Taliban Can't Defeat Kabul Basketball Tournament

Kabul tournament goes on despite Taliban attack.

KABUL, Afghanistan June 14, 2013— -- This isn't a story about war.

It's about a game and how it came to mean something completely different.

Earlier this week, my cameraman Rashid and I visited a military base in Kabul. We were there to shoot footage for the NBA of a basketball tournament, to be broadcast during this week's NBA finals. As basketball courts go, it wasn't that far off from what you'd see in Manhattan or New York: Chipped asphalt, tattered green tarp wrapped around the court's fencing, and rims that pull down when you hang on them.

We found soldiers, young and old, in shorts and tank tops. Some were trash talking. Others were joking around, drinking water and sports drinks on the sidelines. There were teams from all over – civilian and military – including Afghans and even Mongolians.

For a while, it was the closest thing I've seen to "normal" on a military base. If you didn't look closely, you'd never know there was a war and growing insurgency raging around the country.

Then, it all changed.

On the second, final day of the tournament, the Taliban attacked. Seven heavily armed militants stormed an unoccupied building less than a mile away, and used it as a launching pad to fire rockets towards the base. The soldiers were immediately put into lockdown, not knowing when the next missile would strike.

"You don't know if you're gonna make it home to your family," Staff Sargeant Sonia Massey told us. "That's the first thing that goes through your mind."

In the end, Afghan security forces did what they've increasingly shown the ability to do. They fought off, isolated, then killed all seven militants without a single civilian casualty. When we toured the building in the aftermath of the attack, the stench of gas and death were everywhere. Walking through rooms littered with dead body parts, fresh and stained redder than blood red, isn't an experience you can forget.

The next day, we were convinced – like so many other things in a country that's tragically grown used to decades of war – that the tournament had become just another casualty.

But it wasn't. The soldiers did something unexpected. In a show of resolve, they insisted the games continue.

Sometimes, basketball is more than just a game. In Afghanistan, people lose things all the time. "Winning" the war comes at a huge cost. Afghans lose their livelihoods, families lose their loved ones, and brigades lose their best and brightest.

Like so many other things in this country, they could have just chalked up the cancellation to the militancy and the unpredictability of knowing when you'll come under attack. Another loss to add to the list, so to speak. A week later, no one would have even remembered it.

Maybe it was because they were tired. Or fed up. Or maybe, it was the chance to just feel normal for a while, to abandon the rigors of military routine and show your commanding officer that while he calls the shots, you can drop dimes on the court better than he ever will.

Whatever the reasons, the tournament and its resurrection took on a new meaning. Soldiers from other countries joined in. It became the ultimate equalizer. There are no ranks or salute on the court. Respect is earned, not given. Afghans took on Americans not as friends, enemies, or "frenemies," but as genuine equals.

It became a reminder that the power of sport, played by those who love it, has the power to heal.

I can't say I remember which team won that day.

But in the end, does it really matter?