Church Ball

My son recently became a deacon and was invited to play ward basketball for the first time this week.  We got there right at 7pm (in the middle of the prayer), and discovered my son was the 5th guy there for his team.  Good thing he showed up!

Sometimes size and ability of players between 12-18 years old can vary considerably.

To my surprise, my 12 year old son was playing with teachers and priests.  My son is pretty tall for his age, but he was definitely the shortest guy on the team.  I was a bit surprised, because we live in a huge Utah County ward, and have probably close to a dozen deacons, dozen teachers, and probably a handful of priests, so it was a bit surprising to see that between 30 active young men, our ward could only seem to manage to get 5 guys to show up.  But at least we didn’t forfeit.  One of the priests on the team had an obviously sore ankle, and he limped up and down the floor.  Yet even with just 5 (not very good) guys who played the entire game, our team blew out the other team by almost 30.

I haven’t played church basketball in years, and it brought back a lot of memories.  When I was a deacon, I lived in New England.  We probably only had about a dozen active young men in the whole ward, spread across several towns.  So yes, like my son, I played on an Aaronic Priesthood team with guys much older and better than I.  I don’t remember wins and losses, but we weren’t very good.  I was a little intimidated playing with the older guys, but had fun.

Around 14 years old, we moved to Ogden, Utah.  Ogden had a lot more boys my age, so we had a Teachers Quorum team.  To be honest, I didn’t like the guys in my ward (and really didn’t like my ward.)  Everyone was really snooty, acted like they were rich, and it just wasn’t a fun ward.  I played a little bball, but it wasn’t very fun.  We lived in the ward just a year and moved when our house in New England finally sold.  Our family moved to another ward across town that I call the Nursing Home ward.  (I think the average age was like 80.)  I think we had a Teacher’s Quorum team again, but I don’t have many memories of it.  Soon, I tried out for the high school basketball team, and made the team, so my church ball days were done for a few years.

Basketball, or basket-brawl?

After high school, I played on the Elder’s Quorum team.  Ogden has some pretty competitive players in church ball, and ability seems to have nothing to do with competitiveness.  One of the things that drove me nuts was the fact that the referees often didn’t know the rules of the game.  I remember one ref blew his whistle and said, “Uhh, I don’t know what to call, but that didn’t look right.”  The refs were really bad (especially compared to the paid, high school refs.)  I’m pretty tall, so I would often post up and hit some easy baskets at the beginning, so the other team would put their fattest guy on me, who would lean on me constantly–yet no fouls were called.  I felt a little like Hack A Shaq.

This was a stake where the adage goes like this:  “Church basketball.  The only fight that starts with a prayer.”  We had several brawls.  The stake tried lots of things to cut down on the fighting, by banning referees and making it more like a pick-up game–call your own fouls.  That just resulted in more arguments.  I just wish we could have tried paid, trained refs.  I remember going for a fast break layup, and being body slammed into a chalkboard.  It wasn’t much fun, and the hard fouls continued.

After my mission, I decided to attend the (Weber State) college wards in Ogden.  The college stake decided to let us play intramural ball with the college–and paid referees!  Somehow, my team got 4 of 5 starters who had all played high school ball, and we blew away the rest of the stake by about 30 points per game.  (The other guys off our bench were really good too–I’m not sure how we managed to get such a good team together.) I can’t tell you how nice it was to have trained, paid referees (as well as guys who knew how to run plays.)  But when playoffs started, the college decided to move us up to the competitive league.  We won our first playoff game, but lost the second.  It was one of the funnest teams I’ve even played on.

Hey guys, get out of the key! That’s illegal!

Later, I attended a University of Utah stake where they had co-ed basketball–and once again trained referees.  (It makes SUCH a difference.)  With co-ed, there were 2 guys and 3 gals on a team, and the rule was that the guys could not enter the key at all, so the guys often played guard.  I remember stealing the ball, running to the other end, and trying to do a layup without going into the key!  It was a fun, unique experience.  We had a couple of gals who were good bball players, so our team did pretty well.

Since that time, I’ve played on a few church teams, but I get really frustrated with the poor officiating, poor sportsmanship, and general bad play.  I miss the college days!  (and I think I’ve resolved not to play unless we have trained referees.)  I haven’t played church ball in more than the 15 years I’ve been married, so it was interesting to come into the gym to watch my son.  It was also funny to watch the referees attempt half-court shots during timeouts in the game.  I played on a few work teams in a city league, and that is definitely a much better experience than church ball.

I also remember hearing from old-timers talk about the All Church Basketball Tournament (from like the 1950s I think) where the Church actually sponsored a basketball tournament, and wards could compete not just in stake basketball tournaments, but regional and a big church tournament, with the finals in Salt Lake. (I’m sure teams were limited to Utah, but it sure sounded competitive and fun.)  Those days are long gone, and I wonder if it was discontinued because of the poor sportsmanship.  I don’t think I’ve heard of anything more that Stake Champs now.  (I did coach my younger brother’s team to a Stake Championship–our team won on a last second shot.)

At least my son’s team, while not nearly as competitive as the teams in Ogden, had good sportsmanship.  What are your memories of church ball?


3 comments on “Church Ball

  1. As I understand it, the All-Church tournament was not limited to Utah wards, and was discontinued because the travel expenses were becoming to large to justify.

    My favorite Church ball memories–playing against a team that contained the stake assistant athletic director in charge of officiating. He was called for a technical foul and responded by firing the ref. And, if volleyball counts, being disqualified from the co-ed stake tournament for having too many women on the court.

  2. Memories of Church Ball: Not good.

    My bishop where I grew up in Utah was the high school basketball coach. He was a win-at-any-cost kind of coach. We had a huge ward, over 100 YM. After primary on Wed afternoon he started training us. Later in the evening the junior high boys showed up and later yet the high school boys. We could play as long as we were good enough. It was viciously competitive and bordered on evil. He also opened up the church gym every day (even Monday) after school and year round and encouraged us play as late as we could until after midnight. Half of the time he wasn’t there and it was jungle ball.

    Our ward made up about 10% of the school but about half the guys on the school team came from our ward. Our ward teams were like the farm league. We creamed most teams. The typical HS coach has only 3-4 years to mold their players, Bishop had 6-8 years. Our school team almost always went to state and not often with much tall timber. Bishop was not above cheating in other ways. His assistant was a tall sleazy young woman with a short skirt and she worked the refs. You didn’t enter the 4th quarter unless you could make 90% of your foul shots.

    We played a run-and-gun game and a trapping defense but with extreme discipline, never taking any risky shots, always crashing the boards, turn-overs punishable with amputation of hands (not really but you get the idea). He also taught us the art of subtle fouling that even the best refs would not detect.

    Worst, he taught us that what was said on the court stayed on the court. We had instruction in every level of trash talking from primitive cursing, vulgarity of the vilest sort and threats of violence all the way up to game-long manipulative conversations that involved anything such as contrived romances with cheerleaders or insults to sisters/mothers. Even dissing joseph Smith or President Kimball “long ears” was allowed. One of us might pretend to be gay and attracted to a star opponent. The key was to get the other guy so rattled and angry that uttering one phrase when he shot (long ears!) would make him miss. A completely deaf player had a real advantage going against us.

    I was tall, 30 inch vertical jump, quick, <5 minute mile. Good rebounder and defender. But never quite good enough to make the school team. My little bother was the starting guard his sophomore year but was kicked off the team. My dad didn't make a big enough donation to the undocumented booster's club. Might have been a complicated romance involved.

    When I was on my mission my brother organized another team of victims of our bishop's unfairness and they beat the school team soundly one night in an unofficial secret game. Gosh, I wanted to play on that team. They went on to beat them up in the subsequent brawl. Law enforcement was involved. Bishop went on to coach at the college level where he didn't do so well.

    I love the game of basketball but I could never quite control myself to play competitively and retain any sense of decency. My brother is the only person I dare play against since we are both about as dirty as possible but we understand each other and realized a long time ago it is just a game. We are in our late 50's now with coronary disease or diabetes and can't jump, or shoot and have numerous gimpy joints. It is pretty embarassing. None of our sons are worth a hoot but at least they have good sportsmanship. For us that is progress.

  3. the poor sportsmanship in any church sports game, especially bball, has always been a problem for me since I was young to today. I have some non-member friends who’s only experience with the church was playing basketball in highschool at the church. Their biggest memory, the foul language and poor sportsmanship of the members.

    My wife wants the boys to play, I have a hard time with it for exactly the issues related in this post. At one point, the ward I grew up in actually removed the basketball hoops because the issues become so bad. I also want to add that I’ve seen weddings set-up on Friday night for the next day, and then members (both youth and elders) would come and play (unscheduled) basketball and move the previously set-up items. Often not even attempting to replace them when they were done.

    I would like to say that this attitude only occurs during church sports, but its rampant throughout the church. I see it often in the young men programs in particular (e.g. scouts.) In some ways its just another form of bullying. I call it passive bullying. I just had to deal with it again yesterday. One young (A) man decided that he wanted spot 2 on the bench (to pass sacrament) and so tried to forcefully move the young man (B) that was already there. When the the second boy (B) didn’t move, A took B’s scriptures and tossed them further down the bench. And then the rest of the quorum told B that he was in the wrong for not moving. I brought it to the attention of the leaders (and the kid’s parents) and I was told that B should have moved, or that I was out of line. The parents of A told me that there kid was “really nice” and would never act that way. This is the same attitude we see on the court. And, most leaders accept it saying “boys will be boys”.


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