MUKILTEO — In his playing days, Bill Johnson often traveled far from his Everett home for basketball. He played collegiately at Boston’s Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and later in pro leagues in Costa Rica, Iceland, Australia and even Cape Verde off the western coast of Africa.
Though the 30-year-old Johnson no longer plays competitively, his interest in travel and his love for basketball remain unchanged. Johnson, a 2005 graduate of Mukilteo’s Kamiak High School, currently lives part of the year in a remote village of Tibet, where he experiences the culture, builds relationships and teaches basketball to a people who have discovered their own love for the game.
“It turns out they’re just crazy for basketball in Tibet,” Johnson said during a recent visit back to Snohomish County. “These are all nomads, and (their ancestors) have herded yak and sheep for thousands of years. But they’ve kind of picked up basketball through word of mouth and they’re just nuts about it.”
The village is called Ritoma and it is located in the northeast region of Tibet. About 1,500 people reside in and around Ritoma, and they are predominantly Buddhists, with lives that center around their work, families and traditions.
“I really like living with them in their community, and basketball is a way to do that,” Johnson said. “It allows you to connect (with them) very quickly. Even without speaking the language, you’re in.”
Because the villagers have only modest facilities, equipmentand know-how, the game they play “is very rough around the edges,” Johnson said. “But it is basketball. … They kind of just go play. It’s extremely physical, and because it’s so physical, they have this rule where the ref will blow the whistle just to calm things down.”
In the Tibetan high country, he went on, “they live very arduous lives. … Basketball is a way for them to kind of let out steam in a fun way.”
When Johnson first arrived last year, “I thought I was going to just help out (with coaching) a little bit,” he said. But when the Tibetans found out he had an extensive basketball background, “they told me, ‘We want a team. We want to be the best in this area. Teach us as much as you know.’ ”
Johnson began working with players who are, at first glance, nothing like American players. Most are short and stocky, but they all have remarkable strength and exceptional stamina, the result of living at 10,000 feet and often working at even higher altitudes.
“A nomad’s life is extremely hard,” Johnson said. “They do manual work, and physically and mentally they have this toughness. … They’re herding and running around on uneven ground, so they have strong ankles and they don’t sprain their ankles (on the basketball court). And even though they beat the crap out of each other (while playing), they don’t get hurt.”
In Tibet, basketball is generally an outdoor sport. Ritoma, in fact, is one of the few communities fortunate to have a concrete court. Most Tibetan courts have either dirt or grass surfaces.
Regardless of the weather, the court conditions or other factors, “they just go play,” Johnson said. “They play when it’s snowing out and there’s freezing temperatures. Actually, that’s nothing for them.”
After spending two months in Tibet last year, Johnson traveled to neighboring Nepal and helped coach a women’s team for about a month. He then came back to the United States for several months, but returned to Tibet this past spring and stayed until the early fall when he made another visit home.
His players, mostly men in their 20s and 30s, are employees of Norlha Textiles, a company that makes Yak wool products and is committed to creating jobs for Tibetans. In addition to his coaching, Johnson also works part-time for the company, helping with their website and communications, for which he receives a small stipend.
He is also a celebrity of sorts, given that he is an American and is 6 feet, 8 inches tall, meaning he towers over most Tibetans. At an indoor tournament in nearby China this year, a crowd of a few thousand spectators directed a chant at Johnson after the game, urging him to do something most had never seen anyone do in person — dunk a basketball.
“They were saying, ‘Dunk, dunk, dunk …’ I can hardly dunk anymore, and I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to do it, but I did a regular dunk and they just erupted (in cheers).”
Johnson expects to be back in the United States sometime in December, but in the spring he plans to return to the Tibetan village where the work and the relationships are meaningful and satisfying.
“For me it’s definitely been rewarding,” he said. “When you see (how much they love basketball), you also see that it has big potential for them to do things they’ve never done. Basketball is something that Tibetans can rally around, and it (allows) people from different areas of Tibet to come together and play. It’s also a way these guys can go see other places. Basketball might be their way someday to go play in Beijing, and maybe someday it’ll be the way for them to come play in the United States.
“Through all this basketball stuff, and for me to be in these places and to live with them, it’s just been very rewarding and a huge learning experience.”
For a revealing look at the traditions and lifestyle of the people of Tibet, and an overview of a company that is providing jobs and a higher standard of living, visit norlhatextiles.com.