Wednesday, August 23, 2006

THE bus was old, hot, cramped and slow as a herniated snail. A ride that
should have taken 3 to 4 hours took a harrowing 13.

An international journey embarked on more than a quarter century ago,
ignited by a young boy's fascination with round objects, mainly a basketball
and the globe, took an unscheduled detour last month through a Middle East
war zone.

"Only the most optimistic person alive would have called it intimate," that
boy, now 57, said earlier this week during a telephone interview from a
hastily arranged sanctuary in Amman, Jordan. Meet Paul Coughter, coach of
the Lebanese national basketball team and citizen of the world, by way of
Flatbush, Brooklyn.

Meet the American who engineered his players' escape from the mountains
outside besieged Beirut, through a convoluted and imperiled passage north,
to Syria, then south, to Amman, on the way to the World Championship of
Basketball beginning next week in Japan.

"The crisis began five days after we started our training camp," Coughter
said. "After two days, we sent the players home to be with their families.
Then we realized if we didn't get out, we never would.

"I think we got the last bus in Lebanon. We were in our own mini-world,
trying to block out everything, barely anything to eat, stopping at gas
stations, places where people would say, 'Ten minutes ago, a bomb landed
over there.' They'd say, 'Look at that, it's still smoldering,' and then
we're back on the bus, trying to convince ourselves that because one had
already landed, it couldn't happen again."

Do you think Larry
Brown<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/b/larry_brown/index.html?inline=nyt-per>has
had a peripatetic career? Over 27 years, Coughter has coached on six
continents, has stalked professional sidelines from Australia to Saudi
Arabia to Taiwan, has also run the national teams of South Africa, Pakistan
and Wales.

Do you believe Brown faced prohibitive odds with last season's
Knicks<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/sports/probasketball/nationalbasketballassociation/newyorkknicks/index.html?inline=nyt-org>?
Coughter's manager and trainer both stayed behind last month to tend to
their families, and his American-born center, Paul Khoury, was marooned in
Idaho, unable to renew his Lebanese visa, when the Beirut airport was
bombed. His best player, Fadi El Khatib, wouldn't leave the country unless
there was room on the bus — which was made — for his wife and young child.

Want to hear the N.B.A. soldiers of fortune whine about the wider lane and
mysterious refs when the Lebanese are dealing with the rules of war? For a
team with aspirations normally no more grandiose than winning a game or two
at the gathering of the world's basketball powers, there have been scant
practices and serious sleep deprivation and incalculable stress.

Even Coughter, the globetrotting bachelor, the avowed adventurer who
promises to retire soon and sail the world for the rest of his years on a
custom-built yacht, called this latest chapter of A Coach's Life "beyond
bizarre."

Lucky for him, he has never evaluated his career by the number of
championships won, by the size of his paycheck. Ask for personal highlights
and he tells of exploring an exotic island in New Zealand, of bunking with a
Chinese family in Zimbabwe, of sipping coffee while gazing at the
Mediterranean from the balcony of his most current address, the Zouk Hotel,
20 minutes from Beirut.

Coughter was born into a large Irish Catholic, basketball-loving Brooklyn
family, his father having played at Erasmus Hall High School and his older
brother for Joe Mullaney at Providence College. He remembers launching his
first shot from his father's shoulders in Prospect Park, learning the game
and using it to facilitate the ultimate road trip.

"It's like Larry
Bird<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/b/larry_bird/index.html?inline=nyt-per>once
said: 'Don't tell anyone, but I'd do this for free,' " Coughter said.
"For me, the whole thing is experiential."

How else to describe the itinerary, from Lebanon to Syria to Jordan to
Turkey to Slovenia, back to Jordan, on the way to the Philippines this week
and then Japan to, as Coughter put it, "carry the Lebanese flag at a time
the country needs to be seen"?

When the United States is perceived in the Middle East to be the power
behind the invading Israelis, here is an American at a helm, with an Iraqi
assistant, Koussay Hatem, who is married to a Lebanese woman and said in a
telephone interview that he "must call home three, four, five times a day to
see if everyone is O.K."

In every direction is a political tinderbox that a wise and wandering
Yankee, dependent on the kindness and employment of strangers, knows enough
to leave alone. As Coughter said, "One of my best friends in Beirut is from
a family that is
Hezbollah<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/organizations/h/hezbollah/index.html?inline=nyt-org>.
We talk about basketball and women."

On the road, the Lebanese players and even Joseph Vogel, an American who has
played professionally in the country long enough to become nationalized,
discuss the war, but mostly as it relates to the future beyond Japan.

"The way it's going right now, who knows if Lebanon will even be open when
the world championships are over?" said Vogel, a former player at Colorado
State. "For me, it's a career at stake. For most of these guys, it's a
country."

The coach recommends focus on the task at hand, on the journey, always the
journey.

Coughter, in fact, will leave Japan the day after the last game to meet the
country's junior team, which he also coaches, for the Asian championships.
He will take three flights to reach a Chinese city near the Mongolian
border. The way things are going in Lebanon, he may not get paid, but don't
tell anyone, he'd do it for free.