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THERE WOULD BE MANY MOMENTS WHEN TOM GOUTTIERRE WOULD WONDER HOW HE, A BAKER'S SON FROM A SMALL TOWN IN OHIO, CAME TO BE ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORLD, IN AFGHANISTAN. BUT NONE QUITE AS UNLIKELY AS THIS.
LOOKING AROUND THE village square that night in 1970, he could make out the snow-dusted peaks of the Hindu Kush, gilded by the moon's glow. He could see the cluster of dark, bearded men wearing pistol straps, and beyond them the villagers. But most of all he could see the gangly man beside him, the NBA champion who had come here because of a Rudyard Kipling story and was now playing harmonica with every fiber in his 6'5" body. For while men wearing guns in the Hindu Kush had never heard of the New York Knicks, they did know rock 'n' roll. So Gouttierre, the daydreamer turned Peace Corps volunteer turned improbable international basketball icon, sang his lungs out. When the two Americans finished "Blue Suede Shoes," there was a moment of silence. And then cheering. So on they played, till all the stars were out.
In the years that followed, as he watched the country he loved be torn apart, Gouttierre clung to memories such as this, just as those who love basketball in Afghanistan cling to the memory of his time there. Mention "Mr. Tom" and they will talk about the ripple effect of his presence and about the legends he coached during the country's golden age, before the civil war, the Communist takeover, the Soviet occupation and all that followed, from puppet dictators to mass killings to the Taliban's rise, the U.S. invasion and the muddle of reconstruction. Some can even recall the whole Forrest Gump--like narrative—can tell you about Gouttierre's encounters with John Wooden and Hamid Karzai and about that historic game against an international power, after which so much seemed possible for Afghanistan.
In the end, it's a story about one man's enduring influence on a country, and its influence on him. About what basketball can achieve, and what it cannot. For while the game is not a savior in troubled places like Afghanistan—no sport is—it is something else: a green tendril sprouting in the rubble, an indicator of a nation's health. To play requires teamwork and cooperation. It requires tashkeel.
WHEN GOUTTIERRE arrived in Kabul in the spring of 1965, basketball was not the first thing on his mind. Tall, thin and handsome, with short dark hair, he brimmed with curiosity. The eldest of four children, Gouttierre had grown up in Maumee, Ohio, spending his college years rising at 3:30 a.m. to fire his father's ovens and tend the dough until school began. By 18 he was a certified master pastry chef. Expected to take over the business, he instead dreamed of faraway places. So he majored in history and foreign languages at Bowling Green, hoping to become a diplomat. When, as a sophomore in 1960, he heard presidential candidate John F. Kennedy speak about creating the Peace Corps, Gouttierre was transfixed. He knew then: Traveling the world to help others was what he wanted to do with his life.
Five years later he boarded a Pan Am jet for Kabul. As part of the fifth wave of Peace Corps volunteers in Afghanistan, he was slated to teach English. His wife of six months, a spunky brunette named Marylu, would teach secretarial skills. The couple had met at a party his freshman year in college, friends at first, Tom ever the gentleman as Marylu chased the wrong type of guy. Then one day she left for California for three weeks, and all she could think about was that gentleman. He would meet her at the airport with flowers even though she hadn't mentioned her return date. When Tom later said he wanted to graduate before they married, she said, "You waited five years for me—I'll wait an eternity for you." They'd joined the Peace Corps together. Now, as they embarked on the 7,000-mile trip to Afghanistan, Tom wore a khaki suit with a brown topcoat and was understandably nervous. It was the first time he'd ever been on an airplane.
The country the Gouttierres landed in was unlike any Tom had imagined. A Muslim nation the size of Texas, with roughly 10 million residents, Afghanistan in 1965 was on the verge of a democratic renaissance but fractured by tribal and ethnic conflicts. It was a rough, beautiful place. The summer heat was oppressive. The mountains in the north rose like jagged spires, forbidding and dark and never-ending.
Modern conveniences were scarce. The Gouttierres' small Peace Corps apartment lacked a refrigerator. The couple sometimes used goatskins to stock fresh water. Cockroaches scurried over their mud walls by the hundreds. Sewers emptied into the streets. Even so, Kabul was safe, and the people were friendly and hospitable. To Tom, the city was both intimidating and exhilarating. This was what he wanted: strangeness, risk, challenge, the full sensory blast of a new culture.
Maybe it was his energy that drew the boys to him that first day at Habibia High, the country's first public school. Or perhaps they just had no other choice. After class, a small, dark-haired boy named Naiyim asked him, Mr. Tom, would you coach our basketball team?
A different sort of man might have paused to think about it. After all, Gouttierre had never coached sports above the CYO level. And while he liked basketball, he'd never been good at it, unable to make the cut for his junior high team. There were other factors to consider: his young wife, a new language, a confusing culture. Then again, Gouttierre was the type of man who believed that enthusiasm conquered all. His response, he recalls, was, You bet!