PROVO — Bill Paul wasn't good enough to play on the basketball team at Salt Lake City's East High School, but he later made the cut at the University of Utah.

Paul and his lifelong friend Allen Brown know exactly how Paul was able to make that unusual leap. They give all the credit to a remarkable era in Utah sports history, the now-defunct All-Church Basketball Tournament.

From 1929 to 1971, the best boys' and men's basketball teams in the wards of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gathered from around the country each year in Salt Lake to determine church champions. Some came from as far away as the church "colonies" in Mexico, which produced some formidable teams.

Players included a young Thomas S. Monson, now president of the church.

The level of competition was high and so was the tournament's profile, a staple on the sports pages of the Deseret News and Salt Lake Tribune.

"The All-Church tournaments were covered just about as much as any other basketball by the newspapers," Brigham Young University historian Jessie Embry said this week during a campus lecture.

Paul, now 76, and Brown, 77, played for Salt Lake's mighty Edgehill Ward, a basketball factory fueled by ward leaders like Paul Hansen, who oversaw a program that included as many as three teams in each age group.

"We were both late bloomers," Brown said of himself and Paul, literally his next-door neighbor from age 5 through high school. "Neither of us grew a whisker until we turned 25. You couldn't be more obscure than Bill Paul and Allen Brown at East High. Bill was a runt, skinny, embarrassed to wear a short-sleeved shirt. We were very fortunate the church picked us up at that stage.

"So few really make high school teams, it provided for us a chance to feel a sense of belonging. We were as proud of our ward teams as our East High team."

Paul grew into a player wanted by legendary U. coach Jack Gardnerafter Paul played service ball in the Air Force and played against and coached Finnish teams while serving an LDS mission in Finland.

The year Paul played with the Utes, the team reached the National Invitational Tournament, which was bigger than today's NCAA tournament.

While Edgehill regularly reached All-Church, Paul and Brown never played on a team that won the championship game.

The roots of the tournament reach back almost to the invention of basketball by James Naismith in 1891. In 1906, the 20th Ward of Salt Lake's Ensign Stake formed two teams of young men.

By 1908, all the wards in the Ensign Stake had teams and played in a stake tournament. That same year, U. physical education professor E.J. Milne wrote an article for the church's "Improvement Era" magazine encouraging wards to build gyms for activities. He emphasized basketball, "the greatest of all indoor games in the country, and especially in the state of Utah."

A church tournament was first held in 1922 and All-Church began in 1929, when the general board of the church's young men's organization (then the Young Men's Mutual Improvement Association) took control.

The tournament became huge, and teams advanced through stake and region tournaments with more than 8,000 young men involved. Enthusiasm for church ball rivaled anything from the movie "Hoosiers."

When the Grayson Ward in Blanding went to play in the 1954 tournament in Provo, one member was assigned to call home with results. The city had a single telephone operator who could spread the news, and to avoid piling up long-distance charges, the caller and operator worked out a verbal shorthand. The caller would simply say two numbers. The first would be Blanding's score. The second was the opponent's.

Embry compiled stories like that from oral interviews in her new e-book, "Spiritualized Recreation: Mormon All-Church Tournaments and Dance Festivals." The book is available free online at Embry is associate director of the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies.

By 1971, relatively explosive church growth that had occurred in the 1960s made the tournament too large and it was discontinued. By the 1990s, church ball was fading away in some places. Many regions stopped holding tournaments. A call by late church President Gordon B. Hinckley to provide more activities for young men has prompted several Utah regions to reinstitute tournaments.

Meanwhile, 37 years after the final game, All-Church still has an impact on the lives of those who played. The spiritual purpose of church sports was to provide activities for church members, provide fellowship to less-active members and to introduce the church to others, Embry said. One player, Conrad Schultz, joined the church in Oregon the year after he played with a ward team in the All-Church tournament. Schultz later became a general authority of the church.

Many teams have had reunions, including a 50th reunion of the 1944 champion Grantsville 2nd Ward, which the Deseret News called "a great squad of sharpshooters and nifty ballhandlers."

Brown and Paul have remained fast friends. In fact, Brown is considering buying a home almost next door to his boyhood pal. There is just one house between. They also regularly run into people they played with and against or who played in the Edgehill tournament that drew high school and junior college players.

"Everywhere I go people remember Edgehill Ward basketball," Paul said.

Those memories are vivid, and like any dedicated athletes, they still carry both the highs and the lows of All-Church games around with them, like the time Paul scored 35 points, and the losses in the tournament finals.

"We lost these tournaments by one or two points," Brown said. "I always thought I lost those games. The other day, Bill said he lost them. I said, wait a minute, you couldn't have lost those games, I did."