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HEAR ABOUT the Afghan basketball renaissance?
O.K., neither had I until recently, and understandably so. Think of Afghanistan these days, and you don't think of sports. And when you do, you might think of kite running or, if you're really well-versed, buzkashi. That's the one where players try to fling a headless goat carcass into a scoring circle while riding horses and hitting each other with whips. (It's like polo, only messier.) But hoops? Not so much.
So when U.S. college players hear they're facing the Afghanistan national team in an exhibition game, they're not sure what to expect. Refugees? Bushy beards and baggy, ankle-length chopans? "You can't really blame them because all they see on TV is the Taliban and bombs and people dying," says Yousof Etemadi, a 6'4" guard and the team's leading scorer. Clean-shaven and handsome in an ensemble-TV-drama way, the 29-year-old Etemadi not only looks but also plays American: shifty crossover, deadeye range, playground handle. In 1979, a year after Etemadi was born in Kabul, his parents fled Afghanistan when the Soviet Union invaded, emigrating to the U.S. in '86. Etemadi went to high school in Orange County, Calif., played college ball at Cal Poly-Pomona and now lives in Los Angeles. He works in commercial leasing. He could be your neighbor.
Except your neighbor probably isn't part of an ambitious attempt to revive a basketball federation, in this case with a fledgling program in Kabul and a shoestring national team in the U.S. How shoestring? Try potluck fund-raisers. After being recruited in 2006, Etemadi and his teammates—primarily first-generation Afghan-Americans with dual citizenship—ran into an immediate problem. As Naser Shahalemi, head of the National Basketball Association of Afghanistan and a key team organizer, says from Kabul, "It's hard for the government to give money for sports when they're fighting a war." Can you imagine Dwyane Wade showing up at your doorstep with lasagna to fund the U.S. Olympic squad?
Once basketball was a source of pride in Afghanistan. In the 1960s Peace Corps volunteer Tom Gouttierre brought exotic 1-2-2 zones to the country and, in '70, coached the scrappy national team to a remarkable upset of China, which had two 7-footers. Three years later there was a coup; Gouttierre left Afghanistan not long after, and the game went into hibernation. By the late 1990s Ghazi Stadium, where the national team had played, was being used for mass executions by the Taliban.
So when Etemadi & Co. raised enough cash to fly from L.A. to Qatar for the 2006 Asian Games qualifiers, it was a victory in itself. Sure, they had only four days of practice and few plays to speak of; before the game the team walked through sets in a parking lot using socks and water bottles for the ball. Yet something wild happened: The Afghans beat Hong Kong 65--57.
Big deal—it was just one win, right? Tell that to the players who circled the arena with the Afghanistan flag, whooping like nine-year-olds on a sugar rush. Tell that to Obaid Arghandiwal, the only Afghan resident on the team, a 36-year-old power forward who was used to playing on mud courts with bent rims and grenade pockmarks. Tell that to the Afghans back home who celebrated the country's first international victory in 36-years. And try to tell that to the handful of Afghan fans on hand that day, crying their eyes out. Says Etemadi, "It was the first time they'd seen the flag raised in a positive manner in 20 years."
It mattered little that the team then lost to Syria and, later, didn't qualify for the 2008 Olympics. Shahalemi, the NBAA head, believes the team's mere existence will inspire would-be ballers. Born in Kabul, Shahalemi grew up in the U.S. and returned to his homeland to revive the program in 2006. His goal is to start with clinics, develop leagues and then create a national team that is truly Afghan. He also dreams of a proper wood floor to play on, though for now he'd be happy just to have basketballs, jerseys and shoes.
Shahalemi has already begun recruiting anyone with size or athleticism, from goatherds to former soldiers, a curious crew that practices four days a week and ranges in age from 12 to 50. Some know the rules, some just think they do. Some only pass to relatives or members of the same ethnic tribe. Some are scared to come to practice lest the trip prove fatal. "It's a slow process, but it's working,'' says Shahalemi, 30. "We have to learn to be able to relate to one another without a weapon."
It's fitting, then, that Shahalemi has chosen as the site for practices the very place where the darkest memories linger. Once again there's the sound of basketballs bouncing at Ghazi Stadium. The echo carries farther than you might think.