Hansen: Meet the Omaha father of Afghan basketball - Omaha.com
Published Wednesday, July 24, 2013 at 12:01 am / Updated at 4:50 pm
Hansen: Meet the Omaha father of Afghan basketball

He spent the Fourth of July on his knees in his Omaha attic, sifting through the dusty mementos of a career and a life that sometimes seems to him more like a movie or a dream.

Finally, near the attic's back wall, Tom Gouttierre found the unmarked cardboard box for which he searched.

He opened it, and inside he found a photo of a very young American with a mop of brown hair surrounded by even younger Afghans in matching white shorts and blue jerseys.

In the photo, the young American is crouching and tracing a play on the rough concrete of an outdoor basketball court.

The young Afghans crouch around Tom Gouttierre and listen intently.

Gouttierre would soon name many of the players in this photo to Afghanistan's first national basketball team.

Together — with assists from coaching legend John Wooden and NBA legend Bill Bradley — Tom Gouttierre and these teenagers would win Afghanistan's first-ever international basketball game.

They would topple a Chinese team with two 7-footers.

They would oh-so-briefly inject joy into the lives of Afghans, who have since known too much destruction and despair.

You see, Tom Gouttierre, who is now the University of Nebraska at Omaha's longest-serving dean and one of this country's top experts on Afghanistan, has another, older claim to fame.

He is, more or less, the father of Afghan basketball.

“It's nice to find things, photos, that you can hold onto and say, 'This wasn't some crazy dream,'” says Gouttierre, the longtime director of UNO's Center for Afghanistan Studies. “This really happened.”

You can read all about it in this week's Sports Illustrated, which can be accessed for free on the magazine's website.

Longtime hoops writer Chris Ballard tells the tale that people close to Gouttierre have heard for years, and one that both myself and fellow columnist Mike Kelly have written about in the past.

But Ballard does something no one else has: He tracks down Gouttierre's old players. He interviews Bill Bradley.

He exhaustively details a largely forgotten piece of Afghan sports history, one that features an Omahan right at the story's center.

It began in 1965, during Gouttierre's first week as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching at Kabul's Habibia High School.

A small, dark-haired boy named Nayim approached him after class, Ballard writes.

Mr. Tom, would you coach our basketball team?

It should not surprise you that within two years Gouttierre had taken the ragtag bunch, broken down ethnic rivalries that caused some players not to pass the ball to others and turned Habibia into the best high school team in the city,

He had also recruited other young Peace Corps volunteers to coach the other high school teams, organized the league schedule, helped to start a high school girls' league and spearheaded a mini hoops craze in Afghanistan's capital.

He had also written legendary UCLA Coach John Wooden, who sent back coveted diagrams of his famed zone press defense.

He had become so well-known in Afghan athletics that when New York Knicks star Bill Bradley visited the country, the U.S. ambassador asked Gouttierre to serve as his tour guide.

Soon Bradley, a future U.S. senator, was playing his harmonica for an assembled crowd in a remote Afghan village while Gouttierre, the future Afghan expert, was doing his best impersonation of The King.

Not King Zahir Shah, the Afghan royalty well-known to these villagers, and who fled into exile in 1973 during a coup that began 40 years of bloodshed that continues to this year.

Elvis Presley, The King that no one in this Afghan village had ever seen on television, because they had no televisions.

“It had a profound impact on me,” Bradley says of his Gouttierre-led trip to Afghanistan in the Sports Illustrated story.

And Bradley, in turn, had an impact on Afghan basketball: He taught Gouttierre's players how to properly shoot a hook shot during a three-hour practice with the Afghans.

None of this should surprise you, because what happened when Tom Gouttierre got involved with Afghan basketball is basically a microcosm of what happened when Tom Gouttierre got involved with Afghanistan.

During his decade on-and-off in the country, first as a Peace Corps volunteer and then as head of the country's Fulbright program, Gouttierre learned to speak Dari fluently and wrote Persian poetry.

He taught the relatives of the royal family and befriended dozens of smart, young Afghans. Among them: Hamid Karzai, now Afghanistan's president, and Raheem Yaseer, a Kabul University professor who is now Gouttierre's second-in-command at UNO's Center for Afghanistan Studies.

Gouttierre, the son of a baker from tiny Maumee, Ohio, inhaled Afghanistan during a fleeting decade of peace and prosperity before the Soviet tanks and the civil war that followed, before the Taliban and the War on Terror.

Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha in their new blog, From the Notebook.

That decade affects everything Gouttierre thinks and says and writes about Afghanistan in 2013, he told me this week.

It's partly why Gouttierre, from his perch as UNO's Afghan expert, fiercely criticized the Bush administration when they invaded Iraq and pulled troops and resources out of Afghanistan.

And it's why he worries about the Obama administration's plan to leave Afghanistan in 2014 — a pullout that could create a power vacuum and send the country tumbling back into civil war.

“I knew people in the neighborhood like I knew the people in my hometown,” he says. “When I go back now I still know the streets there like I know the streets of Omaha. … That changes how you see a place. It changes everything.”

Which is why that game against the Chinese in the summer of 1970 still matters so much.

That day, Gouttierre's ragtag bunch of Afghans passed, shot and pressed their way to an easy victory over the older, taller Chinese team — a team so embarrassed by the rout that it threatened to quit at halftime unless Gouttierre stopped coaching and moved to the stands.

As the final seconds ticked away, the Afghans hoisted Gouttierre on their shoulders and paraded him around the outdoor court. Hundreds of Afghans — politicians and villagers alike — spilled onto the floor, where they cheered and squeezed into photos taken of the team.

On that long-ago day in 1970, Afghanistan brimmed with hope. On that day, no one in the crowd, not even the father of Afghan basketball, could see what came next.

The Sports Illustrated story on Afghan basketball and Tom Gouttierre hit the newsstands late last week.

Yaseer, the ex-Kabul University professor and Gouttierre's longtime assistant, read it for the first time. He entered Gouttierre's office.

He didn't speak, because he couldn't. Neither could Gouttierre.

Instead, they stood there, two men who have devoted their lives and careers to a country that sometimes seems like a dream, and sometimes like a curse.

They didn't speak, because they didn't have to.

They stood there, and they cried.

Contact the writer: Matthew Hansen

matthew.hansen@owh.com    |   402-444-1064    |  

Matthew Hansen is a metro columnist who writes roughly three columns a week focusing on all things Omaha.

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