OGDEN Badly bruised, but not beaten, sportsmanship is returning to LDS Church basketball and is playing an integral role in separating the winners from the losers.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints West Weber Region sports directors have introduced a sportsmanship scoring system that is reducing the number of technical fouls, while restoring quality to a game that has been the brunt of more LDS culture jokes than green Jell-O.
The directors, serving LDS stakes in Clinton, Roy and West Point, are now trying to take the sportsmanship program they adopted in 2007 churchwide. They introduced it in late March to other northern Utah LDS stakes at a multi-region church basketball tournament.
The West Weber Region is one of two regions in northern Utah to adopt a sportsmanship scoring system. The other region was Davis West, serving LDS wards in west Davis County.
"We are trying to expand (the sportsmanship scoring system) to more than our region," said West Weber Region sports director Lynn Thomas. "We have the attention of some of the other brethren in other regions."
Running a quality basketball program is in Thomas' blood. Since 1984 he has been involved in basketball as a high school referee and an employee of a San Diego city recreation program.
With the scoring system, referees and scorekeepers award teams a sportsmanship score ranging anywhere from zero to five points.
Points are awarded based on players demonstrating such acts as helping an opposing player up off the floor after a foul or not swearing or yelling at a referee.
The sports directors say they looked to late LDS Church President Ezra Taft Benson for their inspiration.
"Sportsmanship is the spirituality in athletics and we believe that the church athletic program is a spiritual program. If it wasn't, we wouldn't continue it, because our purpose is to build men and women of character and spirituality," Benson is quoted as saying on an LDS Web site.
Scoreboard not all
With the system it is possible for a winning team on the scoreboard to be the losing team in the scorebook, if the quality of their play does not meet with church standards, Thomas said.
If both teams demonstrate the same level of sportsmanship, and no player receives a technical foul, the game is decided by the score.
Participants seem to be getting the message.
"We've come a long ways," Thomas said.
He said there was one occasion last year when the new scoring system changed the outcome of a region playoff game between two "senior" teams, consisting of players between the ages of 18 and 35.
LDS Church ball is broken down into four age groups: 12- to 15-year-olds play "teacher" ball; 16- to 18-year-olds play "priest" ball; 18- to 35-year-olds, play "senior" ball; and those 35 years and older play "veteran" ball.
Utah North Area sports director Leonard Mecham, who answers directly to the church's general authorities, said he can already see signs of a turnaround with the sportsmanship scoring system.
He oversees the sports programs from North Salt Lake to Malad, Idaho, and from Heber City to Rock Springs, Wyo.
The senior team eliminated from the region tournament in 2007 as a result of the technical foul, came back this year in the region tournament and won its respective age group, Mecham said.
"You can see a turnaround there that was happening because of the program," Mecham said.
In his geographic region there are 150 LDS Church stakes with about 35,000 church basketball players, Mecham said, of which about 350 are nonmembers.
Mecham said it is the duty of LDS leaders to provide a program in which nonmembers can have a good experience.
"We use it for a fellowshipping tool," Mecham said. "If (the players) can't display good sportsmanship, they won't have a program. It is the fellowshipping we are concerned about.
"We can touch more lives (with the basketball program) faster than we can with any other program in the church, because (nonmembers) will come to play ball. It is a nonthreatening environment."
Mecham said with the results the sportsmanship scoring program has had on players' behaviors, he can envision the system one day being used churchwide.
"It will come. It is just a process of education."
There are church sports directors who run a great program without the sportsmanship scoring system, Mecham said. "But the sportsmanship program makes things easier."
West Point teen Alex Perez is one nonmember who said he plays LDS Church basketball out of love for the game.
Perez said for the past two seasons he has played basketball for the West Point 3rd Ward teacher team.
"I think it is a great way to play basketball," the 14-year-old guard said. "It's pretty sweet. They should have church baseball."
The sportsmanship program is not only making it easier for nonmembers to play, but is also making it easier for officials to call a game.
West Weber Region officials coordinator Jeff Boyson said it is exciting to see young men play basketball and "watch them compete with manners."
Having the sportsmanship program makes for better basketball, better fans and better officials, Boyson said.
Boyson said LDS Church ball has been the brunt of jokes, and some members were afraid to come out and play, including nonmembers to whom the church needs to be extending a hand of friendship.
"We want to create an environment of getting more people out to play church basketball," Boyson said.
More teams now
The sportsmanship program brings out more participants by sending a message to the former basketball "hot heads" who made the game unenjoyable for many, he said.
With the change, Boyson said, the West Weber Region has seen a resurgence in the number of ward teams participating in its annual region tournament. Sixty-one teams competed in the tournament this year, Boyson said, compared to 58 teams last year.
"We even had an official that was a nonmember," he said.
West Point 3rd Ward youth coach Kyle Cunningham said he has seen a "tremendous improvement" in the region's basketball program.
"I think the movie 'Church Ball' gives us a bad rap," he said of the 2006 comedy starring Fred Willard and Gary Coleman.
The coach said scoring teams on sportsmanship has eliminated a lot of the "physicalness" that was taking place in some of the games at the different age levels.
"I think in the past it hasn't been so quality," said Cassie Thomas, wife of Lynn Thomas, who has seen her share of church basketball. "I have seen a change."
Dave Dupaix, 52, of Roy, said church ball is a great activity and the sportsmanship program is improving it.
"I've played it since I was a kid, and have been playing it ever since," Dupaix said, adding he also watches his 13-year-old son Chase play the game now.
"They say it starts with a prayer and ends with a fight," he joked. "But it really doesn't."