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Tyler Sipe, Deseret Morning News
The cast and crew of "Church Ball" shoot a scene in Salt Lake City for the new LDS comedy, which is scheduled to open next January.

You know you're a Mormon if there's a similarity between your church basketball games and the L.A. riots.

That's the running joke with which many are familiar — but according to the folks at HaleStorm Entertainment, it's reality. At least for the makers of "Church Ball."

A battle on the basketball court of mythic proportions is the subject of the new LDS-comedy film "Church Ball," which just finished filming in Salt Lake City. It's the biggest film yet for the HaleStorm group — the $1 million budget is nearly double that of "The R.M." and "The Singles Ward."

It's also the first to include recognizable non-LDS Hollywood actors.

From the start, director/co-writer Kurt Hale knew this film needed some big names. "I made a wish list," Hale said. "I picked out quirky characters — and I got them."

Behind those offbeat characters are the recognizable faces of Fred Willard ("Bewitched," "Anchorman," TV's "Everybody Loves Raymond"), Clint Howard ("Cinderella Man," "Apollo 13"), Gary Coleman (TV's "Diff'rent Strokes") and Andrew Wilson, older brother of Luke and Owen ("Fever Pitch").

What lured these guys to Utah? "A funny script," they all agreed.

"I'd never done anything like this before," Wilson said. "It's a short shoot (18 days) with an active pace that forces us to be creative."

Howard said he appreciated the producer's honesty about the budget and the limitations facing the cast and crew. "Their enthusiasm was really refreshing."

"Church Ball" is your classic story of good versus evil, according to Hale. The reluctant hero, Dennis Buckstead (Wilson), is appointed captain of the Mud Lake basketball team by the local LDS bishop (Willard), who has been suspended from coaching due to anger-management issues.

Buckstead's mission — no pun intended — is to turn his team of underdog misfits around and win the final church-sanctioned regional championship. It all leads up to the big game . . . and lots of fighting.

The idea for "Church Ball" came to Hale in 2002. Since then the script has gone through nine drafts — a compilation of experiences Hale believes moviegoers will recognize. "We had to make it different from other sports films," said Hale. "And we're trying to reach a broader audience, so we are constantly watering the Mormonism out."

But, he adds, "the whole story still takes place under the umbrella of the church. You just don't have to be a Mormon to get what we're doing."

The actual purpose of LDS Church basketball is to "foster brotherly love," said producer Dave Hunter. But, according to Hunter and Hale, profanity and fights in church basketball games have evolved into legends that rival the myths of ancient Greece.

"I had no idea how seriously it was taken or how big a sport it was," said Willard, who has worked in Utah before (he shot a TV show at the Osmond Studios in Orem years ago).

He said he was fascinated at the level of violence in the game. "You watch fists flying, and you realize it's not as clean and pure as you thought."

The players go through some kind of a personality change when they step onto the court, said Hale. "These are good religious people, and then on Thursday they turn completely different."

All for a plastic trophy.

Hale admits that "Church Ball" makes fun of people who take themselves too seriously. It's part of human nature. And that, he says, is why the film works.

"Church Ball" is scheduled for a theatrical release in the middle of basketball season next January.

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