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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.