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Gerald W. Silver , Deseret News Archives
Teams competed for an All-Church basketball title from 1922 through 1971. For many years, church basketball has been enormously popular for both young and old.

Editor's note: This is the sixth of a seven-part series exploring the state of basketball in Utah.

For better or for worse — sometimes both, perhaps — the game of basketball has been a big part of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for the better part of 100 years.

Male church members first played in a formal basketball league in 1908, and church basketball has spawned enormous participation from hundreds of thousands of people in the 102 years that have followed.

One need only mention the words "church basketball" to just about any male who spent any length of time growing up in the state of Utah, where the LDS Church is based, to realize the wide scope of influence basketball has had in the church.

Heading into the second decade of the 21st century, this much seems clear — church ball continues to be a behemoth in the LDS Church.

It's true that the state of Utah may have shifted from being a "basketball state" to being a "football state" in the past decade or so, and it's also true that basketball — and sports in general — are less important to the rising generations, who instead immerse themselves in the plethora of entertainment options available to them.

But participation in church basketball among men, women and young adults remains extremely high — Harold Turley, the Utah Area sports director for the LDS Church, estimates that there were "at least 180,000 participants" in church ball in the state of Utah in 2009 — and the church is busily overhauling the way its sports program is run in the state of Utah to ensure it remains in a position to continue to sponsor basketball.

To that end, Turley is a key figure. A lifelong participant in a variety of sports, Turley was called last October to be the church's Utah Area sports director by Elder Steven Snow of the Presidency of the Seventy.

Rather than have its sports program, in which basketball is the biggest sport, run by what Turley calls "the staff officers of the church," Turley says the church wants its sports program run instead by local priesthood leaders.

"We're making a major transition with the sports program for the church because in the past it's kind of been the stepchild, or it's been on the fringe, and has not been run by the line leadership of the church, the priesthood leaders," says Turley. "In the fall of last year, the leaders of the church indicated that we're gonna change that and we're gonna have the priesthood leaders now responsible for the sports program."

According to Turley, the church is approximately a third of the way through that process and hopes to be finished by June of this year.

Turley oversees 547 stakes that play 42 different sports in his current capacity, which is a massive, massive undertaking.

"It's a huge effort," says Turley.

But no sport is bigger in the church than basketball.

Basketball standards hang from the "cultural halls" of virtually every LDS meetinghouse up and down the Wasatch Front, and generations of church members have grown up playing basketball. Until 1971, when it became impractical because of the church's growth, the church sponsored a yearly churchwide basketball tournament, and inter-stake tournaments continue to this day.

When asked to summarize the current state of church basketball, Turley immediately pointed to the things that have made it such an interesting phenomenon over the years — ugly incidents.

So many of the people who have been a part of church basketball all have their own story: So-and-so lost control of their emotions, and such-and-such incident resulted.

"We are doing everything we can to, what we call, disarm anger," says Turley. "I'll give you an example. I was a bank president at one time. We made hundreds and hundreds of loans, (but) the only loans that the board of directors remembered were the ones that weren't good loans. There had been less than a dozen of those, but that's all they remember.

"Well, the same thing happens with people. They may have played basketball for 15-20 years, and they remember that there was one altercation seven years ago. There's less than one-tenth of one percent where we've had problems, but yet they are magnified."

For church basketball to fulfill its two stated purposes — promote community togetherness and inspire physical fitness — Turley is working with others to minimize the occurrence of such incidents, realizing the ultimate future of church basketball is perhaps on the line.

"We're doing everything we can to disarm anger, and we have a two-prong attack for that," says Turley. "We're just moving on this. One is that we will have a priesthood leader responsible in every basketball game. … Secondly, we are spending a lot more time and effort to train officials who will be officiating the games, much more so than we've ever done."