LONG AGO, IN A COUNTRY FAR AWAY, A YOUNG PEACE CORPS VOLUNTEER TURNED A RAGTAG HIGH SCHOOL BASKETBALL SQUAD INTO A NATIONAL TEAM WITH THE DISCIPLINE AND SKILLS TO BEAT A FOREIGN POWER. THIS IS THE STORY OF HOW TOM GOUTTIERRE, WITH ASSISTS FROM BILL BRADLEY AND JOHN WOODEN, BECAME ...
This is an article from the July 22, 2013 issue
THERE WOULD BE MANY MOMENTS WHEN TOM GOUTTIERRE WOULD WONDER HOW HE, A BAKER'S SON FROM A SMALL TOWN IN OHIO, CAME TO BE ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORLD, IN AFGHANISTAN. BUT NONE QUITE AS UNLIKELY AS THIS.
LOOKING AROUND THE village square that night in 1970, he could make out the snow-dusted peaks of the Hindu Kush, gilded by the moon's glow. He could see the cluster of dark, bearded men wearing pistol straps, and beyond them the villagers. But most of all he could see the gangly man beside him, the NBA champion who had come here because of a Rudyard Kipling story and was now playing harmonica with every fiber in his 6'5" body. For while men wearing guns in the Hindu Kush had never heard of the New York Knicks, they did know rock 'n' roll. So Gouttierre, the daydreamer turned Peace Corps volunteer turned improbable international basketball icon, sang his lungs out. When the two Americans finished "Blue Suede Shoes," there was a moment of silence. And then cheering. So on they played, till all the stars were out.
In the years that followed, as he watched the country he loved be torn apart, Gouttierre clung to memories such as this, just as those who love basketball in Afghanistan cling to the memory of his time there. Mention "Mr. Tom" and they will talk about the ripple effect of his presence and about the legends he coached during the country's golden age, before the civil war, the Communist takeover, the Soviet occupation and all that followed, from puppet dictators to mass killings to the Taliban's rise, the U.S. invasion and the muddle of reconstruction. Some can even recall the whole Forrest Gump--like narrative—can tell you about Gouttierre's encounters with John Wooden and Hamid Karzai and about that historic game against an international power, after which so much seemed possible for Afghanistan.
In the end, it's a story about one man's enduring influence on a country, and its influence on him. About what basketball can achieve, and what it cannot. For while the game is not a savior in troubled places like Afghanistan—no sport is—it is something else: a green tendril sprouting in the rubble, an indicator of a nation's health. To play requires teamwork and cooperation. It requires tashkeel.
WHEN GOUTTIERRE arrived in Kabul in the spring of 1965, basketball was not the first thing on his mind. Tall, thin and handsome, with short dark hair, he brimmed with curiosity. The eldest of four children, Gouttierre had grown up in Maumee, Ohio, spending his college years rising at 3:30 a.m. to fire his father's ovens and tend the dough until school began. By 18 he was a certified master pastry chef. Expected to take over the business, he instead dreamed of faraway places. So he majored in history and foreign languages at Bowling Green, hoping to become a diplomat. When, as a sophomore in 1960, he heard presidential candidate John F. Kennedy speak about creating the Peace Corps, Gouttierre was transfixed. He knew then: Traveling the world to help others was what he wanted to do with his life.
Five years later he boarded a Pan Am jet for Kabul. As part of the fifth wave of Peace Corps volunteers in Afghanistan, he was slated to teach English. His wife of six months, a spunky brunette named Marylu, would teach secretarial skills. The couple had met at a party his freshman year in college, friends at first, Tom ever the gentleman as Marylu chased the wrong type of guy. Then one day she left for California for three weeks, and all she could think about was that gentleman. He would meet her at the airport with flowers even though she hadn't mentioned her return date. When Tom later said he wanted to graduate before they married, she said, "You waited five years for me—I'll wait an eternity for you." They'd joined the Peace Corps together. Now, as they embarked on the 7,000-mile trip to Afghanistan, Tom wore a khaki suit with a brown topcoat and was understandably nervous. It was the first time he'd ever been on an airplane.
The country the Gouttierres landed in was unlike any Tom had imagined. A Muslim nation the size of Texas, with roughly 10 million residents, Afghanistan in 1965 was on the verge of a democratic renaissance but fractured by tribal and ethnic conflicts. It was a rough, beautiful place. The summer heat was oppressive. The mountains in the north rose like jagged spires, forbidding and dark and never-ending.
Modern conveniences were scarce. The Gouttierres' small Peace Corps apartment lacked a refrigerator. The couple sometimes used goatskins to stock fresh water. Cockroaches scurried over their mud walls by the hundreds. Sewers emptied into the streets. Even so, Kabul was safe, and the people were friendly and hospitable. To Tom, the city was both intimidating and exhilarating. This was what he wanted: strangeness, risk, challenge, the full sensory blast of a new culture.
Maybe it was his energy that drew the boys to him that first day at Habibia High, the country's first public school. Or perhaps they just had no other choice. After class, a small, dark-haired boy named Naiyim asked him, Mr. Tom, would you coach our basketball team?
A different sort of man might have paused to think about it. After all, Gouttierre had never coached sports above the CYO level. And while he liked basketball, he'd never been good at it, unable to make the cut for his junior high team. There were other factors to consider: his young wife, a new language, a confusing culture. Then again, Gouttierre was the type of man who believed that enthusiasm conquered all. His response, he recalls, was, You bet!
The following afternoon the team met at the school's cracked concrete outdoor court. There were no painted lines and only one leather ball. The poles that held the wooden backboards were set in concrete blocks. And this, Gouttierre would learn, was one of the best courts in the country. Seventeen boys showed up that day, ranging in height from short to shorter. When Gouttierre told them to show him their usual warmup routine, they scurried around haphazardly. Some of them dribbled with two hands. All clustered around the ball. It was, Gouttierre would later say, "like watching 10 ants at a picnic go after one crumb."
Then again, Gouttierre couldn't have expected much. Afghanistan's traditional games were soccer and buzkashi, a sort of polo in which horsemen battle for possession of a battered goat carcass. Basketball had been introduced in the country in 1936 but hadn't stuck. By Gouttierre's arrival, there were few courts outside Kabul's eight high schools, and only one indoor gym, at the U.S.-funded Kabul University.
What the Habibia team did have was raw energy. Because Kabul is at 6,000 feet, the boys could run for hours, and many were good leapers. They were also eager to learn, and Gouttierre quickly got a feel for their personalities. There was Naiyim, the lefthanded point guard and aspiring drummer who peppered Tom with questions about "rock and roll." There was Azeem, a well-mannered kid built like a halfback whom Gouttierre recognized from his English class. There was Esmael, a savvy forward from a lower-class family. There was Barai, at 6'4" the team's big man. And then there was Fridoon, the team's two guard and strongest defender. He was Habibia's best player but also, as Gouttierre would learn, its most stubborn.
What the boys needed was structure. So on the third afternoon Gouttierre sat them down. At the time the main dialect in Kabul was Dari, commonly known as Persian. In Gouttierre's case, the Persian came straight from a Peace Corps textbook. So when he told the boys he would teach them tashkeel, the term for organization, they looked at him funny. He repeated the word, and the boys began giggling. What did tashkeel have to do with basketball?
Over the next three weeks Gouttierre shouted the word daily, to no effect. Some boys were reluctant to pass to teammates from other tribes, ethnicities or families. Others shot whenever they got the ball. Afghan culture is marked by a peculiar combination of independence, suspicion and group loyalty. In the U.S., race, class and background disappeared on the court. In Afghanistan they were intractable obstacles.
To make matters worse, Habibia's first opponent was Maktabi Sport (the Sport School), the league's defending champion and Habibia's primary rival. Maktabi specialized in training coaches and athletes. The basketball coach was a burly, dark-haired Russian called Master Azaam, who assumed that all Peace Corps volunteers were, as Gouttierre put it, "handmaidens of the CIA." That first game, played on the dirt court at Maktabi, was a debacle. Azaam wouldn't shake Gouttierre's hand before the tip-off. Fridoon moped because the coach had moved him to point guard. Naiyim couldn't find his range. Habibia lost resoundingly. Gouttierre wondered what he'd gotten into.
So did the boys. The next day Naiyim approached Gouttierre before practice. "We want you to be our coach," he said, "but we want to go back and play like we used to, not with tashkeel."
Gouttierre looked at the boy. The coach knew he was an outsider. He also knew what needed to be done. "Tell the team that either they play with tashkeel or they need to find another coach," he said.
Naiyim went back to his teammates, and they debated for what felt to Gouttierre like 20 minutes. Finally Naiyim returned. "O.K., Mr. Tom," he said, "we will do it your way for now." But, he added, Fridoon and Fareed wouldn't. They were quitting the team.
Over the weeks that followed, Gouttierre drilled the team. He installed rudimentary offenses based on simple geometry. He put one guard up top, two on the wings and two forwards down low. Later he moved on to a 2-1-2 alignment, and then he incorporated a 1-3-1. He taught the boys to box out, to pass and cut, to space the floor. He trusted his gut. If an opponent's big man was flat-footed or clumsy, Gouttierre put his shortest, quickest guy on him to try to steal the ball. The game was about matchups. Find the best one and exploit it.
The coach did something else important: He made Esmael a starter. This rankled some of the other boys. Unlike many at Habibia, Esmael was not part of the cultural elite. Clearly his place was on the bench. But Mr. Tom was equally clear: All that mattered was that you be talented, play hard and embrace the team. He didn't care who your father was or how dark your skin was.
Slowly the boys caught on. Habibia won a game, then another. After the third win Gouttierre found Fridoon and Fareed waiting for him before practice, wanting to return. When Habibia met Maktabi Sport for the league championship a month later, the outdoor court at Istiqlal School in Kabul was packed with students and relatives, 10 deep on all sides. Behind Fridoon's pressure defense, Gouttierre's boys won by 28 points. It was in that moment, Esmael would later say, that the team realized how the whole could be greater than the sum of its parts. "Before Mr. Tom, it was always one playing against five," Esmael would later say. "He brought to us the tashkeel."
THE RAINY SEASON came, a new school year began and Habibia continued to win. With each week Gouttierre became closer to the boys. They went to his apartment after practices, eager to talk about basketball and life. Marylu served naan and lamb stew with rice while the boys peppered Tom with questions. At 25 he wasn't that much older than his players, and they saw him as a combination of mentor and big brother. They asked about music, about sports—How can the dark players in America jump so high?—and religion, always religion. They'd been taught to distrust those with beliefs different from theirs, but how could they distrust Mr. Tom? (Later that year, when Gouttierre volunteered to coach the girls' team at Habibia, he got new questions. What is a homosexual? How does menstruation work? The girls had no access to such information, so he blushed and did his best to explain.)
Just as the players learned from Mr. Tom, he learned from them. They taught him how to speak real Persian, the kind used at outdoor markets. He learned that making out with a girl was called ishkoopaak, the Persian phrase for kittens cleaning themselves. They referred to him as padari manawi, a teacher and spiritual father.
Gouttierre grew particularly close with Azeem, the polite kid from his English class. Azeem's father was a doctor and the minister of education. His sister was born with a birth defect. They were, Gouttierre realized, like any U.S. family, a close-knit group with its own struggles and triumphs. They welcomed him into their home and even invited the Gouttierres to an Afghan wedding, a rarity for foreigners. At the end of the ceremony, the men took to the floor for traditional dancing. Then on came Chubby Checker's "The Twist." At Azeem's urging, Tom and Marylu began swiveling as a great crowd gathered round. Then Azeem asked his sister to dance, and the floodgates opened. Soon all the young men were asking the pretty girls to dance, and who could stop them?
Meanwhile, Afghanistan was being transformed. The summer after Gouttierre's first season as coach, the country held its first fully democratic elections under a new constitution. Emboldened, women in the major cities took off their veils, wearing only headdresses.
At the same time, Gouttierre's role began to expand—in the Peace Corps and in basketball. He held clinics in Kandahar and Harrad. He trained fellow Peace Corps volunteers to coach the game. Then, in the fall of 1966, not long before his Peace Corps term was scheduled to end, he was invited to the headquarters of the Afghan Olympic Committee at Ghazi Stadium, the country's grandest arena. There the AOC president, Gen. Kareem Siraj, shared exciting news: India and Pakistan had challenged Afghanistan to basketball games, and they would pay to bring in the Afghan team. It was a great diplomatic opportunity. There was only one problem: Afghanistan had no national team.
"You will be our coach, Mr. Tom," Siraj said.
Gouttierre assumed it was a joke. Him? Surely the AOC would rather give the job to Paul Rundell, who was coaching at Kabul University. He was an actual college coach, the head man at San Francisco State. No, explained Siraj, Gouttierre's team had beaten Mr. Paul's team, so therefore Gouttierre was a better coach. This was how Afghan logic worked. And it was true that Habibia had bested the university squad in scrimmages.
Gouttierre was half excited and half scared out of his mind. He had no idea how to put together a national team. There were few experienced players outside Kabul and only a handful within it. He did have a secret weapon, however. A year earlier, fueled by the bravado of youth, he had written an aerogram addressed to Mr. John Wooden, Head Basketball Coach, University of California Los Angeles, Westwood, CA. "Dear Coach Wooden," Gouttierre began, "I am a Peace Corps volunteer." He described his experiences living and coaching overseas and expressed his admiration for Wooden's zone press. Any advice, he wrote, would be greatly appreciated.
One day the following spring, Gouttierre walked into the Peace Corps mail room and saw a manila envelope in his box. The return address read Westwood, CA. He couldn't believe it. "Dear Coach," the letter began. Gouttierre stopped. John Wooden had just called him Coach! As he read on, he broke into a shocked grin. Not only had Wooden provided words of encouragement, but he had also included pages of diagrams, drawings and numbered instructions. "I'm sending these to you on your honor," wrote Wooden, "that you will not give these to anybody else, or sell them, for people would pay a lot of money. But I really admire what you're doing." These were step-by-step instructions on how to run UCLA's famed zone press. Many a coach in the U.S. would indeed have paid a good amount for them.
And that is how a bunch of Afghan high schoolers would become one of only two teams in the world to run the most sophisticated zone defense known to man. Maybe not immediately, and maybe not with as much precision or speed, and definitely not with as much height, but surely with equal enthusiasm.
At its first practice, the national team included five players from Habibia, four from Kabul University (including Naiyim, now a freshman) and three older local players. By this point Gouttierre had seven basic offensive sets. All involved cutting to open space, spreading the defense and moving the ball by passing rather than dribbling. Each also bore a historical name. The 1-3-1 was Ahmad Shah Baba, a ruler from the 1700s. There was an offense called Genghis Khan and another called Iskandar (Alexander the Great). With Rundell as his assistant, Gouttierre began teaching the plays to his pieced-together national squad.
With each week Gouttierre felt better about the team. The players were well-drilled and had enormous heart. There was only one problem: There was still no date for the games. We're still waiting to hear the details, the AOC said. Be patient. The players asked daily if there was news. Finally Gouttierre went to the Indian Embassy. We sent the invitation, a representative said, but we never heard back. Sorry, it's too late now. The games are off.
Gouttierre was crushed, but not as much as the boys, who had never been out of Afghanistan. For months they had told their friends and families and pretty girls that they were on the national basketball team. They were going to India and Pakistan. They would win the first international game in Afghan history. And now it was over. Worse, their coach was leaving.
Gouttierre had already extended his stay by four months to coach the team. He was supposed to start graduate school in Middle Eastern languages and literature at Indiana in a few months. So in March 1967 he and Marylu packed up. On the bus ride to Jalalabad she teared up. "Don't cry, honey," a USAID worker said, placing a hand on her shoulder. "We'll be out of this miserable country soon enough."
"But I don't want to leave," Marylu said. "I love this place."
THE U.S. TO which the Gouttierres returned in 1967, after two years abroad, felt almost as foreign as Afghanistan had felt when they first arrived. When Tom and Marylu had left, the country was still lodged in the '50s. They returned to the Summer of Love. They'd gone from Eisenhower's America to Grace Slick's.
On their way back they stopped in Corvallis, Ore., where Wooden left tickets for Tom for the Far West NCAA regionals. To Tom's amazement, they were behind the bench. He arrived early and spent 20 minutes talking coaching and politics with the Wizard of Westwood. California was next, that summer. The Gouttierres saw Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin at the Monterey Pop Festival and hung with hippies in Big Sur and San Francisco.
In the fall they headed to Bloomington, where both became lifelong Hoosiers basketball fans. Still, Tom couldn't stop thinking about Afghanistan. He focused on Islamic studies and took Arabic and Persian. He applied for a Fulbright fellowship and earned one in 1969, receiving $15,000 for two years. He was headed back to Kabul.
When Tom and Marylu exited the airport in the spring of 1969 they were greeted by a short, dark-skinned boy. It was Assad, the captain of the Habibia B team in '67. Tom remembered him well. Though only 5'4", Assad dribbled with a flair few Afghans could match. Tom had no idea how the teenager had learned of his return, but he knew why Assad was there. He smiled when the boy, now the varsity captain, asked the question. "Yes, I would love to coach the team again," Gouttierre said.
With money in the bank for the first time, Tom and Marylu rented a house. They had a refrigerator and, eventually, their own cook. The world opened up. Tom wrote poetry in Persian, researched early Afghan newspapers for his Fulbright project. And because his conversational Persian was now so good—a product of all the time spent with the players—he became a favorite of Robert Neumann, the U.S. ambassador. Neumann loved to invite Gouttierre to parties; all the high-ranking Afghans thought it splendid that an American spoke such fluent Persian. Gouttierre met visiting dignitaries such as Spiro Agnew and Henry Kissinger. He became acquainted with the Afghan royal family and the local leaders and chieftains outside the capital. He got to know Abdul Ahad Karzai, a highly regarded member of parliament, and met his teenage son, an ambitious and thoughtful boy named Hamid. Gouttierre also spent time with a family whose young son Khaled Hosseini would one day sell millions of copies of his 2003 novel, The Kite Runner.
There were others Gouttierre was less fond of: The brooding man he taught named Najibullah, who would one day hold all of Afghanistan in his iron grip, and the young politician Babrak Karmal, who accosted him at parties and said, "Why are you Americans in Vietnam? You're being imperialists!" The other guests, embarrassed—for hospitality is prized among Afghans—would grab Karmal's shoulder and say, "Babrak, it's just a party." And, for a time, it was.
IN THE SPRING of 1970, Gouttierre was called in to Neumann's office. "Tom, do you know who Bill Bradley is?" the ambassador asked.
"Oh, yeah," Gouttierre said. Bradley had been an All-America basketball player at Princeton, earned a Rhodes scholarship and, only weeks earlier, won an NBA title as a forward with the Knicks. "Why?"
"How would you like to be his program officer during his visit?"
"Of course I would!" Gouttierre said. Then he added, "What visit?"
Neumann explained. Bradley was enamored of The Man Who Would Be King, a short story by Kipling that was set in the Hindu Kush. After winning a championship, Bradley had an opportunity to celebrate. But instead of going to Los Angeles or Miami as many pro athletes would have, he decided to spend his summer exploring remote areas of the world. For a travel partner he'd recruited Jeremy Larner, an essayist and screenwriter he grew close to while working on Eugene McCarthy's 1968 presidential campaign (and who would later win an Oscar for his screenplay for the Robert Redford movie The Candidate).
So Tom Gouttierre, Ohio pastry baker turned Afghan basketball coach, picked up Bradley and Larner at the airport in his VW bug. "We can get you a bigger car," Gouttierre said apologetically upon seeing Bradley try to cram his long frame into the back of the Beetle.
Bradley shook his head and smiled. "This one is perfect," he said.
Bradley and Larner stayed with the Gouttierres that first night. Marylu cooked dinner, and they ate in the traditional Afghan style, scooping up spinach and rice with naan. The next morning, along with an Afghan guide, the three men headed north in a beat-up Jeep, inspired by Kipling's description of "out-of-the-way corners of the empire."
Along the way Bradley and Gouttierre hit it off. Gouttierre ribbed Bradley about his off-season weight gain ("Pear-shaped is what I believe I called him," he says), and Bradley joked right back. Early in the trip Bradley dug into his bag and pulled out something shiny. Wait, Gouttierre thought, Bill Bradley plays harmonica? Of course he did. And for the next 2½ days, as the car bumped and banged through valleys and over dirt roads, Bradley blew on that harmonica and Gouttierre sang along. At night they stayed at ramshackle boarding houses. And so it went, all the way to Nuristan, more than 100 miles from Kabul.
Eventually the men left the Jeep at the bottom of a towering foothill. They began trudging up, and after struggling to the top in the thin air, they walked into a town square. It was there that Bradley and Gouttierre and a harmonica mesmerized a village of men who had never seen a white face. By the end there were smiles and hugs and much naan. It was, Gouttierre would later recall, like seeing the past and present collide, in the best way possible.
Upon returning to Kabul, Gouttierre said it was time for Bradley to return the favor. So for three hours at Kabul University a bunch of star-struck Habibia kids traded jump shots with Bradley, who taught them a short half-hook. One player, Shakoor Sarwari, impressed Bradley. He wasn't particularly fast or tall, but he had a beautiful if unorthodox two-handed jumper that was accurate out to 25 feet. That kid, Bradley told Gouttierre, could play for any Division II team in the U.S.
The next day, after spending a week in the country, Bradley departed. It was a trip that would influence him for years to come.
A MONTH LATER Gouttierre received a call from the new head of the AOC. The Chinese Embassy wanted to schedule a basketball game. Once again it would be an important diplomatic opportunity. Could Gouttierre put together another national team?
Despite having been burned before, Gouttierre agreed without hesitation. Basketball was by now the hippest, most cosmopolitan sport in Afghanistan. Games at Kabul University drew standing-room-only crowds. The sport represented progress, an acceptance of the West. This matchup would be even more important because of China's huge population and relatively well-developed basketball program, the state-funded push that would yield Yao Ming.
Gouttierre had only four weeks to prepare, so he made a risky call: There would be no selection process. The Habibia program was so strong, and his offensive and defensive sets so complex, that his best shot was with a team composed entirely of Habibia players and alumni. The downside: The team would be both small and young.
The point guard was Assad, the boy from the airport. At shooting guard Gouttierre settled on Nazir, who was 6'1" and cut through the lane like a knife. And while Shakoor, the shooter who'd caught Bradley's eye, wasn't too mobile, he could run off picks and bomb away from the outside. The best banger was Aref, the only Hazara boy on the team.
While the team practiced, Gouttierre worried about the opposition. He didn't know if it was the Chinese national team or a pro team or a college squad. He figured the Afghans could match up against a small or midsize lineup but would struggle against height. His tallest player, Wais, was 6'5", and no one else was above 6'2".
A month later he heard from the AOC: The game would be held the third week of August, but in Parwan province, an hour's drive north of Kabul, where the Chinese had built a regulation outdoor court at a workers' camp for an irrigation project they were funding. The project's primary goal was to provide water for grapevines and mulberry trees in the fertile region; the secondary motive was to give China a political and diplomatic foothold in Afghanistan. Gouttierre was amazed: The visiting team—the visiting country—had home court advantage.
By 3 p.m. on game day, a crowd of nearly a thousand surrounded the camp's impressive concrete court: Chinese workers, Afghans from nearby Charikar, politicians and relatives and fans from Kabul. To the north, the mountains loomed behind the metal bleachers. It was mercifully cool by Afghan standards, in the low 80s with a light breeze.
The Chinese point guard came out first, a man in his 20s wearing a white jersey with long pants and dribbling low and fast. He didn't trouble Gouttierre. The fellow behind him did. He appeared to cast a shadow across the entire key. Nearly 7 feet tall, Gouttierre guessed. Gouttierre's players had never faced anyone taller than 6'5". Then out came the next Chinese player. "Holy S---, they're tall!" Gouttierre said. The Chinese had two players who looked to him to be 7-footers.
All the Habibia boys could do was what they always did. They jogged out in their blue-and-white uniforms, a bunch of teenagers executing the weave, focusing on their tashkeel and trying to represent their country with respect and pride. Gouttierre pulled aside Shakoor. Even more than usual, the coach said, it is time to joyikhuda paidaaku, or find your place. Shakoor nodded, for this is what his coach always told him: Find that spot where you're going to cook it.
Gouttierre appraised the Chinese. The point guard looked fundamentally sound but perhaps vulnerable. Instead of having Assad guard him, Gouttierre deployed his shooting guard, Nazir, to use his size and strong hands. As for the giants, Gouttierre figured only one would start, allowing for double teams. His boys would have to be ready.
THE GAME BEGAN, and both big men lumbered out onto the court. So much for that theory, Gouttierre thought. To no one's surprise, the Chinese won the tip. They set up in a high-low-post configuration, and one of the big men missed a jump shot from the top of the key. At which point, 30 seconds into the game, Gouttierre called timeout.
"O.K.," Gouttierre told his players. "We're going to attack their big guys with speed." He pointed to Wais. "You guard the big guy who goes down near the basket. Front him on the entry pass, and we'll give you help from behind." Then he nodded at Assad, his 5'4" point guard. "You'll be guarding the other big man." Assad frowned. Guard a man who looked twice his height? Gouttierre nodded. "Go at his hands all the time. Even if he dribbles, it will be as high as your head." Then Gouttierre instructed his players to go into their UCLA zone press on made baskets and drop into a man press on misses.
The next time down the court, the Chinese scored. And the time after that. The giants held the ball over their heads while the Afghans leaped and swatted, with little luck. On the sideline Marylu shouted, "Wahaaa, wahaaa," the traditional Persian cheer. "Shaaabaaz, shaaabaaz." The Afghan contingent joined in. The noise swelled. Though Marylu stood only 5'1", she sounded twice her size. All the Habibia boys recognized her voice, even in the din of a crowd. She'd jumped up and down at tournaments at Ghazi Stadium and at Habibia's home and playoff games. "Go! Go! Go!" she'd shouted, wondering why people looked at her funny. Then she'd learned that go is the Persian word for excrement. Whoops, she'd thought. She'd driven up from Kabul for the game against the Chinese promising herself she wouldn't be too loud, but she couldn't help herself. She just got so excited.
Maybe it was the cheering, or more likely it was the pestering defense of Nazir and Assad, but just like that, the Chinese fell apart. They couldn't break the UCLA press. Their passes were errant, their pockets picked, and all the while the Habibia boys ran and ran. Finally, down 12--6, the Chinese coach angrily called timeout. When play resumed, only one 7-footer walked back onto the court. Gouttierre felt a surge of hope. His strategy was working. Then again, he knew something else. Before tip-off, the head of the AOC had whispered something in his ear. These Chinese were from the coastal regions. Lowlanders. Gouttierre had an advantage: altitude. He planned on using it.
Over the next 15 minutes the Afghans came in waves. Whenever one tired, Gouttierre subbed him out. Nazir streaked down the wing. Shakoor lofted jump shots, Assad slapped and poked and stole the ball again and again. At halftime the Afghans led 38--19. Keep running, Gouttierre told the boys, and I promise you they won't catch up.
LOSING TO A BUNCH of Afghan teenagers would be embarrassing for the Chinese. Losing to a bunch of Afghan teenagers coached by an American? That was something else entirely. At halftime Gouttierre felt a tap on his shoulder. It was the president of the AOC. "Mr. Tom, we have a problem," he said. "They're not going to play."
Gouttierre was startled. He asked, "Why?"
The president had no answer. So Gouttierre walked over to the scorer's table, where the cultural affairs officer from the Chinese embassy was in the midst of a discussion with the governor of Parwan province and the mayor of Charikar. The Chinese officer would not look at Gouttierre. It was up to the AOC president to mediate. After he spoke with the cultural affairs officer, he told Gouttierre, "They said they came to Afghanistan to play Afghans, not the Americans."
"What do you want me to do?" Gouttierre asked.
"You are our guest" is all the man would say.
By this point the commotion had attracted the players. Aurang, a forward and one of the older players, spoke up: "Yes, Mr. Tom is our guest and our coach, and if he can't coach, we're not going to play."
As Aurang's teammates spoke up, each backing their American coach, Gouttierre swelled up inside. He'd come to this faraway land to study and learn and help people, but he had never expected to forge relationships like this. It was for the same reason that he did what he did next. This was about the boys, not international politics. "It is O.K.," he said. "I will go in the stands. Noorullah will be our coach."
Noorullah was the team's 12th man, a smart, mature, well-mannered boy. Gouttierre headed to the top of the wooden bleachers and took with him a bench player named Fareed. Around them, the Afghan fans were angry. Marylu was so mad, she felt like screaming.
On the first possession of the second half, an energized Shakoor dropped in an impossibly high-arcing two-handed shot over the outstretched arm of one of the Chinese centers. Then he hit another over the same giant. And another. It was a 6--0 run for the Afghans, and now the crowd was really roaring, chanting, "Shaaabaaz! Shaaabaaz!" A couple of minutes later, when China rallied and Gouttierre saw a defensive adjustment, he whispered in Fareed's ear and sent the boy scurrying down to the sideline. And so it went the rest of the half, Gouttierre signaling his strategy from the top of the bleachers. He'd be damned if he was going to stop coaching his boys.
On the final play of the game, Assad stripped the exhausted Chinese point guard yet again and raced the length of the court for a layup. The buzzer sounded and the Afghan reserves raced onto the floor, hugging their teammates and crying, while the Chinese trudged back to their sideline, upset and embarrassed. The final score: 58--39, Afghanistan.
In another country the victory might not have seemed such a big deal. After all, the Afghan players hadn't beaten the Chinese A team, and this wasn't an Olympic gold medal match. They didn't care. They had just won the first international game in their country's basketball history. It was a moment they believed would live forever, one to tell their children and grandchildren about.
Afterward the boys headed into a large white tent, where the governor, the mayor and other dignitaries awaited. There, as they were feted, they enjoyed something rarely seen in those parts: Coca-Colas. On ice. The young men looked at each other, and their coach, and drank deep. The world opened up. The future was limitless.
IT BEGAN WITH the planes. They roared overhead on that morning in 1973, so low that it sounded to the Gouttierres as if they were going to land on their house. Adam, their son, was two years old. Marylu ran to his room. Tom hurried outside, where he found hundreds of people in the street, all looking up. "Coup d'état," they said, pointing toward the royal palace. The next morning Tom heard the official announcement on the radio. Mohammed Daoud Khan, a pro-Communist former prime minister, had declared himself president. Over the next months the Gouttierres' Afghan friends became increasingly apprehensive, concerned that the country would drift closer to the Soviet Union. A number began making plans to leave. A storm was coming, they said.
That fall Tom received a job offer he had a hard time refusing: dean of the first center for Afghanistan studies in the U.S., at Nebraska-Omaha. It was a remarkable opportunity for someone in his early 30s who didn't yet have a Ph.D. So in the summer of 1974 he reluctantly gave up his coaching duties. He and Marylu said goodbye to their friends and flew home. It was the last they'd see of Kabul as they knew it.
Four years later the Communist Party staged a coup led in part by Babrak Karmal, the man who once grilled Gouttierre at parties. A year after that, on Christmas Eve, 1979, Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan, beginning a cycle of violence, loss and destruction that would continue for decades, first under Soviet occupation and then, after 1996, under the Taliban. Tens of thousands died. Countless fled. Ghazi Stadium was used for public beheadings. There was no national team. Basketball was an afterthought.
IT IS A COOL MORNING in the late spring of 2013, and Gouttierre opens the door to his office on the Nebraska-Omaha campus, extending his hand and smiling. At 72 he is no longer slim, but his short gray hair is full, and he moves with purpose and authority. On the walls are a photo of his three grown sons, pictures of Afghans, a thick two-volume history of Islam and a framed poster with the Emerson quote, NOTHING GREAT WAS EVER ACHIEVED WITHOUT ENTHUSIASM.
Gouttierre's schedule is hectic. He is the dean of international studies as well as head of the Afghanistan studies program. He is proud of the program he's built over the last 40 years. The university's library is believed to have the second-largest collection of Afghan materials in the U.S., after the Library of Congress. Dozens of politicians and dignitaries have visited. But Gouttierre always has time to talk basketball.
Over the next three days the memories pour out as he scribbles basketball schemes on a napkin at lunch and relaxes next to Marylu in their sitting room decorated with Afghan artifacts. He talks about the fallout from the Soviet invasion. How he lost good friends in the war of resistance, including a servant named Wali Jaan with whom he had become "like brothers." How he was involved in back-channel negotiations with Soviets in the 1980s. He talks about Najibullah, the brooding boy he once taught, who was Afghanistan's president in the late '80s and early '90s and was castrated and dragged through the streets of Kabul by the Taliban before his hanging in '96.
It was around that time, in '96 and '97, that Gouttierre headed back to Kabul on a U.N. mission to mediate between the Taliban and the opposition Northern Alliance. He was dismayed that there was no longer a discernible sports structure in the country and that the Taliban had banned sports for girls and women. He went to Ghazi Stadium and erected a basketball hoop, but his energy was needed elsewhere. He met with Abdul Haq, the Pashtun mujahideen commander who many believed was the country's best hope for the future. He grew close to his old acquaintance Hamid Karzai, by then a rising political figure. And there was that one afternoon at a bazaar in Kandahar in '97 when the place went eerily quiet. A convoy of four-wheel-drive vehicles with tinted windows rolled through. The crowd moved aside and whispered the same name over and over. Behind the glass Gouttierre could just make out the form of a man. Osama, the people said.
In 2001, after the Twin Towers fell and Abdul Haq was assassinated, Gouttierre was the man the media called for context and perspective. He did hundreds of interviews. He hosted conferences. In '03 he urged the Bush Administration to change its focus from Iraq back to Afghanistan, warning that without reconstruction the country would turn violent again. Gouttierre also met with Richard Holbrooke, the special U.S. representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan in '09--10, to discuss ways to ease tensions between the U.S. and Karzai. Often Gouttierre felt as if no one else understood the complicated realities of Afghanistan. How could you if you'd never lived there?
Gouttierre laments the vision most Americans have of Afghanistan. He wishes people knew about the golden age. So he writes articles to remind us that there weren't always poppy fields and terrorists. He tells of a time when women played sports. When cities were safe.
His influence persists. "He was a tremendous asset for our country's relationship with Afghanistan," says Theodore Eliot, the U.S. ambassador from 1973 to '78. "The Afghans still have enormous respect for him." Bradley, who was a U.S. senator from 1979 to '97, speaks highly of Gouttierre and their trip together. "It had a profound impact on me," he says. Indeed, Bradley became a vocal supporter of the mujahideen and warned that outside military action could never succeed in Afghanistan. Anyone who'd been in those mountains knew that.
AS FOR BASKETBALL, the sport remains a part of Gouttierre's legacy. It was through coaching that he honed his language skills, made contacts and came to understand Afghan culture. Marylu says, "His biggest accomplishment was taking these different ethnic groups and showing them how important it was to use their skills together. That's something nobody else could do."
To this day Gouttierre hears from former players and their children. Some died during the Soviet occupation. Others, like Barai, Gouttierre's first big man, were imprisoned and tortured but survived. Naiyim escaped to Atlanta but died in a horse-riding accident when he returned to Afghanistan in 2002. Wais fled to Germany. Shakoor went to India, then Germany and finally Atlanta. Contacted on the phone, he says, "Those days at Habibia were the best memories of my life."
And then there is Esmael, the forward from Gouttierre's first team, whom Gouttierre made a starter over the complaints of his teammates. More than any of the others, Esmael worked to further what Gouttierre began. It was he who helped the younger players when Gouttierre first went back to States. After playing at Kabul University, he went into coaching. In 1972, when the Soviets wouldn't allow an American to coach Afghanistan's team, Gouttierre tapped Esmael as the player-coach for a trip to Russia. In 2006, after immigrating to the U.S. and becoming head of the Afghan Sports Federation in Washington, D.C., Esmael helped start a new national team based in both Afghanistan and the U.S., so the children of refugees could represent their ancestral country. And that's how, in November of that year, Esmael's squad won Afghanistan's first international game in 28 years, defeating Hong Kong. Draped in the Afghan flag at midcourt, 16 players cried and cheered. Back in Kabul, young men celebrated by heading to Ghazi Stadium, where the Taliban once committed mass beheadings. Once again, it was a place to play basketball.
THE FUTURE OF the game in Afghanistan, though, may lie in the hands of young men such as Shikaeb Rahi, a point guard on the national team. Six times a week, the 22-year-old Rahi drives his beat-up Toyota sedan from his family's Kabul apartment—the one near the tree with the makeshift wooden backboard nailed to it—to the old gym that doubles as the Afghan Olympic Center. Not long ago Rahi arrived at the gym to find it closed because of a bomb explosion. When he plays, it is usually against uncoordinated boys and 55-year-old men, many of whom cannot launch a proper jump shot.
Rahi dreams of becoming the first Afghan to play in the NBA, but he knows this is unlikely. Occasionally he gets to scrimmage against men from the U.S. military base. They tell him he is good but has work to do. "There are no leagues here," Rahi says. "I can't get to the next level." He pauses. "There is no next level, unfortunately. I am on the national team, but there is no improvement. There is no coaching."
Rahi doesn't know how things will change in the years to come. The last U.S. troops may leave at the end of 2014. There is a chance democracy will take hold. There is also a chance the violence will intensify and the Taliban will rise again. All Rahi can do is play while that is still possible. Games are a luxury, after all.
Meanwhile, Gouttierre watches from afar, his thoughts with Rahi and his fellow Afghans. The old coach knows basketball is not the answer to anything. There is no cause and effect. This is not a movie; a sport cannot save a country. But he knows what once was. And what could be again.