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For the love of missionary work: Former Mormon Yankees remember their experience in Australia

The movie “Spirit of the Game” tells the story of Mormon missionaries who had the opportunity to share the gospel of Jesus Christ in large part because of their basketball talents. And while the movie does tell the story in an entertaining way, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints may have unanswered questions regarding the impact the Mormon Yankees made off the court as missionaries.

The true story of the Mormon Yankees, as it pertains to missionary work, is perhaps even more impressive than what was shown on the screen. According to an article published in the Deseret News, “During the peak of the Mormon Yankees’ popularity, 1955-1960, the LDS Church in Australia tripled in size,"

So what was it about these young men that opened doors that had previously been closed? Maybe it was their commitment to their purpose or their diligence in fulfilling their proselyting responsibilities while also playing competitive basketball against the best teams in the world.

“We still had to do our areas, our reports, our missionary work, our meetings and we would walk down the street and immediately people would say, ‘I’ve seen you on the tele,’” said Mark Frodsham, a member of the Mormon Yankees.

Paul Grant remembers a time when no one would talk to the missionaries in Australia and definitely wouldn’t approach them.

“When I arrived in 1956 in Australia, there were probably 1,200 members in all of Australia,” Grant said. “The press was still making all kinds of noise about polygamy, about Brigham Young, about Joseph Smith in very bad lights. People who were members of the church received tough times from their co-workers; they weren’t treated well at all.”

Mormon missionaries had begun playing basketball in Australia around 1937, and the program continued off and on through the 1950s.

According to the book, “Mormon Yankees,” by Fred Wood, in February 1955, President David O. McKay visited Australia and during a press conference he was asked questions about the Mormon Yankees, something he “didn’t know anything about.”

“After the press conference, President (Charles V.) Liljenquist said to President McKay, ‘It’s been a good program, but it’s too bad we’re going to have to end it.’ President McKay asked, ‘Why?’”

The mission president explained that the missionaries with basketball talents would soon be going home.

“You keep the program going,” President McKay said. “We’ll see that the basketball players come.”

One of those players was University of Utah basketball player DeLyle H. Condie. However, after arriving in Australia, Condie was told that basketball was coming to an end for missionaries under new mission president Thomas S. Bingham.

“I felt fine about that,” Condie is quoted as saying in the book. “I hadn’t expected to play basketball; it wasn’t the reason I went on a mission.”

President Bingham’s missionaries remember him as a “great man,” and when he was approached by the coach of the Australian Olympic Team with an invitation to have the Mormon Yankees help his team prepare for the Olympics, he obliged, recognizing it as a missionary opportunity.

Condie was asked to help put together a team that not only played the Australian team but offered pointers for improvement. Condie passed away in 2014 but is remembered as a great leader.

“He was very well-liked,” Grant said. “He was very personable and the people with the National Basketball League in Australia had tremendous respect for him so they listened to him and his teaching. The Olympic team made tremendous strides in their proficiency and the way they played ball.”

“He was the ramrod behind the whole thing,” Frodsham said. “He was the coach. He took us, a team that had never played together before and gelled it into a very competitive, winning team in a very short time and that in itself was the hand of the Lord because we really shouldn’t have been that good.”

Soon they were playing many of the international teams that were preparing to play Bill Russell, K.C. Jones and the Americans who, according to Grant, “didn’t even have to worry about playing to win the Olympics.” He remembers playing teams from Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and China, as well as the French and Russian teams.

The players remember feeling a pure desire to be good neighbors. “We didn’t do it for glory or for anything else,” Frodsham said. “We did it to make a better connection with the people we loved dearly and it really worked. I saw that personally during the rest of my mission. Even when I was transferred from Melbourne to Adelaide, they would see us in the missionary tag and we were tall with the white shirts and ties and suits and hats and they made the connection.”

The team saw incredible success, defeating some of the best teams in the world including the French national team. But Delmar Bjork, a member of the Mormon Yankees, will tell you that it wasn’t without the help of God.

“The thing that was so amazing was we actually found ourselves literally making shots that we wouldn’t normally think we would make,” Bjork said. “We would get a little behind in the game and all of the sudden, somebody would start hitting (shots) and we’d feed him the ball.”

Volkswagen of Australia even paid for the missionaries to travel around and to teach people how to play basketball. Bjork remembers the missionaries’ games drawing crowds of 4,000-5,000 people and while their companions were playing in the games, the missionaries assigned to serve with them would be up in the stands, meeting people and scheduling missionary visits.

“And they did,” Bjork said. “They set up many appointments. It was amazing.”

While “Spirit of the Game” is meant to entertain and is not a documentary, it does tell the story of these missionaries and their unique service to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The movie is showing in Utah for at least another week and also opened in Arizona and Idaho on Friday.

Email: mjones@deseretdigital.com