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Basketball still important to LDS Church

For

better or for worse — sometimes both, perhaps — the game of basketball

has been a big part of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

for the better part of 100 years.

Male Mormons first played in a formal basketball league in 1908, and

church basketball has spawned enormous participation from hundreds of

thousands of people in the 102 years that have followed.

One

need only mention the words "church basketball" to just about any male

who spent any length of time growing up in the state of Utah, where the

LDS Church is based, to realize the wide scope of influence basketball

has had in the church.

__IMAGE1__ Heading into

the second decade of the 21st century, this much seems clear — church

ball continues to be a behemoth in the LDS Church.

It's

true that the state of Utah may have shifted from being a "basketball

state" to being a "football state" in the past decade or so, and it's

also true that basketball — and sports in general — are less important

to the rising generations, who instead immerse themselves in the

plethora of entertainment options available to them.

But

participation in church basketball among men, women and young adults

remains extremely high — Harold Turley, the Utah Area sports director

for the LDS Church, estimates that there were "at least 180,000

participants" in church ball in the state of Utah in 2009 — and the

church is busily overhauling the way its sports program is run in the

state of Utah to ensure it remains in a position to continue to sponsor

basketball.

To that end, Turley is a

key figure. A lifelong participant in a variety of sports, Turley was

called last October to be the church's Utah Area sports director by

Elder Steven Snow of the Presidency of the Seventy.

Rather

than have its sports program, in which basketball is the biggest sport,

run by what Turley calls "the staff officers of the church," Turley

says the church wants its sports program run instead by local

priesthood leaders.

"We're making a

major transition with the sports program for the church because in the

past it's kind of been the stepchild, or it's been on the fringe, and

has not been run by the line leadership of the church, the priesthood

leaders," says Turley. "In the fall of last year, the leaders of the

church indicated that we're gonna change that and we're gonna have the

priesthood leaders now responsible for the sports program."

According

to Turley, the church is approximately a third of the way through that

process and hopes to be finished by June of this year.

Turley oversees 547 stakes that play 42 different sports in his current capacity, which is a massive, massive undertaking.

"It's a huge effort," says Turley.

But no sport is bigger in the church than basketball.

Basketball

standards hang from the "cultural halls" of virtually every LDS

meetinghouse up and down the Wasatch Front, and generations of church

members have grown up playing basketball. Until 1971, when it became

impractical because of the church's growth, the church sponsored a

yearly churchwide basketball tournament, and inter-stake tournaments

continue to this day.

When asked to

summarize the current state of church basketball, Turley immediately

pointed to the things that have made it such an interesting phenomenon

over the years — ugly incidents.

So

many of the people who have been a part of church basketball all have

their own story: So-and-so lost control of their emotions, and

such-and-such incident resulted.

"We

are doing everything we can to, what we call, disarm anger," says

Turley. "I'll give you an example. I was a bank president at one time.

We made hundreds and hundreds of loans, (but) the only loans that the

board of directors remembered were the ones that weren't good loans.

There had been less than a dozen of those, but that's all they remember.

"Well,

the same thing happens with people. They may have played basketball for

15-20 years, and they remember that there was one altercation seven

years ago. There's less than one-tenth of one percent where we've had

problems, but yet they are magnified."

For

church basketball to fulfill its two stated purposes — promote

community togetherness and inspire physical fitness — Turley is working

with others to minimize the occurrence of such incidents, realizing the

ultimate future of church basketball is perhaps on the line.

"We're

doing everything we can to disarm anger, and we have a two-prong attack

for that," says Turley. "We're just moving on this. One is that we will

have a priesthood leader responsible in every basketball game. ...

Secondly, we are spending a lot more time and effort to train officials

who will be officiating the games, much more so than we've ever done."


E-mail: drasmussen@desnews.com