On any given day on the vast Tibetan Plateau, you will find nomads herding their animals and monks reciting their mantras. You will also find them playing one of their favorite sports: basketball.
With the introduction of televised NBA games, the nomads of Ritoma have a new strategy for their court game. And when a proper coach arrives from the USA, slam-dunk becomes their new mantra.
A new tournament has been announced, the first in their region. Can they put together a team that’s good enough to take part? Might they even be able to win?
Tibetan nomads have been herders for hundreds of years, braving the bitter cold and the crushing altitude of the Tibetan plateau. Modernity has worked its way into this community slowly, but it’s taken its toll on this traditional way of life. Overgrazing has reduced the grasslands to a shadow of their former glory. And with more children attending school, managing a large herd is impossible.
In the settlement of Ritoma, the Norlha textile workshop opened in 2007, employing former nomads and monks to create yak-wool scarves. A few years ago, the workshop built a basketball court and set up a team for their employees. The new game has proved incredibly popular, especially with the men, who take to the court every day at lunchtime and after work, no matter what the weather. And now that they have their first coach, a former college basketball player from the USA, women are starting to play as well. With their new passion for basketball, they are no longer constrained by their traditional roles as homemakers and child-bearers, heralding the erosion of long-dominant patriarchal values and a new beginning for the women of Ritoma.
Jampa was born into a nomad family and grew up on the Tibetan grasslands. When he was nine, he stumbled upon a fountain pen out on the pasture – a clear sign of his destiny. He began writing poetry chronicling his life and his feelings. As the grasslands eroded and livestock prices fell, Jampa made the choice to abandon nomadism and take a job at the Norlha workshop.
As soon as she had graduated from university, Dechen moved to Ritoma, a village on the Tibetan plateau, and began researching the potential of yak wool. She set up the Norlha workshop with her mother Kim in 2007. Their aim was to give former nomads with no schooling a way to earn a living whilst also preserving their culture.
Yidam is Dechen’s husband and shares her ambition to modernize and protect Ritoma. Touched by the enthusiasm the Norlha employees had for basketball, Yidam and Dechen set up a team for them and had a basketball court constructed.
WILLARD (BILL) JOHNSON
Bill grew up in Seattle, Washington. At six feet eight inches, Bill certainly stands out in Ritoma. Using his experience as a former assistant coach with the MIT Engineers Men’s Basketball Team, Bill now trains the workshop’s team in game strategy.
NORLHA MEN’S TEAM
In a collision of traditional culture and modernity, basketball has become just as popular as horseback riding amongst young Tibetan men. Now that NBA games are shown on Chinese TV, the former nomads of Ritoma’s yak-wool workshop have ambitious goals: with the help of their coach, they want to play like the professionals.
NORLHA WOMEN’S TEAM
When the Norlha Men’s Team first started training with Coach Bill, the women were happy to watch from the sidelines. But as time passed, they began to want a go themselves. Now, the women – many of them former nomads and young mothers – are finding the confidence to come out onto the court and form their own team.
MIT ALUMNI TEAM
A ragtag group of friends and former professional players, the arrival of the MIT Alumni Team brings great excitement to the village.
How a Hong Kong Filmmaker Came Across a New Kind of Tibetan Business | NYT | August 25, 2016
Tibetan American turns heads of world’s top fashion brands | Global Times | August 1, 2017
Traveling the World for A Love of Basketball | Slice of MIT | June 30, 2016
The Village of Ritoma
Located in the Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture at an altitude of 10,500 feet (3,200 meters), Ritoma has a population of 1,500.