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.