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In another country the victory might not have seemed such a big deal. After all, the Afghan players hadn't beaten the Chinese A team, and this wasn't an Olympic gold medal match. They didn't care. They had just won the first international game in their country's basketball history. It was a moment they believed would live forever, one to tell their children and grandchildren about.
Afterward the boys headed into a large white tent, where the governor, the mayor and other dignitaries awaited. There, as they were feted, they enjoyed something rarely seen in those parts: Coca-Colas. On ice. The young men looked at each other, and their coach, and drank deep. The world opened up. The future was limitless.
IT BEGAN WITH the planes. They roared overhead on that morning in 1973, so low that it sounded to the Gouttierres as if they were going to land on their house. Adam, their son, was two years old. Marylu ran to his room. Tom hurried outside, where he found hundreds of people in the street, all looking up. "Coup d'état," they said, pointing toward the royal palace. The next morning Tom heard the official announcement on the radio. Mohammed Daoud Khan, a pro-Communist former prime minister, had declared himself president. Over the next months the Gouttierres' Afghan friends became increasingly apprehensive, concerned that the country would drift closer to the Soviet Union. A number began making plans to leave. A storm was coming, they said.
That fall Tom received a job offer he had a hard time refusing: dean of the first center for Afghanistan studies in the U.S., at Nebraska-Omaha. It was a remarkable opportunity for someone in his early 30s who didn't yet have a Ph.D. So in the summer of 1974 he reluctantly gave up his coaching duties. He and Marylu said goodbye to their friends and flew home. It was the last they'd see of Kabul as they knew it.
Four years later the Communist Party staged a coup led in part by Babrak Karmal, the man who once grilled Gouttierre at parties. A year after that, on Christmas Eve, 1979, Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan, beginning a cycle of violence, loss and destruction that would continue for decades, first under Soviet occupation and then, after 1996, under the Taliban. Tens of thousands died. Countless fled. Ghazi Stadium was used for public beheadings. There was no national team. Basketball was an afterthought.
IT IS A COOL MORNING in the late spring of 2013, and Gouttierre opens the door to his office on the Nebraska-Omaha campus, extending his hand and smiling. At 72 he is no longer slim, but his short gray hair is full, and he moves with purpose and authority. On the walls are a photo of his three grown sons, pictures of Afghans, a thick two-volume history of Islam and a framed poster with the Emerson quote, NOTHING GREAT WAS EVER ACHIEVED WITHOUT ENTHUSIASM.
Gouttierre's schedule is hectic. He is the dean of international studies as well as head of the Afghanistan studies program. He is proud of the program he's built over the last 40 years. The university's library is believed to have the second-largest collection of Afghan materials in the U.S., after the Library of Congress. Dozens of politicians and dignitaries have visited. But Gouttierre always has time to talk basketball.
Over the next three days the memories pour out as he scribbles basketball schemes on a napkin at lunch and relaxes next to Marylu in their sitting room decorated with Afghan artifacts. He talks about the fallout from the Soviet invasion. How he lost good friends in the war of resistance, including a servant named Wali Jaan with whom he had become "like brothers." How he was involved in back-channel negotiations with Soviets in the 1980s. He talks about Najibullah, the brooding boy he once taught, who was Afghanistan's president in the late '80s and early '90s and was castrated and dragged through the streets of Kabul by the Taliban before his hanging in '96.
It was around that time, in '96 and '97, that Gouttierre headed back to Kabul on a U.N. mission to mediate between the Taliban and the opposition Northern Alliance. He was dismayed that there was no longer a discernible sports structure in the country and that the Taliban had banned sports for girls and women. He went to Ghazi Stadium and erected a basketball hoop, but his energy was needed elsewhere. He met with Abdul Haq, the Pashtun mujahideen commander who many believed was the country's best hope for the future. He grew close to his old acquaintance Hamid Karzai, by then a rising political figure. And there was that one afternoon at a bazaar in Kandahar in '97 when the place went eerily quiet. A convoy of four-wheel-drive vehicles with tinted windows rolled through. The crowd moved aside and whispered the same name over and over. Behind the glass Gouttierre could just make out the form of a man. Osama, the people said.
In 2001, after the Twin Towers fell and Abdul Haq was assassinated, Gouttierre was the man the media called for context and perspective. He did hundreds of interviews. He hosted conferences. In '03 he urged the Bush Administration to change its focus from Iraq back to Afghanistan, warning that without reconstruction the country would turn violent again. Gouttierre also met with Richard Holbrooke, the special U.S. representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan in '09--10, to discuss ways to ease tensions between the U.S. and Karzai. Often Gouttierre felt as if no one else understood the complicated realities of Afghanistan. How could you if you'd never lived there?