Tibet Is Going Crazy for Hoops

December 18, 2018

ALONG the northeastern edge of the Tibetan plateau, a treacherous landscape where yaks graze above the clouds, basketball hoops are everywhere: at the bases of cliffs; in the courtyards of centuries-old, golden-roofed monasteries; in nomadic villages tucked into the hills.

It was within such a village, Zorge Ritoma, that Dugya Bum, a sheep and yak herder from the Golden Stone Clan, took up the sport. He’d played in school, but after dropping out at 16 he became a full-time nomad, the livelihood of his ancestors. During winter, his family lived in a mud-walled house about four miles from Zorge Ritoma’s center, grazing yaks and sheep at the foot of the mountains. In the summer, when the weather improved, they took the herds up to rich, high-altitude pastures and resided in temporary tents. In the fall, they would gradually make the journey back down.

As a teenager, Dugya Bum grew his hair long and smoked cigarettes. He avoided eye contact. His parents, all too familiar with the physical demands of a permanent nomadic existence, encouraged him to explore alternative life paths. So in 2011, he took a job at Norlha, a textile company that had opened in the village a few years earlier and was hiring nomads as yak-wool artisans. But the routines of office and factory work didn’t suit him.

Then, in 2015, a tall, gangly stranger arrived from the United States. The newcomer set about putting together a real basketball team, with practices and drills and tournaments and all the rest. Dugya Bum signed on to play after work. The sport became central to his life. The team generated excitement throughout the village, and in the nomadic communities beyond. Now, going on four years later, a semiprofessional sports program is flourishing and spreading hope, in a region better known for its reincarnated lamas than its athletes.

A few years ago, while living in Queens, I began to wonder whether any Buddhist monks played hoops. I’d loved the sport since childhood and had recently become fascinated by practitioners of Buddhism. And while the pairing may seem far-fetched, it made a certain sense to me.

Devotion to the sport involves countless hours in the solitude of echoing, dimly lit places—rickety old gymnasiums, empty playgrounds, driveways late at night—where one undergoes a genuinely meditative sensory experience: the rhythmic bouncing of a ball; the mental focus and repetition essential for knocking down free throws; the visualizations, such as imagining oneself sinking a last-second shot. There’s a reason Phil Jackson—a.k.a. the Zen Master—didn’t coach football.

I visited a few Buddhist monasteries in the New York area, where I was met with a consistent response from the polite but puzzled residents: No, monks don’t play basketball. That seemed to be that.

But there’s always the internet. Late one evening in 2017, I Googled basketball and Buddhist monk and eventually found a Facebook page on which a grainy video had been posted. It showed a red-robed monk on an outdoor court effortlessly leaping up, grabbing the rim, and shattering the backboard.

I initially suspected this was a hoax, but if so, it was an elaborate one. In one picture on the page, a man stood on a mountaintop amid rising smoke. “Team captain Jampa making offerings and passionate prayers to his village’s mountain gods before a basketball match,” the caption said. In another picture, a flock of sheep approached a basketball court beside a barren hill. “And the fans rush the court!” that caption said.

I saw a picture of young nomadic women shooting baskets on a snowy, icy court, and a video of a young monk executing a pretty up-and-under move to evade a shot-blocker and put the ball in the hoop. This, it turned out, was Norlha basketball.

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