The Wizard of Kabul

HoopsWhen Tom Gouttierre arrived in Kabul, Afghanistan in 1965, coaching basketball was the last thing on his mind. However, the young Peace Corps volunteer who went to teach English wound up transforming a ragtag high school basketball team into a national team with the discipline and skills to beat a foreign power. In this week’s SI, senior writer Chris Ballard (SI_ChrisBallard) tells his extraordinary story.

Asked if he would coach the team by a student, the young traveler was reluctant, considering he was never good at the game himself, but Ballard writes, “Gouttierre was the type of man who believed that enthusiasm conquered all,” and his response was, “You bet! (PAGE 57)

The team didn’t have much talent, but Gouttierre said they had raw energy and a willingness to play. “It was like watching 10 ants at picnic go after one crumb.” (PAGE 57) The coach used the word “tashkeel,” (PAGE 57) which means organization, to motivate the boys to work together in a culture thriving on independence, suspicion and group loyalty.

While the team initially struggled against superior opponents, they continued to improve and became one of the best teams in the country by embracing the concept of tashkeel. Due to their success, Gouttierre expanded his coaching by hosting clinics and teaching other volunteers to coach the game.

He eventually was asked by the Afghanistan Olympic Committee to coach the first Afghan National team since the country received an invitation to play games against other teams from India and Pakistan. Gouttierre formed a team filled with most of his high school players and a few others from the country. To prepare, he incorporated the notorious and sophisticated UCLA zone press made famous by legendary coach John Wooden. Gouttierre wrote a letter to the head coach a year earlier asking for his advice on how to utilize the press. Ballard describes Gouttierre’s reaction to Wooden, who wrote him back:

““Dear Coach,” the letter began. Gouttierre stopped. John Wooden had just called him Coach! … He broke into a shocked grin.” (PAGE 59) With Wooden’s letter came diagrams, drawings and numbered instructions for his zone press and he told Gouttierre, “I really admire what you are doing.” (PAGE 59)

The team prepared for months, but the planned games against India and Pakistan were cancelled and Gouttierre and his team were devastated. Gouttierre left Kabul shortly after in 1967 and eventually ended up in graduate school at Indiana where he focused on Islamic studies and took Arabic and Persian. He later received a Fullbright fellowship and traveled back to Kabul in 1969 when the chance for the Afghan team to play on the national level presented itself once again – this time against the Chinese. He resumed coaching and the skills, discipline and tashkeel that Gouttierre had instilled in his boys during his first visit to Kabul came through again on the court against the tough Chinese opponents.

When the Afghans led 38-19 at the half, Gouttierre told his boys, “Keep running and I promise you they won’t catch up.” (PAGE 61) He was right. The Chinese lost the game and the boys experienced a new type of confidence they hadn’t before.

Gouttierre continued to live and coach basketball in Kabul until 1974, when he accepted a position as dean of the first center for Afghanistan studies in the U.S. at Nebraska-Omaha. Now, at the age of 72, Gouttierre continues to work as the dean of international studies as well as head of the Afghanistan studies program at the university. He says his biggest accomplishment “was taking these different ethnic groups and showing them how important it was to use their skills together.” (PAGE 63)


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