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'Mormon Yankees' is story of hoops and missionary work in Australia

Published: Thursday, June 21 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

As a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Australia, Shawn Bradley was occasionally asked if the Mormon Yankees were going to start up again.

Who are the Mormon Yankees?

“I learned they were a traveling basketball team that played exhibition games to help people gain positive exposure for the church,” Bradley wrote. “It wasn’t until many years later, when I met Fred Woods, that I learned more about the Mormon Yankees.”

Little did the 7-foot-6 Bradley, a future NBA player, know he would one day write the foreword for Woods’ book, "Mormon Yankees: Giants On and Off the Court."

“Mormon Yankees,” with its accompanying DVD, offers a unique history into how missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints used basketball as a tool to share the gospel with Australians from 1937 to 1961.

Missionaries like Elder Loren C. Dunn and Bob Skousen (both of whom played basketball at BYU), DeLyle H. Condie (University of Utah), Bishop H. David Burton (former Presiding Bishop of the LDS Church), and many others played on these teams. One Mormon Yankees squad played exhibition games against teams preparing for the 1956 Olympics.

“They did this over 30 years before I served in the same area, and their influence is still being felt,” Bradley wrote in the foreword. “I know it worked, for I’ve never had a negative conversation concerning the Mormon Yankees.”

Woods, who converted to the LDS Church as a young adult, served in Australia from 1977-79. He came across the Mormon Yankees when he was doing interviews and research for an unrelated project.

“People kept talking about the Mormon Yankees,” Woods said.

The BYU religious educator searched and found a compelling story. James Naismith invented the game of basketball as part of his job at the Young Men’s Christian Association. The phrase “muscular Christianity” was born as a description for using recreation for religious purposes in the early 1900s.

“By the 1930s, full-time missionaries were using basketball to build bridges in various countries and communities, which led some to be converted to the church,” Woods wrote in the introduction.

Beginning in 1937, missionaries started hooping it up in Australia. As a result, good things happened for the LDS Church over the next two and a half decades. Several positive articles were published that dispelled myths about the church. During the peak of the Mormon Yankees’ popularity, 1955-1960, the LDS Church in Australia tripled in size. The Yankees were especially influential among athletes as examples in living the of the Word of Wisdom.

But basketball was only a means for opening doors to the gospel message, Bishop Burton said in his 2010 interview.

“It was a time when mission presidents were still very cognizant that converts to the church were not to be made just because they played basketball or because they saw the team play, but that they had a full quotient of lessons. They (went) through all the discussions, they attended their meetings, they demonstrated their worthiness, and all of that went into the formula for success in that part of the world,” Bishop Burton said in his interview. “It wasn’t just a fling; it wasn’t just use of a gimmick. It was genuinely used to bring good publicity to the church and introduce individuals to the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Woods decided to make the DVD documentary and write a book. A friend and colleague, Martin Andersen, directed the film, which includes 120 minutes of special features and interviews.

“It’s been very satisfying for both Martin and I,” said Woods, who recently toured Australia giving lectures and meeting people whose lives were changed by the Mormon Yankees. “It has enriched not only the lives of those who served in the 1950s, but it’s brought them joy later in life. It’s renewed and welded a wonderful friendship.”

Andersen had a blast playing “history detective.”

“It was interesting to interview these guys,” Andersen said. “Each person had their own story of what the Mormon Yankees were, everyone had a slice of the story, but no one had the overall picture. We were able to paste together the overall story and when it premiered at BYU, many were amazed at how big it was. “That was neat to put together, more than 60 years later.”

“Mormon Yankees” can be purchased wherever LDS books are sold.

Email: ttoone@desnews.com Twitter: tbtoone

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