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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.