman shooting techniques and I want to move her elbow or something, I could never reach out and move her elbow into position, I have to tell the translator to tell her to move it and demonstrate.
I would say the Afghan women have really impressed me in terms of how much they’ve improved but I think the Cambodian women have an advantage in terms of their level of focus and how they take information, metabolise it and put it into practice.
In Afghanistan there is obviously the constant distraction of war. Have you had any hairy moments?
I was last in Afghanistan for the months of April and May this year. As I was on my flight from Kabul to Istanbul on my way back to Geneva, four insurgents - two suicide bombers and two gunmen - attacked the ICRC compound in Jalalabad, which was one of the cities I had been coaching in. One person was killed, an Afghan guard, but thankfully all the other people were rescued by authorities after a pretty intense battle.
Hearing about that happening in a place where I had stayed a month previous - my house was attacked, and my friends were the ones that had to escape from this terrible situation - that made me think hard about how I’m vulnerable. The other incident was a bombing that happened on a UN building when we were having the men’s tournament at the end of May. We were in the middle of a basketball game, there were hundreds of people around the court watching and there was this huge explosion. It was actually fairly far away but Kabul is ringed by mountains, so a big explosion like that sounded like it was just up the hill. Being so used to that sort of thing the players didn’t even blink they just kept playing.
How does the wheelchair access compare in the different countries?
Both places are less difficult to get around than I would have assumed, because of the fact that most construction is low, single-storey houses. New York was technically less accessible than most places in Afghanistan. One of the most modern cities in the world and I couldn’t get into most restaurants if I didn’t have a friend to haul me up some stairs
Did you personally find that getting back into sport helped you come to terms with what had happened?
Absolutely. In the three years between getting hurt and finishing University I didn’t really have any competitive outlet. It was like there was a part of me that just wasn’t there. When I started playing basketball it was like the whole was there. It gave me the opportunity to travel round the world and meet other high-level wheelchair basketball athletes. When you think you’ve found the best way to get round and live your life, you meet someone who’s doing it a different way.
What have you learned from your work as a coach in these two countries?
I’ve learned that I should never complain about anything. These people, for the most part, are living on absolutely nothing – pennies- and in many cases, in Afghanistan, travelling long distances to get to practice in the morning because they love basketball.
When I first went to Afghanistan I had this idea that it would be a real opportunity to show them that someone like them from America would travel across the world and could travel across the world.
I found that sort of broadening of horizons absolutely went both ways. I look at things now like there are no barriers.
Seeing how [the players] make things work, and how they have such fulfilling lives despite having no resources at their disposal – terrible quality wheelchairs in many cases - it’s opened my mind to any situation.