Jared Boscacci attempts a shot playing korfball Sept. 9 at Mukilteo Beach. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Jared Boscacci attempts a shot playing korfball Sept. 9 at Mukilteo Beach. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Latest endeavor for curious Everett man? Beach korfball

Kamiak grad and world traveler Bill Johnson is trying to put the obscure sport on the map in the U.S.

The reaction is in the eyes.

Any time the PNW Beach Korfball squad sets up shop on the sand, whether it’s at Mukilteo Beach or Golden Gardens in Seattle or anywhere else, it inevitably draws gazes from passers-by. Children gawk wide-eyed as they watch teams of women and men tossing what looks like a slightly-shrunken soccer ball toward a basket at the end of a tall pole. Adults get quizzical expressions on their faces as they try to puzzle out what’s going on and how the sport works.

“We always get some looks,” PNW Beach Korfball founder and Everett native Bill Johnson said. “We’ll get people who just stop and stare and try and figure it out. A lot of them will stop and say, ‘Wow, that seems fun!’ We’re still trying to figure out the quick pitch.”

The character-limit version is that Johnson and his small cadre are playing an intentionally-coed sport with a funny-sounding name that is something like basketball on the beach. This is beach korfball, a sport virtually unknown in the United States. It’s the latest endeavor spearheaded by Johnson, who has a history of finding unique sporting experiences and throwing himself fully into them.

And the goal is to take a team that’s only known the sport for a matter of months and challenge the best the world has to offer.

Who is Bill Johnson?

Remember those Dos Equis commercials you’d see on television during the early 2000s? The ones featuring the most interesting man in the world?

Bill Johnson is the Snohomish County sports community’s version of that guy.

The 2005 Kamiak High School graduate has spent his entire adult life using sports as a vehicle to adventure his way around the world. Following his college basketball career at MIT Johnson played professionally in such far-flung locations as Costa Rica, Iceland and Cape Verde. He journeyed to the Tibetan Plateau village of Ritoma to coach nomads in basketball. And he starred for the national beach handball team as the fledgling U.S. program produced shocking results at tournaments in Venezuela and France.

Bill Johnson, left, looks to pass with Sean Hermis defending while playing korfball Sept. 9 at Mukilteo Beach. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Bill Johnson, left, looks to pass with Sean Hermis defending while playing korfball Sept. 9 at Mukilteo Beach. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Johnson, who looks the part of a world adventurer at a towering 6-foot-8 with shoulder-length hair and a full beard, is currently back in the U.S. as he waits out the coronavirus pandemic before returning to Tibet. So what does someone like Johnson do with spare time on his hands? He finds a new obscure sport to master, in this case beach korfball.

What drives Johnson to take on these unusual sporting challenges?

“That is a great question,” Johnson said with a laugh.

“Playing is something that’s seemingly innate for any transient being. It’s a very natural thing, and it’s a fun experience that comes with so many good things. I don’t think it’s childish to want to keep playing. I just like playing and think it’s a fun way to approach life.”

But Johnson has a co-pilot on this particular flight.

Ashley Graham shares Johnson’s adventurous spirit. The Redmond native and former standout for the Santa Clara University women’s basketball team also played professionally around the world. She was invited onto Italian television to set the Guinness World Record for most free throws made in one minute by a woman. She even followed Johnson to Tibet to coach Ritoma’s women’s team.

Graham was the first person Johnson contacted after discovering beach korfball. Johnson may have started the engine, but Graham has spent plenty of time in the driver’s seat of the PNW Beach Korfball vehicle.

“I think a major part of it for me was missing playing basketball,” Graham, via email from Italy where she’s vacationing, said about why she’s so committed to the cause. “Even though I’m retired from pro basketball, I still love to play and basketball is my favorite form of working out. When COVID essentially took that away besides shooting on my own for a while, korfball felt like a perfect substitute.”

Thus PNW Beach Korfball was born.

What is beach korfball?

Sean Hermes had no idea what he was looking at.

Hermes and Johnson are longtime friends. As seniors they helped the Kamiak boys basketball team reach the state tournament for the first time in school history. They’ve remained friends despite Johnson traversing the world while Hermes has settled into a position with Seattle Parks and Recreation.

Therefore, Hermes was one of the first people Johnson introduced to beach korfball. Johnson was visiting Hermes’ home in Seattle, which is across the street from Magnuson Park, when he got Hermes on board.

“He had this jury-rigged hoop in the back of his van,” Hermes recalled. “He opened the door and I asked, ‘What is this?’ He set it up at the park, I took a couple shots and was hooked instantly.”

So what exactly is beach korfball?

The sport of korfball was invented by Dutch school teacher Nico Broekhuysen in 1902. Broekhuysen was looking for an activity that all his students could participate in — both girls and boys — and would teach concepts like teamwork.

Korfball in the traditional sense is played indoors. The court features two baskets, 16 inches wide, attached at the top of 11-and-a-half-foot poles, one on each side of the court. There is no backboard, so players can shoot at the hoop from a 360-degree arc. There’s no dribbling, so ball movement is done solely via passing. Players are also prohibited from shooting if a defender is within an arm’s length.

A korfball hits the edge of the basket Sept. 9 at Mukilteo Beach. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

A korfball hits the edge of the basket Sept. 9 at Mukilteo Beach. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

The thing about korfball that makes it unique is that it’s strictly coed, with each team having an equal number of female and male players.

Johnson, because of his background in beach handball, was naturally drawn to the beach version of korfball. Add in that fewer players are needed for a beach team (a beach team is comprised of two women and two men while an indoor team has four women and four men), it’s easier to find an open patch of sand on the beach than an indoor facility, and the fact that the beach version is a little better suited to people with basketball backgrounds because the smaller court means shorter shots, and beach korfball was the choice.

“I always explain to new players trying beach korfball for the first time that it is essentially basketball on the beach,” Graham said. “You can’t dribble in sand anyways, so it makes more sense that you can basically only pass and cut. I also tell new players that physically it’s more exhausting than basketball. It’s so difficult to move in the sand.”

Given the difficulty of procuring korfball equipment, Johnson originally constructed two korfball baskets himself. Eventually he acquired two regulation baskets — on which the bounces are less friendly, causing the team’s shooting percentages to drop dramatically — and several official balls, and weekly sessions began at beaches and parks around the Puget Sound region.

Why beach korfball?

Johnson was watching a YouTube video when he first discovered korfball.

Johnson’s exposure to new places and cultures piqued his interest in concepts like the sociology and anthropology of sport, and one day he found himself viewing a lecture by University of Michigan professor Andrei Markovits about how sports are reshaping global politics and culture. An hour into the lecture Markovitz made a remark about korfball being the only sport in the world that is intended to be coed.

Johnson was intrigued. He began researching the sport and found it was legitimate, as it’s part of the World Games, which is the International Olympic Committee’s quadrennial event for sports that aren’t contested in the Olympics. That led to the discovery of the beach version, which was more to his liking than the indoor version. He saw enough similarities to basketball that he thought his skills would translate.

But the lure ultimately came down to that one quality: The sport is coed.

Sarah Aguero, far right, makes a pass with Clancey Aguero defending while playing korfball Sept. 9 at Mukilteo Beach. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Sarah Aguero, far right, makes a pass with Clancey Aguero defending while playing korfball Sept. 9 at Mukilteo Beach. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

“It’s truly a coed sport in its DNA,” Johnson said. “That’s what it is at the highest level of competition.”

“I love that it’s coed!,” Graham added. “I grew up playing pick-up basketball with boys and currently play in a men’s basketball league at the Washington Athletic Club. But seeing this is one of the only sports out there where men and women compete on the same court/field/beach at the same time is just really awesome.”

What is the goal?

Steve Barker has likely seen more korfball than anyone else in the U.S.

Barker, who’s originally from the United Kingdom, has been involved in korfball for 45 years. He was a member of the British national team as a player, and spent decades in coaching and development at the national level before moving to Los Angeles in 2009.

So Johnson tracked Barker down and convinced him to come to Seattle for a day of training and to officiate a four-team tournament on Sept. 4 at Golden Gardens.

“Bill has a really nice core group of former basketball players, and they’ve been working toward it,” Barker said via phone from Los Angeles.

The “it” the team is working toward is the first ever World Beach Korfball Championship. Originally it was scheduled to take place this summer in Morocco, but was postponed to 2022 because of the pandemic.

PNW Beach Korfball, by virtue of being the only official club in the U.S. and perhaps all of the Americas, is already entered.

The team has a core of five members who are committed to playing in the World Championship, whenever it takes place. Those five are Johnson, Graham, Hermes, Graham’s boyfriend Jeffrey Merrell, and Alyssa Shoji, who also was a standout shooter for the Santa Clara University women’s basketball team. They’re hoping to add at least one more woman, and perhaps increase the squad to eight.

And the world, led by the International Korfball Federation, has been welcoming.

“The international support has been awesome,” Johnson said. “People want to come play here, they’ve asked us to play in their countries. The International Korfball Federation has been sharing our photos on Instagram. I think they’re happy to see a small sport like korfball get traction in a place like the U.S.”

Can they compete?

There isn’t much in the way of beach korfball video footage to view to get a sense of how PNW Beach Korfball may stack up against the rest of the world. But they’re using every bit they can.

PNW Beach Korfball will need every bit of information and advantage it can get in order to compete. But it has two factors working in its favor. First, the beach variant is relatively new, only coming to prominence over the past five years, so everyone is relatively new to the sport. Second, the world’s greatest korfball power, the Netherlands, has continued to focus on the indoor version and put little emphasis on the beach.

So maybe they have a chance?

“I have absolutely no clue,” Hermes admitted. “The competitor in me wants to say we’d be OK and be able to compete, but honestly we don’t know if we’d go out there and get skunked.”

Barker has no background in beach korfball, but his history with the indoor version at least gives him a better basis for evaluation.

“They have some very good athletes, the core group they have are all good basketball players, so they have those key skills there,” Barker said. “They’re very enthusiastic and very keen to learn. They were a nice group to work with and they were able to pick things up very quickly.

“I think they have quite a good chance of being successful there and causing an upset.”

Who knows? But because of Johnson and his latest sporting vision quest, we’re going to find out.

Players wanted

PNW Beach Korfball is always looking to introduce people to the sport and recruit new players. More information about the organization and the sport can be found on the PNW Beach Korfball website at pnwbeachkorfball.org, or on its Instagram account at @pnwbeachkorfball.

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Sports

Lake Stevens’ Nisa Ellis looks for an open teammate to pass to during the 4A girls state basketball game against Gonzaga Prep on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024 in Tacoma, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Lake Stevens girls come up short against Gonzaga Prep

The Vikings’ playoff run ends with a 49-46 loss in the Class 4A Hardwood Classic’s round of 12.

State basketball roundup for Wednesday, Feb. 28

State basketball prep roundup for Wednesday, Feb. 28: (Note for coaches/scorekeepers: To… Continue reading

Mountlake Terrace’s Jaxon Dubiel looks for a teammate to pass too while being guarded during the 3A boys state basketball game against Todd Beamer on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024 in Tacoma, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Terrace boys hold off Todd Beamer, advance to 3A state quarterfinals

The Hawks let a big lead slip away in the second half, but pull out a 69-59 victory.

Arlington’s Leyton Martin takes the ball down the court during the 3A boys state basketball game against Garfield on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024 in Tacoma, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Arlington boys’ upset bid falls short in OT against Garfield

The Eagles give the defending Class 3A state champions a scare in a 60-58 loss.

Glacier Peak players cheer during a boys Class 4A bi-district title game between Glacier Peak and Mount Si at North Creek High School on Friday, Feb. 16, 2024 in Bothell, Washington. The Wildcats won, 59-53.(Annie Barker / The Herald)
Resurgent Glacier Peak boys have exceeded expectations

After a rare losing season last year, a mix of breakout players and key additions have the Grizzlies back in the Hardwood Classic this winter.

(From left to right) Ellie Matisin, Helaina Soterakopoulos and Max Soterakopoulos pose with their championships trophies after winning their divisions of the Washington State Elks Association Hoop Shoot free throw competition.  (Photo courtesy of Jayne Soterakopoulos)
Community roundup: Everett youngsters win free-throw championships

Plus, two locals earn college honors, Everett’s AFL team is holding its final tryouts, and more.

Sultan’s Derek Feltner takes a handoff from quarterback Westin Galle against Granite Falls on Friday, Sep. 30, 2022, at Sultan High School in Sultan, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Sultan denied KingCo membership, still searching for new league

The high school is moving up to Class 2A in the fall, but hasn’t found a conference to play in.

Everett Community College’s Derek Smith tries to spin out of trouble in the lane against Edmonds College on Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024, at Seaview Gym in Lynnwood, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Everett men enter season finale on NWAC tournament bubble

Meanwhile, the Edmonds men and women are locked in to their seedings.

Arlington’s Samara Morrow tries to maneuver around  Snohomish’s Sienna Capelli during the 3A girls district championship game on Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024 in Marysville, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
State basketball: Capsules for all local girls teams at Hardwood Classics

A glance at the six area teams competing at this week’s state tournaments.

Jackson players celebrate during a boys game between Jackson and Puyallup at Shorewood High School on Friday, Feb. 23, 2024, in Shoreline, WA. Jackson won, 55-48. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
State basketball: Capsules for all local boys teams at Hardwood Classics

A glance at the six area teams competing at this week’s state tournaments.

Snohomish players celebrate a strong run against Meadowdale as they head for the bench during the 3A District One Semifinals on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2024, at Marysville Pilchuk High School in Marysville, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Snohomish’s early adjustments lead to postseason success

The Panthers ‘reinvented’ their strategies and are now one of the top-seeded teams in the 3A Hardwood Classic.

Examining where the Silvertips stand in the playoff picture

Everett seems destined for the No. 3 seed, but its opponent in the first round remains a mystery.

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.