In August 2016, Tibet hosted the first ever exhibition game with the country’s all-star players and a US basketball team. The team? A group of nine MIT alumni all hosted by Bill Johnson ’09, formerly an assistant coach with the MIT Engineers men’s basketball team.
And who traveled to the remote eastern region of Tibet in response to Johnson’s open invitation? That would be Sondra Zemansky ’74; Jimmy Bartolotta ’09; Jamie Karraker ’12, MNG ’13; Will Dickson ’14; Tim Donegan ’14; Nick Sather ’13; Paul Burkard ’10; Dennis Levene ’15; and Mike Cristina ’74 .
As originally reported in Slice, the exhibition game was part of a larger three-day Norlha Laptse 2016 Basketball Invitational. Twenty teams from across Tibet traveled to the competition, some traveling more than three hours. Johnson organized the tournament and currently serves as the basketball coach for employees of Norlha Textiles, a yak-wool textile company in the area.
The Zorge Ritoma region is home to 1,500 nomadic Tibetans and 60 Tibetan monks, many of whom share the country’s passion for basketball. Organizers even rescheduled the tournament at the request of monks who were planning a month-long cloistered worship. They wanted to watch and compete as well. One such monk team even doffed their traditional robes for USA jerseys, attire they had purchased online.
Tibetans play basketball differently than Americans according to Mike Cristina ’74, one of the alumni players. “They play a very rough game. I mean banging, driving hard to the basket, guarding hard, fouling a lot…and then smiling and hugging,” he recalls. “Anytime there was any kind of hard hit, they’d get up and smile at each other, help each other up, and continue to play. No one ever got upset.”
The MIT alumni team also experienced this Tibetan hospitality. “When any MIT people would make a basket, everyone would applaud,” says Cristina. “There was just an all-around comradery of a genuinely nice people.”
Off the court, the alumni team attended traditional Tibetan horse racing at the Laptse Festival, visited the country’s monasteries—even playing basketball with monks on their monastery’s own court—and tasted local delicacies.
“Their whole economy on the plateau is based on yaks, which is basically a hairy cow,” explains Cristina.
Many of the region’s foods draw from the 13 million yaks that graze throughout Tibet. The alumni team enjoyed yoghurt, butter, steaks, burgers, milk, cheese, crème brûlée, milk soup, and tea all made from yaks. Tibetans also use the animal to make clothing, tents, seat covers, and even fuel.
For Cristina and his wife, Bev, the trip reiterated the importance of travel. “I think here in America, we think so differently of other cultures, and, in reality, once you meet someone [you realize] we’re all the same,” she says.
“That’s why this particular trip was not necessarily geared towards museums, cities, or even touring monasteries,” adds Cristina. “It was about the real people of the country.”