Bill Johnson poses with his team. (Chang Ai Media Project)

Bill Johnson poses with his team. (Chang Ai Media Project)

Everett coach’s work in Tibet subject of a documentary film

The film ‘Ritoma’ showcases Bill Johnson’s efforts to bring basketball to the Tibetan Plateau

Coach Bill Johnson is putting his team through its paces.

For the most part this is a basketball warm-up like any other. Johnson, clad in a black track suit, is directing his players with exaggerated hand gestures. The players, dressed in brilliant blue jerseys and baggy shorts, are doing lateral-movement and jumping drills designed to hammer home the fundamentals of defense.

But there’s one thing that makes this basketball practice unique — the setting. This isn’t inside some high school gymnasium in an American suburb. This is happening outdoors atop the Tibetan Plateau, where at 10,500 feet of elevation all that can be seen are the verdant green summer pastures stretching in all directions, the grey clouds fighting to keep the sun from peeking through the overcast, and the barest outline of the Himalaya mountains far in the distance.

These are some of the opening images from the documentary film “Ritoma.” The film, directed by Academy Award winner Ruby Yang, uses basketball as the vehicle to tell the story of the approximately 1,500 residents of the remote village of Ritoma in northeast Tibet, as the former nomads adjust to modernization while maintaining their culture.

And Johnson, an Everett native who traveled to Ritoma three years ago to become the village’s first basketball coach, is one of the principal characters.

“I’m just extremely thankful for our men’s and women’s basketball programs, just to have their story be told,” Johnson said following Sunday afternoon’s screening at the Historic Everett Theatre.

“Ritoma” was screened to a crowd of about 200, which included members of the Tibetan community in Seattle, as well as a handful of individuals who have been inspired to follow in Johnson’s footsteps and aid his basketball coaching in Ritoma — Johnson’s fellow Kamiak High School graduate Cecelia Black is one of them.

The official poster for the documentary “Ritoma.” (Chang Ai Media Project)

The official poster for the documentary “Ritoma.” (Chang Ai Media Project)

The film had its world premiere on April 8 in Hong Kong, Yang’s home. It made its North American debut at the BZN International Film Festival on June 9 in Bozeman, Montana. Sunday’s screening was the second showing in the U.S., and it’s scheduled for another screening on Thursday in Boston. Then it will be shown at events and film festivals in Hong Kong through the rest of June.

Johnson has been at each screening, and he will travel back to Hong Kong for the upcoming showings, where he will be joined by his players to also conduct basketball clinics.

“It’s just a beautiful film,” Johnson said. “Ruby captured the environments and the scenery, and the music really added to everything.

“It was really wonderful seeing the reactions of everyone to the film and seeing that connection,” Johnson added. “Basketball is an equalizer. With all the stuff that’s going on in the world, with basketball it doesn’t matter what your political background is, or your religious beliefs, or where you came from, or how much money you make. On the basketball court you’re a basketball player, and that’s a real cool thing.”

A Tibetan girls works on her shot. (Chang Ai Media Project)

A Tibetan girls works on her shot. (Chang Ai Media Project)

Yang, who won the Oscar in the Best Documentary (Short Subject) category in 2007 for “The Blood of Yingzhou District,” bears part of the responsibility for Johnson traveling to Ritoma in the first place. In 2012 she produced a short video for Norlha, a textiles company that built a workshop in Ritoma in 2007 to give former nomads, who had no schooling, a way of earning a living without having to relocate to China’s metropolises. The 11-minute video included a 15-second clip of basketball being played on the village’s makeshift outdoor court, and that clip helped launch Johnson on his quest to experience basketball in Tibet.

Yang returned to Ritoma for a visit in 2016, witnessed how the village changed in just four years, and encountered Johnson for the first time. Her interactions with Johnson spawned the idea for this documentary.

“I saw all these things were changing, then when I went to see Dechen (Yeshi, one of Norlha’s co-founders) the first thing I saw was this 6-foot-8 American emerging from the guest house and I was was like, ‘What is this guy doing?’” Yang said via Skype conversation from Hong Kong. “When we sat down and and he told me about the tournament going on in the region, I said I’d come back with a small crew and shoot the tournament, and hopefully there was a film in there.

Tibetan monks take in the action on the court. (Chang Ai Media Project)

Tibetan monks take in the action on the court. (Chang Ai Media Project)

“Bill’s really friendly and energetic, and it seems that nothing can stop him once he decides to do something.”

The film, shot over 12 days in the summer of 2016 and running about an hour, is based around an eight-team men’s basketball tournament hosted by Ritoma. Johnson, aided by team captain and poet Jampa Dhundup, spends the film getting his players prepared for the tournament, helping bring the court up to specifications, and coaching the team in its games, one of which is against a squad of Buddhist monks.

But the thread that runs throughout the entire film is the theme of the former nomads dealing with modernity. The community’s herders are shown banding together in an effort to combat rising temperatures that make summer grazing increasingly difficult. It shows Johnson starting a women’s team, with the female players finding their voices as their confidence grows. And it shows the community dealing with the concept of disability, as a young girl battles against spinal muscular atrophy. Black, who doesn’t appear in the film, is spearheading a wheelchair basketball program in Ritoma.

Director Ruby Yang (left) with Dechen Yeshi, one of the co-founders of Norlha. (Chang Ai Media Project)

Director Ruby Yang (left) with Dechen Yeshi, one of the co-founders of Norlha. (Chang Ai Media Project)

“What’s happening in Ritoma (with the Norlha workshop) is that a nomad can work in his own village, preserve the culture of being nomadic as well as Tibetan, and slowly transition into modernity,” Yang said. “I think basketball is a way to help them, because as a nomad they work alone, it’s very individual. But working in an organization you need teamwork, and I think basketball is a game that’s helped them with how to work with each other and watch out for each other.

“It’s actually better than I thought it would be,” Yang added about the movie. “I thought I’d just do a half-hour film, but it turned out to be 57 minutes. With that length it’s a little challenging to show at festivals, but we’re trying really hard and Bill has been amazing with the way he’s taken the lead in promotion.”

While Sunday’s screening of “Ritoma” was the only opportunity to view the movie locally, the plan is for the film to be available via streaming service once film festival season is complete.

If you have an idea for a community sports story, email Nick Patterson at

Talk to us

More in Sports

Silvertips’ Niko Huuhtanen and Giants’ Jaden Lipinski fight for the puck during the playoff match up against the Vancouver Giants on Saturday, April 23, 2022 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Silvertips will look to replace Huuhtanen in CHL import draft

The standout forward who scored 37 goals this past season recently signed a professional contract to play in Finland.

FILE - UCLA guard Jaime Jaquez Jr., right, tries to get by Southern California forward Isaiah Mobley during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game on March 5, 2022, in Los Angeles. UCLA and Southern California are planning to leave the Pac-12 for the Big Ten Conference in a seismic change that could lead to another major realignment of college sports. A person who spoke to The Associated Press on Thursday, June 30, 2022, on condition of anonymity because the schools' talks with the Big Ten have not been made public said the schools have taken steps to request an invitation to join the conference. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)
UCLA, USC leaving Pac-12 for Big Ten

The two schools announce they will be exiting the Pac-12 in 2024 in a major blow to the viability of the conference.

AquaSox's manager, Louis Boyd, Funko Field at Everett Memorial Stadium in Everett on July 28, 2019. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
AquaSox pitchers fan 19 in win over Emeralds

Alberto Rodriguez adds a two-run blast in Everett’s 4-3 victory.

The roof-top sign for Climate Pledge Arena is shown next to the Space Needle, Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021, ahead of the NHL hockey Seattle Kraken's home opener Saturday against the Vancouver Canucks in Seattle. The historic angled roof of the former KeyArena was preserved, but everything else inside the venue, which will also host concerts and be the home of the WNBA Seattle Storm basketball team, is brand new. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Seattle to host NBA preseason game between Blazers, Clippers

Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell declined to comment on any recent conversations with NBA officials about expansion to the city.

Evergreen Speedway remains closed due the stay-at-home order while NASCAR will run it's first race since the pandemic began on Sunday. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Community roundup: Evans tops podium at Mark Galloway Shootout

Also, EvCC athletes named All-American, Tulalip native signs with MLB organization and more.

Seattle Seahawks running back DeeJay Dallas (31), wide receiver Cade Johnson (88), and wide receiver Aaron Fuller (13) walk off the field after NFL football practice Wednesday, June 8, 2022, in Renton, Wash. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Seahawks announce training camp registration date for fans

Fans must register through the team’s website starting Wednesday at 10 a.m.

Seattle Mariners' Julio Rodriguez rounds the bases after hitting a two-run home run against the Baltimore Orioles during the fourth inning of a baseball game, Wednesday, June 29, 2022, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Caean Couto)
Rodriguez hits 12th home run, Mariners topple Orioles

Seattle tops Baltimore 9-3 for its seventh win in the past nine games.

Dallas Wings' Kayla Thornton, front left, and Marina Mabrey, right, defend as Phoenix Mercury center Tina Charles (31) shoots in the second half of a WNBA basketball game, Friday, June 17, 2022, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
Storm sign former MVP Tina Charles

The 33-year-old center joins a roster that now has 4 former No. 1 overall picks.

AquaSox's manager, Louis Boyd, Funko Field at Everett Memorial Stadium in Everett on July 28, 2019. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Aldrete, Emeralds pound AquaSox

Eugene races out to a huge lead thanks to seven RBI from Carter Aldrete and rolls to a 10-3 win over Everett.

Most Read