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.

FROM THE NOTEBOOK
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.

17 senators in Nebraska Legislature hit their (term) limits
Convicted killer Nikko Jenkins might await his sentence in prison
Crews working to subdue brush fire that may spread to Fontenelle Forest
It's a pursuit of pastel at Spring Lake Park's Easter egg hunt
Financial picture improving for city-owned Mid-America Center
No injuries after fire at midtown's old Mercer Mansion
29-year-old Omahan arrested for 22nd time in Lincoln
Police: Slaying of woman in Ralston apartment likely over drugs
Explosion near 29th, Woolworth damages vehicles
Omaha police arrest man, 19, accused in March shooting
Earth gets its day in the sun at Elmwood Park
Beau McCoy strikes Obama doll in TV ad; Democrats are not happy
Keystone XL pipeline backers blast 'political expediency' as foes hail ruling to delay decision
Nebraska senators to study tax issues over break
Portion of Saddle Creek Road closed after water main break
Teenager arrested after woman's purse is snatched outside Omaha store
Police identify 21-year-old shot in ankle near 30th, W Streets
Cult murderer's death row appeal denied, but execution in limbo
Interstate construction to cause lane shifts, closings in Omaha area
Kelly: A California university president returns to her Nebraska roots on Ivy Day
Omahan charged in fatal shooting in Benson neighborhood
Friday's attendance dips at Millard West after bathroom threat
High school slam poets don't just recite verses, 'they leave their hearts beating on the stage'
Crack ring's leaders join others in prison as a result of Operation Purple Haze
Haze in area comes from Kansas, Oklahoma
< >
COLUMNISTS »
Dickson’s Week in Review, April 13-19
On Twitter some guy tweeted that the spring game isn’t taken as seriously as a regular-season contest. What was your first clue? When the head coach entered waving a cat aloft?
Kelly: A California university president returns to her Nebraska roots on Ivy Day
The main speaker at today's Ivy Day celebration at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is a college president who grew up roping calves and earned her Ph.D. at the prestigious Oxford University in England.
Breaking Brad: Stuck in a claw machine? You get no Easter candy
I know of one kid in Lincoln who will be receiving a lump of coal from the Easter Bunny, just as soon as he's extricated from that bowling alley claw machine.
Breaking Brad: Mountain lion season's over, but the bunny's fair game!
Thursday was the last day of a Nebraska Legislature session. Before leaving town, legislators passed a bill to hold a lottery to hunt the Easter Bunny.
Breaking Brad: At least my kid never got stuck inside a claw machine
We need a new rule in Lincoln. If your kid is discovered inside the claw machine at a bowling alley, you are forever barred from being nominated for "Mother of the Year."
Deadline Deal thumbnail
The Jaipur in Rockbrook Village
Half Off Fine Indian Cuisine & Drinks! $15 for Dinner, or $7 for Lunch
Buy Now
PHOTO GALLERIES »
< >
SPOTLIGHT »
Omaha World-Herald Contests
Enter for a chance to win great prizes.
OWH Store: Buy photos, books and articles
Buy photos, books and articles
Travel Snaps Photo
Going on Vacation? Take the Omaha World-Herald with you and you could the next Travel Snaps winner.
Click here to donate to Goodfellows
The 2011 Goodfellows fund drive provided holiday meals to nearly 5,000 families and their children, and raised more than $500,000 to help families in crisis year round.
WORLD-HERALD ALERTS »
Want to get World-Herald stories sent directly to your home or work computer? Sign up for Omaha.com's News Alerts and you will receive e-mails with the day's top stories.
Can't find what you need? Click here for site map »