Bill Johnson has never been one to hesitate when presented with a new challenge or opportunity.
The free-spirited Kamiak High School graduate’s adventurous nature has taken him to exotic locations around the world. Johnson’s played professional basketball in such unlikely places as Costa Rica and Cape Verde. He’s spent the past two years coaching basketball teams comprised of nomads on the Tibetan plateau.
So if ever there was an individual who would crop up on the United States national team in a sport few have heard of and even fewer have ever witnessed, it’s Johnson.
Beach handball may be way down the pecking order when it comes to sports in the U.S., but in Johnson Snohomish County can boast of having one of the best players the country has ever produced.
The 30-year-old Johnson, who graduated from Kamiak in 2005, recently helped the U.S. take second place at a tournament held June 17-18 in La Seyne-sur-Mur, which is located on the Mediterranean Sea on France’s southern coast. He was the leading scorer for the U.S. team that was the shock gold medalist at the 2016 PATHF Pan American Beach Handball Championship in Venezuela, and he’s set to again play a key role at 2018 Pan American Championship next March in Los Angeles.
“He plays a real pivotal role on the team, not just with his athleticism but with his demeanor,” USA Beach Handball captain Bill Bigham said. “He brings a very genuine heart, he’s focused, and he’s a good glue guy to have.”
So how does an ex-basketball player who spends most of the year living in the small village of Zorge Ritoma in Tibet end up starring for the U.S. in a sport that takes place on a beach? Like much in Johnson’s life, it’s been a long and fascinating journey.
In his current visage, Johnson looks like he came straight from the beaches of Southern California. With a lanky 6-foot-8 frame and a flowing head of hair that includes a full beard, he looks as if he just stepped out of a Santa Monica surf shop.
But it was a far different setting where Johnson first encountered handball: Iceland.
“Iceland is really good at indoor handball, so when I was playing (professional basketball) out there the club handball team would always come on after us,” Johnson said last week during a brief trip back home. “They’d always say, ‘Come play a real man’s sport,’ because indoor handball is super physical.”
So when Johnson found himself back stateside late in 2014 and looking for another sport to play while taking a break from basketball, he went in search of handball, a sport that’s sort of a cross between basketball and soccer. That eventually led him to joining the USA Team Handball residency program in Alabama.
While the residency program didn’t lead to the U.S. achieving its international goals, it did expose Johnson to beach handball for the first time. Beach handball has a different style from indoor handball. Contact isn’t allowed on the beach, and the rules encourage a sense of flair as goals scored while performing a trick, such as doing a 360-degree spin or an alley-oop when throwing the ball into the goal, are worth two points instead of one.
“That was my first try at beach handball and it was fun,” Johnson said. “It stayed in the back of my mind because there were people saying I was more suited for that sport. I’m not super strong for indoor handball, but they said tall skinny guys were better for beach handball.”
It was around that time in June of 2015 that Johnson first traveled to Tibet. While in Tibet he heard about a USA Beach Handball team forming in Los Angeles, and when Johnson came back to the states for the winter he decided to try out. It turns out there wasn’t much competition for a roster spot.
“I went down to L.A. and tried out for the team — all 10 people in the U.S. who play beach handball were there,” Johnson said with a laugh. “They were preparing for the Pan American Beach Handball Championships at the end of March and I made the team. It was pretty much people from L.A. plus two of us who moved there for it.”
That was the first time the U.S. competed at that level, and the Americans arrived with a rag-tag team of players with differing sports backgrounds — Johnson played college basketball at MIT, Bigham was a quarterback at the University of North Carolina, while others came from sports like water polo and dodgeball.
But the U.S. ended up stunning even itself by winning the tournament. Johnson, who plays offense and was the team’s starting pivot, led the team in scoring with 57 points, ranking fourth overall.
“We shocked the beach handball world, what little there is of it,” Johnson said.
It’s not easy for Johnson to stay in beach handball shape at 10,000 feet.
Johnson still resides primarily in Tibet, working in e-commerce operations for Norlha Textiles and Norden Travel, while also coaching basketball in Zorge Ritoma. And the Tibetan plateau is a long ways from beach sand.
“There are certain sport-specific things I can work on,” said Johnson, who brings a beach handball with him to Tibet. “I work a lot on 360s and I have a wall out there and I just throw all the time. I get whoever I can, guys from the basketball team, to throw with me. It’s certainly not the same with sand, I’m still trying to figure out how to deal with that, but it’s enough to stay ready.”
Johnson’s job prevented him from playing at the 2016 World Championships last July in Hungary, when the U.S. finished 11th out of 12 teams. But he was able to join up with the team when it played in France in June as he flew in from Tibet, and he’s expecting to help the U.S. defend its Pan American title next March. Those games take place when Johnson is home for the winter, so he’ll be able to join up with the team during its preparations in the months leading up to the competition.
And the U.S. will be thrilled to have Johnson back.
“He’s very intelligent, he’s very focused,” Bigham said of Johnson. “Then just his previous athletic experience gives him a great overall sense of how to score, how to win, how to be a team player. His height and his ability to jump and hang in the air, combined with the accuracy of his shooting, make him a sensational pivot.”
“My passion will always be basketball, but it’s a really fun sport,” Johnson said. “For me personally it’s just interesting learning a new sport and all the challenges that come with it.”
And there’s nothing Johnson likes more than a new challenge.
If you have an idea for a community sports story, e-mail Nick Patterson at firstname.lastname@example.org.