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Kirby: My brilliant ward basketball career

By Robert Kirby

| Tribune Columnist

First Published Aug 09 2012 03:55 pm • Last Updated Nov 30 2012 11:31 pm

The first time I ever got beaten in church by someone other than my father was at a ward basketball game. No real surprise, I know.

The strange part came in the form of the beating’s author. It was the older sister of a kid I "accidentally" fouled.

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We were playing the 3rd Ward. When a kid tried a layup, I jumped in front of him and we collided. The rules of church ball being somewhat flexible (nonexistent) back then, it was my 14th foul of the game, but I stayed in.

The kid and I were discussing this and a pair of broken glasses when his 14-year-old lummox of a sister charged out of the sidelines, ran me down and beat on me until her mom dragged her away. A few spectators applauded.

It was embarrassing and permanently soured me on church athletics. It was the last time I actively participated in a ward ball game until I became a cop and had to arrest people at them.

I was lucky. We were only playing ward basketball. Had it been one of the church’s earlier encouraged sports, I might have had my eye poked out.

According to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, the LDS Church once encouraged the development of ward fencing teams. And you thought ward basketball was dangerous.

At a June 1911 conference, ward activity leaders were told to "spiritualize recreation" through ward swimming, ward gymnastics, ward jumping, ward wrestling and ward vaulting.

Conspicuously absent from my cynical point of view was ward boxing. But now that I think of it, maybe there was ward boxing and it just morphed into what we recognize today as ward basketball. It would explain a lot.

But fencing? The last thing the church’s athletics program needed was a sport that began with knives.

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I can’t find where the church officially dropped fencing from its sports program. Probably about the time it began discouraging members from permanently marking their bodies. What are tattoos compared to dueling scars?

Ward swimming teams never really took off, either. Maybe it was a fashion thing. It’s hard to swim competitively in apparel so modest that it actually constitutes a drowning hazard. Equally risky would be ward gymnastics in long dresses.

Eventually, only basketball, baseball and softball survived as church-organized sports. By the 1960s, the church had formed the sports into all-church tournament play, complete with trophies, televised games and product endorsements.

I made up that last one. I have no idea if Postum was ever promoted by the Cramp Heights 4th Ward All-Church Championship Croquet Team.

Eventually, perhaps because of injury and steroid abuse, the church toned down its athletics program. The lesser sports — ward curling and ward badminton — were discontinued, and the three remaining sports were turned over to local management.

It was probably just in time. One look at the Olympics is proof enough that spiritualizing recreation can get out of hand. Did you know that pigeon shooting and motor boating used to be Olympic sports?

Hey, you think ward basketball is brutal? Try ward hockey.

Robert Kirby can be reached at rkirby@sltrib.com or facebook.com/stillnotpatbagley.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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