November 15, 2010 by staff
Asian Games, (CP) – There’s just one name on the back of their jerseys: Afghanistan. Their run came to an abrupt end in the Asian Games basketball competition Monday, the underdogs losing to a bigger and stronger Indian side 83-76 in the knockout round of preliminary competition.
“There were tears in the locker-room, faces down,” said forward Yousof Etemadi. But “no matter what, win or lose, it’s an honour to be playing for my country.”
That’s why the no-name policy with the jerseys. The emphasis was on team, not individual, they decided.
The scrappy Afghans came into the game following two upset wins over heavily favoured India at the South Asian Games in February. Their determination in this third matchup was clear — no one at Guangti Gymnasium cheered louder than their bench, whose chants of “defence, defence” reverberated through the arena.
But their lack of polish showed at times, with some off-target passes and clumsy breakaways where the ball ended up clanging into the bottom of the rim. Center Nafi Mashriqi missed an easy dunk that would have pulled Afghanistan to 69-66 with less than four minutes to play.
“We don’t have another chance to come out here tomorrow and prove that we are a better team and we do make shots,” said Etemadi, who finished with 10 points.
It was an emotional finish for the squads with a growing rivalry. As the final buzzer sounded, several Indian players ripped off their jerseys and started jumping up and down in front of the Afghan bench — setting off a round of shoving. A water bottle flew from the Afghan delegation section behind the bench toward a scrum of Indian players
For a while, it seemed like the Afghan team which draws heavily from players born or based in the United States was set to advance to the next round. Point guard Mohammad Mojaddidi sliced through defenders and closed out the second quarter with three consecutive three-pointers, giving his team a 38-30 lead at the break.
Mojaddidi’s American upbringing — he was born in Afghanistan but grew up in Fremont, California — was clear as he waved his arms above his head, urging the roaring Chinese crowd to keep up the noise. He finished with 25 points, scoring 19 in the first half.
But Afghanistan went cold in the second half and was unable to hold off the Indians, who pulled even with a 16-4 run in the third quarter and then never looked back.
“They’re a very formidable opponent … (Mojaddidi) is a tremendous basketball player. I thought they really played well, in fact there was a point there near the end of the first half where I thought they were going to bury us,” said India coach Bill Harris, who joined the team two months ago from Wheaton College in the U.S. state of Illinois.
It was a disappointing finish for a team that has little funding outside of family and friends, and conducts training at high schools or public fitness centres.
For now, they haven’t decided when they’ll pack up and start the long trip back to Afghanistan or the U.S. after just 40 minutes of basketball in Guangzhou. But coaches and players agree on one thing: they’re playing for more than just themselves.
“We have always decided it didn’t matter what the name is on the back of the jersey, or who you are or where you come from, to represent Afghanistan means the world to us,” Mojaddidi said.
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