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High tops, trophies and good times: Brigham City man recalls church basketball March Madness

For college basketball fans, part of March has become all about NCAA Tournament brackets, intense games with upsets and last-second shots, and Luther Vandross singing "One Shining Moment."

Brigham City resident Jack W. Hadfield, 88, can remember a different era of March Madness, a throwback to the days of white Converse high tops, shorter basketball shorts and sweeping hook shots in the old Deseret Gym.

"The older you get, the better you were," Hadfield said with a smile.

Hadfield was one of thousands of players to take part in the former All-Church basketball tournament sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1922 to 1971. During that time, hundreds of teams from Hawaii to Canada to Mexico competed in stake and regional tournaments for the chance to play in Salt Lake City's version of the Sweet Sixteen, where the winning team accepted a massive golden trophy.

Hadfield and the Brigham City Fourth Ward won the All-Church title in 1948, 1950 and 1953. They also qualified for the tournament in 1951 but failed to reach the finals. For teams such as Brigham City that lived 60 or more miles away, the church provided hotel rooms. Some championships were televised and received generous newspaper coverage. The church invited players, coaches and officials to large banquets at the Hotel Utah. Spectators even paid to see them play. Church ball was a big deal in those days, Hadfield said.

"There wasn't anything else much to do," Hadfield said. "Few had TVs, a few of us had cars. Playing ball was a big entertainment. The game has changed so much since then."

Seated at his kitchen table with the 1950 championship trophy and old newspaper articles strewn about, Hadfield reflected on his experiences with church ball, a period of history when LDS Church buildings came with trophy cases. LDS Church History Library records and other sources also share information about the history of church basketball.

Historical notes

Going back to the early 1900s, the LDS Church has sponsored dancing, music, tennis, softball and volleyball, among others recreational activities. The largest program was basketball, according to Jessie L. Embry, assistant director for the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies and a historian at Brigham Young University.

Initially, basketball was only for men ages 17-24, with divisions for teenagers and college-age men being added later. Because the program was sponsored by the church, all players, both members and nonmembers, were required to attend church meetings and live church standards, Embry wrote in "Spiritualized Recreation: Mormon All-Church Athletic Tournaments and Dance Festivals."

Although basketball courts would not begin to appear in church buildings for several decades, teams began to compete within their stakes, according to an article in the Deseret News.

A master's thesis written by Edward Donald Snow in 1954 offers insight into the first All-Church basketball tournament in 1922.

According to Snow's research, the first All-Church tournament involved five LDS stakes in the Salt Lake area — Ensign, Granite, Liberty, Pioneer and Salt Lake — with Ensign Stake superintendent John D. Giles as the tournament's chairman.

The first problem to surface in the new basketball league was the participation of college players. Liberty's 33rd Ward roster included several University of Utah basketball players and led to a 98-2 thrashing of Ensign. They established a new eligibility policy the following season, Snow wrote.

The four best teams advanced to the first All-Church tournament in April 1922. Liberty Stake's 33rd Ward defeated Salt Lake's 24th Ward, 28-25, to capture the first championship title. Organizers deemed the tournament a success and determined to make it an annual event, although they needed to discuss two other issues, Snow wrote.

First, officials needed more training.

The second concern was financial. The five stakes negotiated a price of $45 to use the Deseret Gym, with each stake paying $5 upfront. Organizers expected to regain the money through ticket sales, but fewer than 30 spectators came, mostly close friends and family, Snow wrote.

"We tried to collect 50 cents each, but no one paid," Giles said, according to the thesis. "Finally, as the first game was to begin, in order to have at least just a few spectators, we opened the doors to the public. When settlement was made with the Deseret Gym, it was necessary for me to pay $20. As I had already paid the $5 for Ensign Stake, it cost me $25 to see the first M-Men Basketball finals."

Hadfield's experience

Hadfield returned home from military service with the U.S. Navy in 1946, the same year future Brigham Young University football coach LaVell Edwards was playing at Utah State. Future basketball coaching legend LaDell Anderson was on the Aggies' hoop squad.

Hadfield, then 21 and standing 6-foot-4, began attending Utah State. He was invited to play with the USU freshman basketball team, but he returned home after a few weeks. The former Box Elder High hoopster then found himself playing with his friends and old high school teammates on the Fourth Ward basketball team.

"World War II had just ended, and it had been a difficult experience for the whole country," Hadfield said. "This was a time of peace and prosperity. There was nothing better than attending an exciting church ball game. … It was also a good influence on us, something to keep you out of mischief."

Their church meetinghouse didn't have a basketball court, so the players would pay $5 to rent time at Box Elder High School, Hadfield said.

The players from the Brigham City Fourth Ward first reached the All-Church championship in 1948 and defeated Edgehill, a team from Salt Lake, 34-32 in what one newspaper article in Hadfield’s scrapbook described as a "thrilling hairline decision." President David O. McKay, then second counselor in the First Presidency, presented the trophy to Hadfield's team along with "his sincere compliments to both finalists," another article reported.

"We won because we slowed down the tempo of the game," said Hadfield, who often frustrated opponents with his classic, old-school hook shot. "The tournament was quite a show. There were several good teams. It got rough sometimes, but there were no technical fouls."

The Brigham City Fourth Ward's next All-Church title came at the University of Utah fieldhouse in March 1950. They were one of 16 teams to come to Salt Lake City out of more than 700 that participated in regional tournaments across five states, according to another article in Hadfield's collection. The church treated the 16 teams, coaches, officials and sponsors to a luncheon at the Lion House with LDS Church President George Albert Smith, Elder Ezra Taft Benson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and other church leaders, one article reported.

In the finals, Brigham City pulled out a tight 24-22 victory over Pleasant Grove. Hadfield was among those named to the All-Church all-star team.

"You can see by the final score that we really slowed it down in that game," Hadfield said.

President Smith presented the team with a 25-pound golden trophy. The Improvement Era published his congratulatory remarks: "You represent thousands of the finest boys to be found anywhere in all the world. You should prize this trophy not for its intrinsic value, but rather because it stands for all that is good and righteous. Always remember that you could not have won it except for the clean lives you have led."

Another article Hadfield had also quoted President Smith: "You young men represent the ideal of Latter-day Saint youth. If you and others like you will fight life's battles like you have fought here — clean and hard — we need have no fear of the future."

The Brigham City Fourth Ward made the All-Church tournament in 1951 but didn't reach the finals. That year was memorable for another reason, Hadfield said.

In the middle of the regional tournament in Ogden beforehand, Hadfield's wife, Kathryn, delivered their son, John. At their game the next night, Hadfield was called to the court, congratulated and handed a pair of baby booties, Kathryn Hadfield said.

Brigham City completed its championship trifecta in March 1953. The action was televised on KSL-TV. For the second time in five years, the Brigham City Fourth Ward defeated Edgehill, 48-45.

An article in the LDS Church News said of the game: "In a breathless and hair-raising three-minute overtime period, the first ever in a title tilt, Brigham City Fourth clinched on to four points, all from foul shots, to become the second team in history to win the All-Church Tournament title three times."

After 1953, the Brigham City Fourth Ward team gradually disbanded as players married, pursued education or careers, and moved away, Hadfield said. Their trophies were displayed in trophy cases at LDS Church meetinghouses until around the 1970s, when building renovations removed the cases. The 1950 trophy, larger and heavier than a Heisman, eventually made its way back to Hadfield.

The church discontinued the All-Church tournament after 1971 because of membership growth, expenses and fading interest, according to Embry.

Deeper purpose

Church basketball, along with other team and recreational sports, still exists today. LDS Church leaders have consistently pointed out over the decades that these programs provide opportunities to help fellowship and save souls through missionary work, build character and have fun, Embry wrote.

Elder Marvin J. Ashton served on the Mutual Improvement Association board and was involved in organizing the All-Church tournament before he became a member of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles in 1971. He spoke on the topic of church athletics at BYU in 1954. In his remarks, he told of a California man who gave up alcohol to coach his ward basketball team. He became active in the church and later baptized his wife.

"I'm thankful that we belong to a church where no matter where we have been or what we are, the church still puts its arms out and welcomes us into its midst," Elder Ashton said. "So we are touching lives, and we are doing some good, I am sure, along the way."

In a 1970 Church News article, Elder Marion G. Romney of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said church athletic programs are designed to help participants learn lessons that will help them "to succeed in their life's mission."

In Hadfield's case, one lesson he gained from basketball became a sweet blessing in his son's life mission. When John Hadfield was serving as a young missionary in Mexico, he struggled with health problems and became discouraged by the possibility of being sent home. During a dark time, his father shared a simple basketball analogy in a letter.

"It is always easier to sit on the sidelines and cheer than it is to play the game, but the reward is greater to the player," Jack Hadfield wrote.

The heartfelt message inspired John Hadfield so much that he carried the saying in his wallet and in his scriptures for the rest of his life. He not only completed his mission but also later served as a stake president and mission president in Chile before he died in 2008.

"As a missionary, he took that to mean keep going and the rewards will come. He went on to baptize many people and serve in the church the rest of his life," Jack Hadfield said. "It made a big impression on him … and motivated him in his life's work."

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