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)


Where Are They Now? – The Sandlot

sandlotTwenty years ago nine kids took to a makeshift diamond to tell a story about baseball and capture the essence of youth in 1962. Two decades later, the actors from The Sandlot have scattered professionally and geographically, but some remain close and all are connected by the same experience and the same iconic line: “You’re killing me Smalls!” SI writer Matt Gagne takes a look at what the actors who played the nine main characters have been up to since the movie came out – from acting and playing poker to saving lives and running a pizza shop.

Patrick Renna – Ham:

Known as the pudgy, freckled-faced kid who spoke the infamous line, “You’re killing me Smalls,” Patrick Renna discusses his post-Sandlot athletic success from mastering slow-pitch softball to earning a hole-in-one during a difficult shot at a California golf course last July. The 34-year-old Renna, who is married and lives in L.A., continues to pursue acting, but recollects his fondest memory from the Sandlot days when he and fellow co-star Chauncey Leopardi went crazy feasting on ice cream and ordering other room service items from a Ritz-Carlton during a publicity tour.

“We probably spent $5,000,” Renna says. “I think they forgot we were teenagers.” (PAGE 64)

Chauncey Leopardi – Squints:

With his memorable glasses covering most of his face and wide, toothy grin, Chauncey Leopardi, who played Squints in the movie, hasn’t forgotten the scene when he was lucky enough to be the one who kissed lifeguard Wendy Peffercorn. Leopardi claims his ear-to-ear smile seen in the movie wasn’t just acting. “That wasn’t Squints,” he says. “That was me. I still have that smile.” (PAGE 65)

His smile is not the only thing Leopardi, 32, still has. He was able to captivate a new kind of audience with his acting skills through a recent gig as a telemarketer in the Los Angeles area. “I was like, ‘Yeah, it’s just reading from a script, and I’ve been doing that my whole life.’” (PAGE 65) Acting also helped him survive as a successful professional poker player from 2009 to ’12 (he tells SI he lost nearly all of his earnings one night in Las Vegas last year). Leopardi currently works as a project manager at a friend’s air-filtration company and operates a property-management company with friends.

Mike Vitar – Benny the Jet:

From Sandlot hero to real-life hero, Mike Vitar, 34, is a 14-year veteran of the Los Angeles Fire Department. Although his character Benny the Jet made it to the big leagues as a Los Angeles Dodgers player in the movie, Vitar has to settle for playing third base and occasionally catcher for his Los Angeles Fire Department’s baseball and softball teams.

“I’m just an average guy with a family,” says Vitar, who played in as many as three overlapping baseball leagues before he and his wife, Kym, had three kids. (PAGE 66)

Vitar had a chance to live out his movie character’s dream by playing a game for his men’s league’s championship at Dodger Stadium in 2004. Vitar tells SI he was initially reluctant to play Benny. Spotted by a casting agent while waiting in line for bumper cars at a carnival, Vitar was not interested in the agent’s offer, but Vitar’s brother Pablo (an L.A. police officer who died of colon cancer in 2008) convinced him otherwise. Vitar said his brother persuaded him to take the role, saying, “Hey, dummy, you can play baseball all summer long if you do this.” (PAGE 66)

Tom Guiry – Scotty Smalls:

Tom Guiry, 32, is probably the one who hears “You’re killing me, Smalls,” more than any of the other guys from the movie, which makes sense, considering Guiry played awkward new-kid-on-the-block Scotty Smalls. Guiry, who is now a patient transporter at the Robert Wood Johnson Hospital in New Jersey, still has 30 and 40-year-old somethings, who grew up with The Sandlot, run up to him and ask for his autograph and to speak the famous line – including one memorable incident with a patient he was transporting.

Although his days at the sandlot might be over, Guiry still pursues acting in the New York area, but his true passion is helping the patients he transports and works with at the hospital.

“I’m really polite to people, because when you’re sick it’s hard to be nice,” he says. “It’s always nice to put a smile on someone’s face. And if I can’t do it acting, maybe I can do it this way.” (PAGE 66)

Marty York – Yeah Yeah

Since his days playing the hyper-active kid who constantly said, “Yeah, yeah,” to everything – dubbing his name in the movie – Marty York, 32, has had somewhat of a troubled past since then. From a tragic car accident in 1997 that left him in a coma for a week to a jail sentence for domestic battery in 2009, York, who currently resides in Valencia, California, is working to get his life back together.

“I’m moving forward—trying to get away from all that.” (PAGE 67)

Grant Gelt – Bertram

From serving as the head of operations at Uprising Creative, an artistic agency in Los Angeles to traveling the world and managing the blues-rock band Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Grant Gelt, 33, has come a long way from his Sandlot days. With tattoos from various places around the world covering his body, Gelt admits he has become tamer since his younger days.

“The 16-year-old punk-rock me would be so pissed at the grown-up me… All I want to do is golf.” (PAGE 67)

Looking back, Gelt’s 12-year-old ways might not be so happy with his grown-up self either. Some of Gelt’s fondest memories from filming the movie include pretending to puke during the infamous chewing tobacco scene and the old props used on set.

“Being 12 and getting to play with fake barf… Everything was great,” Gelt says. (PAGE 67)

Victor Dimattia – Timmy

Victor Dimattia, 32, moved from Delaware to San Francisco in 2004 with hopes to make it big with his punk rock band, but after a couple years, he decided to pursue the film program at the Academy of Art University to study directing and screenwriting. He also now works as a bartender in L.A. His role in the Sandlot, however, still gives him perks. Out recently with his co-star Marty York, he was allowed VIP access at a nightclub in L.A. because the bouncer recognized them from the movie.

Dimattia says,“This guy recites the entire thing off the top of his head and then says, ‘Get the f— in here, come on.’” (PAGE 67)

Shane Obedzinski – Repeat

Known for reciting the same words and phrases as his brother Timmy in the movie, “Repeat,” or Shane Obedzinski, 30, tried his hand at becoming a drummer for hard rock bands in his early 20s. Obedzinski eventually quit the music business and started opening and managing pizza chains. However, he,“got tired of doing it for rich people” (PAGE 67) so he and a friend decided to open their own chain in Braden, Florida and have owned and operated it ever since.

Obedzinski is at his shop seven days a week, but when he finds time off, he and his girlfriend enjoy using their year-long passes at Disney theme parks.

Obedzinski’s surprised reaction to co-star Leopardi kissing the life guard was singled out in the movie, yet to this day, still doesn’t know why.

“I don’t know why my face was singled out in the movie,” he says, “but it was a legit reaction.” (PAGE 67)

Brandon Quintin Adams – Kenny

Although he has made appearances on other well-known TV shows and movies (The Mighty Ducks movies, The Fresh Prince of Bell-air, Moesha), Brandon Quintin Adams, 33, is most known for his role as the young pitcher of the Sandlot who declares, “Here comes my heater” (PAGE 67). Adams stays busy these days by acting, writing, directing and rapping in the L.A. area and spends time with 7-year-old daughter on the side. “I’m nonstop, always trying to find somewhere new to spark my mind.” (PAGE 67)

In 2002, his life was forever changed when his best friend and fellow actor Merlin Santana was shot dead at 26. Adams says, “I’m adamant about not being fearful, not wasting time.” (PAGE 67)

“Do what makes you happy. Not for money, not for fame, but for yourself.” (PAGE 67)


Alex in Wonderland

Image In this week’s issue of SI, senior writer Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) profiles Alex Morgan, the 23-year-old U.S. Women’s Soccer tasked with helping a new pro women’s league succeed where two others have failed. Described as a goal-scoring machine, social media phenom, a role model for her generation and the hottest star in the league, Morgan earned this acclaim through dedication, hard work and one nervous phone call to idol and mentor Mia Hamm.

Wahl says that Morgan’s athleticism is comparable to that of Hamm, who played on the 1999 World Cup winning team, but not identical. To improve her game, Morgan built up enough courage to unexpectedly call the former U.S. soccer player and ask for her mentorship and coaching expertise. “I was really nervous, obviously, because she’s Mia Hamm,” says Morgan (PAGE 53).

Hamm happily agreed and has watched the young Portland Thorn’s player work hard on and off the field ever since. “She’s so dynamic and explosive with her speed and strength,” says Hamm (PAGE 53).

The comparisons between Hamm and Morgan only go as far as their playing abilities however. When she is not on the field, Morgan is just as busy managing her image as one of soccer’s hottest new stars. From posing in body paint for SI’s 2012 Swimsuit issue to walking the runway at New York’s Fashion week, Morgan has quickly become a role model for younger female generations through various outlets other than sports, which is something her mentor did not do. “I wanted to help young women feel comfortable in whatever body type they have,” says Morgan (PAGE 53).

The soccer player also has proved successful through social media, gaining nearly 1.2 million followers on her Twitter account since the 2011 Women’s World Cup and catching the attention of LeBron James, FC Barcelona, Mike Tyson, Kobe Bryant and many others on the social media platform.

“I think it’s pretty cool to expand this soccer world into other sports like basketball,” says Morgan on her Twitter fan base, but states, “it’s just social media, so I don’t read into it too much” (PAGE 53).

Modesty, as reflected in her thoughts about social media, is how Morgan manages to stay humble and get the job done through all her glory; something her fellow teammates recognize about her and admire. U.S. teammate and reigning World Player of the Year Abby Wambach calls Morgan “the face of women’s soccer” and states, “So much attention on women in sports is based on looks, but Alex backs that up with even stronger athleticism… I’d absolutely compare her to David Beckham in terms of her appeal” (PAGE 54).

Morgan’s success as a strong athlete and rising star amongst younger generations comes at a crucial time for the U.S. Women’s Soccer league. With the failures of two previous women’s leagues, there are questions whether or not it can be sustainable. Morgan might just be the power boost it needs in order to keep it going for many years to come.


Q&A with SI’s Baseball Preview Editor

14COVv27_EGV_PromoSports Illustrated put out its annual SI Baseball Preview this week, which featured six regional covers (Stephen Strasburg, David Price, Justin Verlander, CC Sabathia, James Shields and Clayton Kershaw), 42 pages of scouting reports with standings and playoff predictions, stat projections from rotowire.com and takes on every team from rival scouts. Additional MLB preview content, including news, analysis and video previews on every team by Tom Verducci can be found on SI.com.

With opening day just a few days away, we sat down to discuss the process of putting together all of this content with SI Assistant Managing Editor Stephen Cannella, who oversaw the SI Baseball Preview.

SI.com MLBWhen did you start preparing for the Baseball Preview?

Cannella:  I had the general idea to use “strikeouts” as the theme as far back as last August. Over the previous year or so our coverage had brushed up against the idea that the game was changing: the pendulum had swung away from the hitting dominance of the 1990s and early 2000s, but it was more than that. The game looks different than it did even in past pitching-dominated eras, and that difference lies in how many more strikeouts there are. Tom Verducci and I talked about it and we were both excited about it as a preview theme. Over the next five months we kept this idea in mind, and in January we got more specific—that’s when Tom decided we should focus on the Rays’ pitching staff as the state-of-the-art for this era.  By the time spring training started, we had our scouts and writers lined up for who would cover each of the 30 teams. Copy started rolling in the second week of March and the issue came out this week.

What are the biggest challenges in managing this process?

Cannella:  The timing is always tough. Things change a lot during spring training: players get hurt, get traded, play well or play poorly. Kyle Lohse signing with the Brewers and Vernon Wells being traded to the Yankees on the Monday that we closed, those are good examples of what can happen close to a deadline. In an issue of this size that relies so heavily on detailed information about rosters and lineups, keeping up with the news is a big challenge. That, and praying that none of our cover choices got hurt.

Why did you use the Rotowire.com projected stats in this year’s MLB Preview?

Cannella:  We felt strongly that a preview should be forward thinking. The baseball analytics industry has become really good at predicting individual performance, and Rotowire is one of the best. I thought it would be fun to tap into that idea and have this issue tell readers more about what we think will happen this year than what did happen last year. It will be fun to look back in October and see how well we did. Hopefully we’ll do better with player projections than we usually do with our World Series prediction.

Why did SI feature six covers for the Baseball Preview?

Cannella:  Several reasons, but the biggest is that baseball has more parity and is more unpredictable than ever before. Featuring six subjects reflects that: Every one of the six teams has a chance to contend this year, and all six pitchers we featured are poster boys for the strikeout trend we wanted to highlight. Multiple covers also gave us a chance to highlight some teams and markets that we don’t often feature prominently. Yes, we have Yankees and Dodgers covers. But I think it’s cool to see teams like the Royals and Rays get top billing too. I think the covers will create a lot of buzz in those markets.

How does the magazine work with SI.com?

Cannella:  The magazine and the web site were very intertwined for this issue.  Ted Keith, the SI.com baseball producer, and I worked closely to make the print and digital previews feel like parts of a whole. For our scouting reports, writers who covered spring training worked on the same teams for both magazine and web for the most part, producing different but complementary pieces for both. The hope is that the magazine and SI.com content work together and that readers will see reading on as the key to the full SI preview experience.

What can you tell me about the SI team of baseball writers?

Cannella:  Well, the conversation starts with Tom Verducci. He’s the best baseball writer alive and will go down as one of the best ever. HIs three stories in the preview issue demonstrate his various strengths. “Generation K” shows off his ability to spot trends and distill the big picture into a perfect snapshot of what’s happening in the game at any given moment. In “The Rays Way” he drills down into the art and science of pitching development—it’s a terrific inside-baseball story packaged in great narrative. And in “Washington Heights” he brings a historical perspective to one of the teams of the moment, the Nationals. The rest of our team is fantastic as well. Ben Reiter, Albert Chen, Joe Lemire and Matt Gagne blanketed spring training and turned out a ton of great scouting report material for the magazine and the web. Ted Keith gets a special shoutout: Not only did he edit and produce the web package, he wrote five team previews as well. It was a lot of work, and everyone did a spectacular job.

Who do you predict will win this year’s World Series? Any sleeper teams?

Cannella:  I will stick with the pick we made in the magazine – the Nationals. But as I mentioned earlier, so many teams can compete this year. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Rays, Reds, Dodgers, Tigers, or the Angels as the last team standing. As for sleeper teams, I think the Royals, Indians and Padres have a chance to sneak up on people this season.


The Last Days of 63

In the 42 years since Tom Dempsey kicked the longest field goal in NFL history, his mark has been matched three times but never surpassed. Now the most mysteriously enduring record in sports may finally be ripe to fall. Sixty-three should have fallen years ago, as kickers became more deadeye snipers – more explosive, more accurate and better schooled from a younger age-but the record remains intact, shared by a logjam of four kickers across 42 years of football. It has been protected by circumstance, strategy, worship at the altar of field position and, in no small part, the inherent challenge of guiding a football 63 yards through an opening 10 feet off the ground and 18 feet, 6 inches wide.

Read the rest of this entry »


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 128 other followers