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Kirby: Mormon basketball boasts plenty of foul shots — and we don't mean just free throws

Published April 29, 2017 1:24 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Editor's note • On Saturdays, Robert Kirby usually pokes into Utah's past, but he has his hands full in the present. So we're letting him get caught up by offering this reprint of a past column.

No one knows exactly when the LDS Church incorporated basketball into its theology. Today, it's widely accepted that a good hook shot isn't far from becoming an actual priesthood ordinance. Some historians believe the moment came during the crossing of the Plains, when a dispute between a group of pioneers and Native Americans over the ownership of a cow was decided by a game of hoops.

The contest was quick and bloody, ending in a 5-0 Indian victory. When news of the decisive loss was reported to Brigham Young, he supposedly prophesied, "Dang. We gotta get better at this."

All of this is pieced together from journals and rumors and testimony. What we know for certain is that the church ended up with a huge athletic program prominently featuring — you guessed it — basketball.

Most middle-age Mormon males today were steeped in round ball, thanks to church. Basketball was a primary feature of all extracurricular activities. Wards played one another, stakes vied for regional championships, and the winners were exalted above all others.

It was not, as you might expect from a Christian-based faith, basketball practiced in the spirit of full brotherly accord. It was "church ball," a highly competitive form of b-ball more closely associated with bar fights and park muggings.

This was basketball played without purse or script. Games lasted for time and all eternity, and we fully believed in the "laying on of elbows."

When I was a kid in Mutual, it was ugly. Timeouts were frequently called to look for an eyeball or to pray over someone being loaded into an ambulance. The morning after a game, it wasn't uncommon to see the bishop presiding over sacrament meeting with a fat lip.

We had refs in church ball, but they were every bit as effective as angels at keeping temporal order. You could have a dozen of them keeping track of the game and you'd still get killed.

Proof that the Lord's hand was in all of this is the fact that Zion was west of Nauvoo instead of north. If it had been hockey, Mormons would be famous for not having any teeth.

Today, the church's basketball program is a pale imitation of the old blood rite days. Sportsmanship is at least pondered if not actually practiced.

But the legacy lives on in the LDS infatuation with basketball today that, when not properly repressed, can lead to a forced choice between attending one's church and somebody else's playoffs.

Tomorrow, in LDS wards all along with the Wasatch Front, devout Mormons will be asking themselves the big gospel question: "How mad will Heavenly Father get if I watch the Jazz playoff game on the Sabbath?"

Short answer: If you're even wrestling with the question, you aren't going to the Celestial Kingdom anyway. Enjoy.

Robert Kirby can be reached at rkirby@sltrib.com or facebook.com/stillnotpatbagley, but you may not be high on his to-do list.






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