The story of the Mormon Yankees, a group of missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the 1950s who used basketball to build bridges with the people in Australia to forward the missionary efforts, is shared in the movie “Spirit of the Game,” which opens in Utah theaters Friday.
“Spirit of the Game” is based off the book “Mormon Yankees: Giants On and Off the Court,” written by BYU professor Fred Woods. Woods conducted about 70 interviews in preparation for writing the book, which included interviews with several of the real-life Mormon Yankees as well as with church members in Australia and some of the Australian Olympic athletes with whom the Mormon Yankees interacted.
“In doing the history of the Latter-day Saints in Australia, I don’t know of any better advertisement for the LDS Church than the Mormon Yankees from the time that the first missionaries set foot on Australian soil in 1840 up to the present time,” Woods said in an interview with the Deseret News. “There were hundreds of articles (published about them), especially in the 1950s.”
Woods said the story of the Mormon Yankees originated in 1937 when missionaries in Australia started playing basketball with the YMCA in order to build bridges with the people there. These teams of missionary basketball players, which Woods said were immediately successful, continued for 24 years until a decision was made at the first mission conference in 1961 with mission presidents from all over the world to go a different direction.
According to Woods, the arrival of the Harlem Globetrotters in Australia in 1954 sparked the natives’ interest in basketball. President Charles Liljenquist, the mission president in the area at the time, took advantage of this and promised reporters in the area that if they would start covering the Mormon Yankees basketball teams, he would send a group of basketball players that were even better than the Globetrotters. The offer was accepted, and a team of missionaries was immediately formed.
These events set up the story portrayed in the movie “Spirit of the Game” where the Australian national basketball team enlisted the help of the Mormon Yankees in preparation for the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia.
This team, which was led and coached by Elder DeLyle Condie, played 10 exhibition games during the 1956 Olympics against various countries, including France, Australia, Chile, China and Russia, winning five of them.
While recognizing that the film took some creative liberties with the story, Woods said the film captures the spirit of what the Mormon Yankees accomplished.
“They took some poetic license, but you always see that in films,” Woods said. “I think one thing the film does do, you come away with the spirit of the game and the spirit of what the missionaries were trying to do, and I think you come away (seeing) that the Elder Condie you see portrayed on film really is that good of a guy off the court, and it’s great to just have human beings like that.”
Aaron Jakubenko, an Australian actor who plays Elder Condie, the movie’s lead character, told the Deseret News he enjoyed the challenge of portraying a character whose life was so full of light.
“I’ve played some really dark characters before but with Condie, it was about finding that complexity in someone whose life was so full of the light,” Jakubenko said. “He’s so full of goodness and kindness and compassion, and you don’t often find characters that have so much of that, so it was about finding the complexity amongst the light, which was so beautiful.”
The film also stars actor Kevin Sorbo, known for his roles in “God’s Not Dead” and “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys,” who was in Park City earlier this summer for the Park City International Film Festival, where “Spirit of the Game” was screened. “Spirit of the Game” is directed by Darran Scott, who is facing more than 50 sexual assault charges in Australia, the Sydney Morning Herald reported. He is accused of assaulting 15 boys from 11 to 15 years old from 1990 to 2015, according to the Herald. Scott’s passport was suspended by the courts, the Herald reported.
In relating the impact of the Mormon Yankees, Woods said the Mormon Yankees not only assisted in the development of basketball in the area but also helped the growth of the church in Australia, which Woods said tripled in membership in the late 1950s and led to the formation of the first three stakes in Australia in 1960.
Woods quoted from DeLyle Condie’s final missionary journal entry, dated July 18, 1957, which said, “The real test of our playing has not been in the scores, but in that we have impressed many people to learn about the Latter-day Saints.”
Mark Frodsham, who played on the team with Condie, said it was a privilege to be a part of this Mormon Yankees team.
“It really opened a lot of doors,” Frodsham said. “As far as amount of conversion, who knows, but it opened doors to recognition of the church and all we had to do was walk down the street and people would come to us.”
Another notable Mormon Yankee was BYU basketball legend Bob Skousen, who played with the Mormon Yankees shortly after Condie’s team.
“People came up to them, and the church was opened up,” Jeff Skousen, Bob Skousen’s son, said in an interview with the Deseret News. “People recognized them as young men with integrity, with honesty. They represented their church well.”
Jeff Skousen said his father made a great sacrifice by going on a mission as he had NBA scouts and sponsors following him closely after a successful freshman year at BYU. Many questioned his choice to serve, but Skousen said that his father’s choice ended up changing his life for the better.
“The main thing I want people to understand about my father with him being a Mormon Yankee is he put everything aside to serve the Lord,” Skousen said. “That was the most important thing. If the Lord wanted him to go, it was that important for him to go. And above all things, he loved the people of Australia.”
For more information on the story of the Mormon Yankees, see Wood’s book “Mormon Yankee: Giants On and Off the Court,” which comes with a companion DVD documentary film by the same name.
‘Spirit of the Game’ movie trailer