As in many places along the Wasatch Front, basketball was an important part of being a young man in an LDS Ward. For the vast majority of my youth, I was a member of the Preston 9th Ward of the Preston, Idaho North Stake of Zion in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Church ball was particularly important in Preston, because our high school was just large enough that many excellent players and athletes couldn’t quite make the high school team, but small enough that everyone still knew each other–the perfect recipe for rivalries. Wednesdays in wintertime were intense–Game Night. I even remember some teams who, in making fun of the high school teams’ traditions, wore their Sunday clothes to school on Wednesdays.
When I turned 14, I became aware of an interesting fact about our ward: We were terrible in basketball. We had apparently been terrible for decades, too. Being a marginal basketball player at best, this was actually a good thing for me: most of the older guys didn’t bother showing up and so, despite my youth and lack of skill, I got plenty of playing time. Over the course of the season, we improved a little bit, won a few games, and I had a lot of fun. The Preston 9th Ward just didn’t really have the horses to compete with the better teams in the Stake, so we lost early in the Stake Tournament. We had improved, though, and prospects for the next season were quite good.
Then he showed up. Kevin. Or, as everyone else in the Stake referred to him, Pat Riley.
Kevin moved into our ward from Los Angeles and was asked to be the basketball coach for the ward. He didn’t seem to understand our ward’s culture of losing with pride, or of just playing for fun. After a first practice (Practice? For church ball?) in which he made us run drills, do calisthenics, and run wind sprints, Kevin informed us that, quite simply, he didn’t like to lose. He told us that we were going to win.
Over the next few weeks, Kevin obtained (Hired? Called?) an assistant coach (I’m not making this up.), and together they designed and created a playbook with at least 20 different offensive set plays based on various lineups, numerous sets of defensive schematics, and (wait for it…) hand signals for the point guard to flash to the rest of the team so we knew what play he would be running.
Our ward’s “image” also changed. We got actual matching blue jerseys. To go along with these, Kevin insisted on everyone buying matching blue gym shorts. The baggy kind that (presumably) cool people would wear when they played (presumably on a court with a chain net). On game night, Kevin would arrive at the Stake Center, clipboard in hand, wearing a black suit, solid-colored shirt (usually red or gold), spit-shined shoes, and a power tie. His hair was greased and combed straight back. Pat Riley.
During the games, Kevin’s full competitive spirit was unleashed upon all comers from the other wards. He ran aggressive game plans that had as the primary design, beating the living daylights out of other teams and running up the score on them. His plays worked well, his defensive schemes were solid, and we had a couple of players who were lights-out 3-point shooters. Each time one of these guys got on a roll, Kevin would yell “ALL DAY!” over and over, gloating and reveling in the ensuing blowout. He yelled at officials. He was offensive, rude, and a poor sport, basically. Everyone hated us–and everyone hated our Coach, too. And we loved him for it, because we were winning. He coached us. He called timeouts. He made us work. He helped us win.
But he also benched me.
By the end of the season, our 12-player team had turned into a 6-man rotation, and I was not included in that group. My time on the basketball court was shrinking week after week, and by the Stake Tournament, it was non-existent. The group of us who no longer got to play sat on the end of the stage in the gymnasium and waited. We talked amongst ourselves about how this was “church athletics” and “winning wasn’t everything” and so on. Mostly, we got bitter.
After five players received no playing time at all during the Stake semifinals, and as the Preston 9th Ward advanced to the Stake championship game against the Preston 7th Ward, the bitterness of the benchwarmers was channeled into a strategem. We agreed to boycott the championship game, by wearing purple jerseys we snatched from the 7th Ward gym and sitting at the other end of the stage. We would cheer and root publicly for the team we were supposed to be playing against. We knew that, as a practical matter, our team would not be playing against the 7th Ward anyway–only Kevin’s team would be.
At some point before the game, I realized that our boycott of Kevin’s team would also be a boycott of my friends who did get playing time–Jason, Kris, Brandon–especially my neighbor Steve, who I had always looked up to and admired. Despite my anger and frustration toward Kevin, I chickened out, and told the other guys I was not participating. As far as I recall, no one boycotted the game.
During the championship game, I played innocent; I cheered for my team, acting as if no betrayal had ever been considered, and with Preston 9th clinging to a slim lead with only a few seconds remaining, I had the gall to ask Kevin if I could go in for the last few seconds. He replied firmly without even looking at me: “Not a chance!” We won the game and the Stake Championship, and I went home, angrier than ever about having not played a single minute in any of the tournament games, and determined never to play Church sports again as long as Kevin was involved.
One minor detail. Kevin was not active in the Church–he never came to anything. The Sunday after our championship, however–fast and testimony meeting–Kevin showed up in Sacrament meeting–Pat Riley suit and tie to boot, and sat near the front of the chapel. I was honestly a bit angry to see him there, because he was my enemy. He seemed agitated when he saw me, and I was glad. Kevin stared straight ahead during the entire meeting and made a fairly quick exit when it ended. On my way out, I saw him in the foyer talking with some guys from the team, who came over to talk with me after he left the building.
Kevin had told the Bishop before the championship game that he wanted to come to Church for the first time in years, with the intent of standing up in testimony meeting to talk about the character and quality of the young men in the Preston 9th Ward, and how proud he was to have been their coach in basketball, and the example they set for him. But when the moment arrived, he
chickened out couldn’t do it, because it wasn’t true.
Just before the championship game had started, somewhere, somehow, a lip slipped, and Kevin discovered that half of his team–half of his “quality” young men of high “character”–had planned on boycotting him, as well as the other half of the team. They had planned to cheer against him, their own teammates, and their Ward. He was heartbroken. He had known that all of my cheering during that game was false–just a kiss from Judas. I sat with him on the bench, and I wore the right colored uniform, but I had stabbed him in the back.
 My friend Steve, after reading the post, said the following:”You left out a couple awesome details, however: a) we full-court pressed opposing teams the ENTIRE game, and since several of the starting guards were also on the cross country team we could do it all game and still have plenty of steam left; and b) the night of the championship game coincided with a high school basketball game. Because we had become every opposing team’s common enemy, and because, as you mentioned, everybody knew everybody in Preston, most of the students who had planned to go to the HS game came to ours first, then left to attend the HS game. In my (possibly embellished) memory, the stage and sidelines were packed with probably around 1-200 spectators.”