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MS Club Hosts Coach of Tibetan Basketball Team
Julian Corbett

Last Monday, the Middle School club Sports Talk played host to Bill Johnson, who played basketball as a student at MIT before becoming an assistant coach there, and who currently coaches a semi-professional basketball team in China’s Gansu province on the Tibetan Plateau. Mr. Johnson joined students to discuss his time as a college basketball player – including his time playing against former Harvard player Jeremy Lin – and what it’s like playing and teaching basketball in northwest China.

“They didn’t really know about the NBA or basketball outside of their area until pretty recently,” Mr. Johnson said of the challenges he faced when he arrived in Ritoma, the village where the team he coaches is based. “So they kind of developed their own style of basketball over the years. It’s a very physical style – it’s almost like American football where they’re just kind of hitting each other with the ball.”

Sports Talk faculty advisor Ethan Timmins-Schiffman, who worked as Mr. Johnson’s assistant coach in Ritoma for a time, said he had firsthand experience of the aggressive physicality of Tibetan basketball players. After playing a tournament with the Tibetan team, Mr. Timmins-Schiffman “had the bruises and scars to remember it,” Mr. Johnson joked.

Mr. Johnson’s team was the subject of a 2018 documentary, Ritoma, and both he and the phenomenon of Tibetan basketball, which has surged in popularity since he began coaching there, were profiled in The Atlantic in 2019.

Asked about the difficulty of working somewhere so far away from his native Seattle and with a culture so different from his own, Mr. Johnson said it was the universal human language of sport that enabled him to connect with his players. “The good thing about basketball is it’s a language in itself,” he told the students. “You can communicate a lot through the sport and get to know each other without using language. So it was a challenge, but also a fun way to get to know people from a different part of the world.”

  • Middle School

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