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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".