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?