Recollections of Bill Bradley’s 1970 visit to Afghanistan

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Sept. 7, 2014) — I recently wrote an article on Bill Bradley’s reflections on the 1964 Tokyo Olympics for The Japan Times.

Six years later, the future Senator visited Afghanistan after capturing his first NBA title as a New York Knick. That visit was touched upon briefly in the following article: (http://www.japantimes.co.jp/sports/2014/08/28/olympics/nearly-50-years-bradley-recalls-1964-tokyo-games/).

Here’s a bit more about that trip.

Before and after the 1964 Summer Olympics, Bradley made lasting impressions with individuals from all walks of life. Venturing far from Tokyo can provide a glimpse of that.

In a recent phone interview, Tom Gouttierre, director of The Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, recalled his first meeting with Bradley — in Kabul — in the summer of 1970. And he remembers what Bradley and his U.S. teammates accomplished on the basketball court in Tokyo. “The Americans were invincible,” was his apt description.

He distinctly recalls Bradley revealing that “winning that medal for one’s nation is something that no other particular achievement in the sport could at least surpass.”

“I know that was great sense of pride for him,” Gouttierre said, and he should know. After all, he’s followed Bradley’s life and career for parts of six decades

Bradley’s visit to Afghanistan came just weeks after the Knicks captured the NBA title in May 1970. That expedition was included as a minor topic in Sports Illustrated writer Chris Ballard’s feature story on Gouttierre (“The Wizard of Kabul”) in July 2013. Gouttierre has held his current post at the University of Nebraska at Omaha since 1974 along with additional duties nowadays as dean of international studies. Before that, he also coached basketball in Afghanistan as
part of his Peace Corps duties.

Gouttierre and his wife, Mary, newlyweds, arrived in Afghanistan as Peace Corp volunteers in 1965, and his involvement in teaching basketball to the nation’s students began shortly thereafter. While there, he also developed a strong rapport with Robert Neumann, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, whom he referred to as a mentor.

Fast forward to the summer of ‘70, when Neumann reach Gouttierre by telephone and said, “Do you know who Bill Bradley is?” recalled Gouttierre. “Of course I did, obviously, and I said, ‘yes,’ ” he recalled.

Then, Gouttierre recalled, Neumann said: “Well, how would you like to manage his visit to Afghanistan?” He accepted the assignment with enthusiasm. (Neumann said this assignment would routinely go to the cultural affairs officers, Goutierre remembered, “but I know you coached basketball and I thought you might enjoy this opportunity…”)

And why did Bradley travel to Afghanistan after reaching the pinnacle of pro basketball in his third seaon with the Knickerbockers?

“Bradley was rewarding himself for having won the NBA championship … and he wanted to do take an around-the-world trip with the primary objective of getting to Afghanistan to the site of the Rudyard Kipling short novel called ‘The Man Who Would Be King,’ which was later made into a movie starring Michael Caine and Sean Connery and Christopher Plummer,” Gouttierre recalled. “”He wanted to go to that region because it was a story that really fascinated him.”

Bradley and the script writer and author Jeremy Larner, who later won and Oscar for writing the script for “The Candidate,” traveled to the Kabul airport,and Gouttierre picked them up in a VW Bug. For the 195-cm Bradley and Larner, who’s just a few centimeters shorter, it was a crammed ride.

They traveled to a village in the foothills of Kamdesh, Nuristan province, along with another Peace Corps volunteer and a future member of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s administration.

During the treacherous journey, music provided entertainment. “We got along famously during the whole trip. Bradley had a great recall, as did I for the old rock ‘n’ roll tunes,” Gouttierre said. “This was in 1970, so of course we were singing things from the ‘50s and ‘60s primarily. I would think of one and we would all sing it together, and then he’d think of one and we’d all sing it together. This was how we spent our time driving all the way from Kabul to Kamdesh. Plus (Bradley) played harmonica…”

The fun times continued in the high-elevation village of Kamdesh, where Bradley and his traveling companions entertained and educated the locals through music and basketball in front of an audience of about 100.

Said Gouttierre: “Singing rock ‘n’ roll tunes and playing the harmonica, these people loved it … (and) there was almost no communication of an real consistent nature with the rest of the world, right? So here we were four Americans, two Peace Corps volunteers and  Bradley and they just loved it, they wanted more … they didn’t want it to stop.”

As a standout player on the world champion Knicks, Bradley was a natural hit with the Afghans for his basketball-playing tips, including the fundamentals of the hook shot.

“He was gracious (with his time),” Gouttierre said. “I think they never expected him to miss a shot. … They were just overwhelmed.”

For Bradley, “it was an intense, immerson experison to Afghanistan,” said Gouttierre.

Gouttierre’s first encounter with Bradley occurred decades before both men’s professional lives had reached their current status. They remained friendly over the years — they’ve shared similar political views as Democrats, with the former suporting the latter’s run for president in 2000 — and worked together during the latter’s time in the U.S. Senate after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979; Gouttierre gave testimony to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which Bradley served on, about the war).

Reflecting on Bradley’s accomplishments as a basketball star, politician, author and intellectual, Gouttierre said the accolades and public admiration aren’t things the former senator brags about or constantly dwells on.

“He has a certain innate humbleness about him, although he’s fully aware of his presence and achievements and how he stacks up against people,” Gouttierre said. “He’s not disingenuous at all about it, but he doesn’t push it. Buf if you ask him, he’ll tell you, and if he’s trusting of you, he’ll reveal how he feels about things.”

 

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