Previous entries can be found here. For those of you who have fixed your gaze upon this post, we thank you for your diligence and patience. In Section 1 part we track the Underground and the discursive splitting it generated within Mormonism. From there, Section 2 casts the expansion of Priesthood Power in light of the possibilities for excellence in athletic competition capacitated by that discursive rupture and semiotic fragmenting. This led, eventually, to strategies for curtailing what was emerging as an ecumenical outreach in Mormon basketball populations, as we discuss in Section 3. The formal division between Mormon university athletics and professional hoops in Utah is shown to be merely a façade in Section 4, as the bannination of rogue recruiters takes place, most prominent among them Roger Reid. Discussion of the future, changing social and athletic pressures among California Mormons, especially regarding SSM, are considered in Section 5. If you like quantitative social scientific research, I heartily recommend that you read part of J. Nelson-Seawright’s dissertation, or maybe a paper or two he wrote. You’ll have to pay read them, but all proceeds will help sick kids in Ogden.
Section 1: “Courts of Love”
Scott B: I guess that, to start off this discussion, we really need to go back to the beginning–the very beginning. How exactly the “Courts of Love” came to exist in the LDS Church; their exegesis, their evolution, and their role in modern Mormonism.
JNS: Right. I believe it was Joseph Smith, in the King Follett discourse, who said that, “There is the starting point for us to look to…If we start right, it is easy to go right all the time; but if we start wrong we may go wrong, and it will be a hard matter to get right.” I believe the same principle applies here: if we are to wrap our minds around the true nature of this controversial subject, we have to start off on the right foot.
Scott B: So given that, it seems that we should probably first note the early chance interaction that Wilford Woodruff–way back in the late 1800s–had with James Naismith.
JNS: At this point, we must remember, Naismith was a figure of little repute. He was known as a Canadian collegiate athlete and a skilled player of duck on a rock, but he had not yet invented basketball. Woodruff and Naismith can now be shown, based on secret documents that I found in the First Presidency Vault, to have sat next to each other on a train running through Canada during 1889. Unfortunately, the documents — basically just ticket stubs with a few notes scribbled on them and a mysterious, seemingly Masonic symbol embossed on them in beeswax — do not detail the contents of their conversation. However, it seems significant that Naismith publicly announced the invention of basketball a mere two years later.Scott B: So, with the blessing of Woodruff, we see the introduction of basketball to Utah Mormons. Now, while most contemporary Mormons are aware of the sanctioned basketball leagues in the Church, many are unaware of the origins of the leagues themselves—as it constitutes something of a darker area of Mormon history. The leagues we see today find their beginnings in an unsanctioned, or uncorrelated, “Underground” form of basketball that arose—and was initially embraced by the Church during the polygamy days. In symbolic fashion, men began joining several leagues simultaneously, playing for many teams at once, each on a different night of the week. The idea was basically that, the more teams, the more glory in the hereafter. However, the Church quickly realized that it was losing control, and men were neglecting less-skilled teams in favor of the league contenders. Ultimately, the leadership of the Church declared that basketball was no more.
JNS: Instead they encouraged a correlated substitute sport called “Beehive Ball” which outsiders find hard to distinguish from basketball, but insiders know by the Spirit, and the fact that technical fouls spark a worthiness interview.
Scott B: That brings up another misunderstanding, actually. Many people incorrectly believe that the term “Court of Love” actually referred to this interview, in which local authorities determined whether or not a player would be allowed to return to the court after demonstrating uncharitable conduct. While this is on the right track, it’s been twisted over time. The Church actually wanted basketball itself to be played on a “court of love” because it was seen as a possible extension of the missionary program.
JNS: Right. “Basketball Baptisms” was the original idea. Unfortunately, it never really materialized because Mormon basketball leagues were so rough that they drove investigators away. A shame, really—there was certainly potential for using athletics as a conduit for missionary work, but it was not to be. Subsequent iterations of this concept found that it was far more effective to tie the baptismal effort to the treats and socializing phase after the game. For example, red punch spilled on a uniform could be used to discuss Isaiah’s metaphor for the atonement.
Scott B: Eventually, of course, the Church realized that it couldn’t control the Underground, and decided instead that men’s basketball leagues, fully sanctioned and correlated by the Church–with high councilmen officiating–would be the solution.
JNS: This was an example of controlling the symbol to control the substance, because what was banned was not the act of throwing a ball through a hoop. No church could hope to control such realities. They are subtle, physical, and slippery, resistant to authority. Instead, the church rations access to “basketball,” i.e., the word itself. Thus we have an instance of tyranny from the inside out, literally controlling people’s minds in order to modify their play in casual leagues.
Scott B: Of course, it’s important to clarify that women’s leagues were out of the question–they were allowed to play in the early days, but eventually it became apparent that the women were too violent, even on the “uncorrelated” courts of love. It’s just their nature.
JNS: Many throughout the church continue to regard the sanctioned leagues as inauthentic, preferring to continue a pale imitation of the old Underground days by getting together informal pickup games early Saturday morning. Even these participants largely realize that the Underground game is deeply diminished compared with the glory days, but they regard the effort as essential.
Scott B: Sprained ankles are uncommonly common in such games, though–demonstrating the utter lack of Spirit attending such events, though.
Section 2: The Expansion of Priesthood Influence, or the Rise of Correlation Coefficients
JNS: Few if any participants manage to play in as many as two different pickup games a week, clearly violating the spirit if not the letter of the old Underground. Nonetheless, it is important to recognize how three tracks of basketball in Mormonism interact:
- The BYU/professionalizing track
- The sanctioned league track
- The pickup game track
None would function properly without the shadow of the others.
Scott B: There are other hints of the influence of the Church on basketball in and around Utah–the U of U plays basketball, for example, in the Huntsman Center. Utah State continually fields teams that are all white and 90% LDS.
JNS: One might even describe them as mutually constituting. What would the Church be without basketball? What would basketball be without the church? And of course Mormon influence in basketball radiates outward in a subtle network. Mormons play at Stanford, in the NBA, and in the management of the Boston Celtics. It’s impossible to watch the ferocious intensity of Kevin Garnett in the Celtics’ championship season without being reminded of Porter Rockwell and the B’Hoys, spectral ancestors of Mormon basketball.
Scott B: I don’t think we’ve given enough attention to the “Jerry Sloan/John Stockton” model of basketball–cheap, dirty, hard-nosed, and with a lousy tan resulting from garments. With Larry Miller continually renewing his contract, it is akin to Church sanction. How natural, then, that young teachers and priests attempt to emulate that very model by transforming church sanctioned leagues into, well, jungle ball. Of course, it sends another mixed signal–as you noted–that ruffians are frequently sent to the Bishop’s office for technical fouls and fighting.
JNS: Absolutely. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of this. The Stockton-Malone connection. The symbolic resonance is so immense as to defy articulation. Consider: Stockton assists Malone, just as counselors assist a bishop.
And we can’t neglect the economic influence of that tandem on Utah and the broader Mormon world.
Scott B: Buying an automobile from somewhere other than Stockton to Malone Honda, or Larry H. Miller Toyota shows a lack of loyalty to the Church, really.
JNS: Of course, the fouling only becomes more serious under Sloan in the post-Stockton/Malone period. In some seasons, the Jazz foul on something like half the opponent’s jump shots.
Scott B: Yes–you bring up statistics, I see, which is a vital component of modern Mormonism.
JNS: Partly it’s statistics, but partly it is the difficult problem of succession. After the waning of the near-championship teams of the 1990s, the Jazz enter a period of confusion. Who will lead us now? The signs are mixed. Kirilenko shows moments of brilliance. Other players step up briefly, for a run of a few games or a few weeks. But I think it is safe to say that a general state of confusion reigns.
Scott B: You mention Kirilenko–the stat-sheet stuffing capability he showed was heartening to Mormons who thrive on baptismal stats, home teaching stats, activity rates, etc…
JNS: Absolutely! The Jazz turn to an emphasis on made-up numbers like 5x5s to make up for a deficiency of charm, of charisma, of talent.
Scott B: In fact, during Kirilenko’s peak year, Mormon sacrament meeting attendance increased 12%. Of course, the increase was only among “active” Mormons—they were simply attending 12% more meetings, or in some cases just lingering 12% longer. Essentially a corollary of Kirilenko’s made up 5×5′s.
JNS: Well, it was easy to do – nobody was watching the games, after all. The sad result of these unreasonable expectations is that Kirilenko – a talented player in his own unusual way – is never given a framework in which he can really succeed. Everybody wants him to become an All-Star in the Stockton or Malone mold. Whereas what he really needed was a system like that in Phoenix that creates space for a high-activity defender, rebounder, and garbage-shot player like him. But the Sloan system lacks the capacity to envision such an alternative. There is only one plan.
Scott B: One plan—just as there is one faith, one baptism, one team, and one church. Unity.
Section 3: Ecumenical Outreach and Mixed Signals
Scott B: We were talking about the relationship between Andrei Kirilenko, Statistics, and Mormons. But the real interesting issue here, JNS, is that Kirilenko has that infamous “once a year” clause in his marriage covenant–and thus we see, that wickedness truly never was happiness.
JNS: Quite right! I see the once a year clause as parallel with the on-the-court inflexibility. It’s not enough to just win, we have to win with righteous players, and with a game plan from the 1980s.
Scott B: Naturally, this caused problems when Kyle Korver–a 3 point shooter who couldn’t guard a chair–showed up in town: a righteous evangelical on a Mormon team known for being hard-nosed.
JNS: Absolutely! And one of the best shooters in the league. What can a Sloan make of such a thing?
Scott B: The stress in Mormon fans is apparent–they are not sure whether to cheer for him, or invite him over for FHE and offer him a Book of Mormon.
JNS: Right, it creates a symbolic dilemma. He defies the black-and-white paradigm. He is neither hot nor cold, and yet we don’t spew him from our mouths.
Scott B: And then suddenly, in the middle of a playoff run, Sloan gives Korver the green light to shoot. This represented an ecumenical outreach unseen since the Underground played a pickup game against RLDS missionaries in the early 1900s.
JNS: It’s one of these rare moments where the overt and covert transcripts visibly diverge. Sloan still talks about playing hard-nosed basketball. But he’s de facto recognizing that his players’ talents point toward a faster-paced game. He’s reinterpreting the scripture to suit a changed reality; continuing revelation, as it were.
Scott B: By way of another example, the signing of Rafael Araujo caused great consternation among the Saints–it was a very mixed signal because here you had a BYU graduate, a Jerry Sloan-style enforcer, and yet, he was tattooed from head to toe. There was a subtle shame associated with cheering for him, and yet most LDS refused to publicly express their dismay when he was not resigned.
JNS: Ironically, this very tactic would be adopted decades later by David Stern, when he imposes a dress code on NBA players in order to get them to stop releasing terrible rap albums.
Scott B: It’s interesting to think about how the early church leaders would feel if they knew that a tattooed rap-lover named DWill was being called the “Next Stockton”.
Section 4: Families, Adoption, and ScapegoatsScott B: Now, we’ve touched a little bit on BYU, but we didn’t really get to Roger Reid–who was known for using phrases like “the Lord’s team” in his recruiting pitches. Of course, when this was made known publicly, Reid took a fall, but I always kind of felt like he was just a modern-day J.W. Taylor–essentially just taking the fall for repeating what he believed to be the company line.
JNS: That’s right, the Lord’s University houses a basketball team, that must be the Lord’s Team. Protect the team at all costs, even if it means sacrificing the innocent. Reid, of course, was no stranger to scandal. The whisper campaigns when he would play his own son longer minutes than people thought he deserved.
Scott B: But of course, his son was a point guard, JNS–a leader. and Mormon leadership has a bit of history with that sort of thing, right? Believing blood.
JNS: Indeed! Many people see these tensions, between family lines and the anti-nepotism emphasis of the broader society, as the root of the recruiting scandal. They say that Reid felt he would lose his job to placate worldly alumni who didn’t recognize the true spiritual basis for playing his own sons – unless he managed to recruit Chris Burgess.
Scott B: Being recruited to play for BYU is really about families–it’s about being adopted—adoption into the correlated basketball world in Mormonism.
JNS: Quite so! When Burgess instead declared for Duke, he was opting out of the plan.
Scott B: (coincidentally, Paul talked about adoption frequently, but that is ignored, mostly during Sunday school in recent years, since he shares a name with D-Will’s primary rival.)
JNS: Choosing the broad and easy path of playing at a successful, institutionalized basketball program rather than staying in Zion where we have an honor code and related markers of the True Path.
Scott B: Of course, we see that Reid was right all along–the abject failure of Burgess to find success at Duke, and his relegation to (gasp!) Utah, is evidence enough of the spirit being grieved and withdrawing. Not to mention the fact that after firing Reid, BYU lost the rest of their games that year.
JNS: Indeed! In a way, Reid spoke for Basketball Zion as a whole when he said Burgess was “letting down all 9 million members of the church.” But such things, true as they may be, cannot be said in unholy places. When such texts escape the control of the editors, someone must pay.
Scott B: Somebody had to take the fall, and it wasn’t gonna be Cosmo.
Section 5: Correlation, SSM, and the Future of Basketball
Scott B: That really just brings it full circle, I think. We see Reid as the epitome of correlated basketball: there is only one team: the Lord’s team, administered by a board of trustees who have placed apostolic authority in the hands of a basketball coach; this image stands in stark contrast to the Underground days, wherein men (but not women) were allowed to join any (and as many) teams as they wanted, in righteousness.
JNS: Quite right. We now stand in a moment where the sport is now ruled almost entirely by the norms of the Gentile world, which ironically enough parallel those of the Underground. Of course, some Mormons rebel against the tensions inherent in the way(s) of Mormon basketball, seeking satisfaction in support of outside teams. Thus we see the rise, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, of the scandalous image of Northern California Mormons supporting the Sacramento Kings over the Utah Jazz. Never is this more glaring or more painful than in the 1999 first round of the playoffs, when Mormon Kings fans reportedly went so far as to ring cowbells at Stockton and Malone, thereby pitching their tents far from the center of the basketball camp.Scott B: That really was the height of Mormon shame and self-loathing—a true “great and spacious building” kind of moment. While on the surface, there was continued support for Sloan, Stockton, and Malone (or SSM, if you will), inwardly there begin to be serious doubts about whether or not SSM was a match made in Heaven after all.
JNS: Exactly! Mike Bibby, Chris Webber, and Rick Adelman appear as a polar alternative to SSM: They play fast, with an emphasis on offense and consistently less priority on physicality (notice the very real echo of Satan’s fate in the war on heaven — less physicality = no body). But ironically, this temptation is eventually destroyed by a conjunction of events that can only be described as miraculous.
First, the Kings are denied a chance at a nearly-sure-thing NBA Finals in 2002 when the LA Lakers (with Mormon Mark Madsen on the roster as a symbolic avenging angel) pull out a seven-game series, requiring approximately 350 free throws in game 6 to make it through. Then the next year, Chris Webber’s knee all but explodes on court, marking the definitive end to the Kings’ period as a legitimate challenger to the Jazz in the eyes of most basketball Mormons. Sadly, a few vagabonds at the fringes of basketball Mormonism still hold out hope for a revival. Martin? Evans? Casspi? But in their hearts, they know those days have passed.
Scott B: Yes, that period has come and gone, but I think you may overstate the confidence of Jazz fans–really, Mormons everywhere except California–at the demise of the Kings, because the Lakers–with Kobe Bryant, who we all know, well, you know…wickedness, happiness, etc…And Shaq was there, too. Shaq, you recall, played for the LSU team that knocked Shawn Bradley and BYU out of the NCAA tournament.
JNS: Indeed! But supporting the Lakers is a clear sign of apostasy in a way that supporting the Kings never was – there was some ambiguity involved in supporting the Kings who after all play near Sutter’s Mill where Mormons once helped discover gold. Not so with the Lakers, who clearly represent the World.