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Church-leaguers savor old times

LDS Church basketball is known for its intensity.

There are the game-saving baskets, gut-wrenching losses and, of course, legendary wrenching fouls to the gut, spawning T-shirt logos.

Doug Larsen, 80, of Saratoga Springs and his nephew, James Larsen, 70, and friend, Fred Fife, 69, both of Salt Lake's west side, savor their church basketball days of yore even though they don't remember all the details. James Larsen even has two vintage jerseys of appropriately named former go-to guard Tommy Gunn. The Larsens and Fife shared favorite memories from their church-ball days.

They were teenagers in 1954 when the Division 6 championship was at stake in Harold B. Lee Hall, 536 S. 900 West. The old Salt Lake LDS 5th Ward was behind by 1 point late in a game against defending champion Burton Ward for the right to advance to the All-Church Tournament. "They had really good players, including a 6-2 center," said 5th Ward's former coach, Doug Larsen.

During a timeout with about 10 seconds left, the coach drew up a play for big-man Dick Mitchell, who seemed to be able to score at will. Mitchell would hit the winning basket, if all went well. But it didn't.

Fife, another big man, remembers looking to find Mitchell, who wasn't open. So he fired up a shot from the top of the key, which clanged left off the rim. Fife grabbed the rebound, raced to the left corner and launched another brick. With time winding down, Fife rebounded again and barely arched a 25-footer from the right corner before the final horn sounded.

Swish! The winning shot hit nothing but net. "We swarmed him," said James Larsen, also a big man, with a twinkle in his eye. "We wanted to kill him for not running the designated play." Fife had literally taken the 5th to the next level of church basketball.

"All heck broke loose," when fans stormed the floor, Fife said. It was an amazing time for 5th Ward, which was on its way to All-Church competition, held at the then-Salt Lake Riverside LDS Stake Center, 947 W. 200 North.

What may have been more amazing was that an earlier scuffle in the game didn't result in a forfeit by 5th Ward. During a scrap for the ball, the referee blew the whistle to stop play. But James Larsen remembers he didn't stop, instead ripping the ball out of an opposing player's hands.

When he looked up, "I saw my dad (also named James) reaching up to get his hands around the referee's neck." He glanced away, but upon looking back, saw his father was back in his seat.

Later, the younger James learned a teammate's mother saved the day. "Mrs. Chidester dragged my dad by his belt back to his seat before he could get his hands around the referee's neck."

In an earlier 1950s game, James Larsen simply tackled opponent Paul Gorreng to stop the latter's successful drives around him, briefly knocking him out. Larsen, however, was removed from the game for good.

During an earlier four-year stretch, 5th didn't win any basketball games when "we didn't really have a coach," recalls James Larsen. But after his uncle Doug took over the coaching reins, they put together a five-game winning streak of scoring at least 40 points in every game.

Later, when the Division 6 champs took their show to All-Church, their luck ran out. In the double-elimination tournament, the team lost to a Farmington ward and with James Larsen out due to the measles, bowed out to another team whose name they can't remember.

The squad played together for six years, three of them pickup and without a coach. When Doug Larsen came on the scene, he changed the boys' collective mind-set. "The best thing to do is teach fundamentals at that age," he said, like the three-man weave-passing drill.

The players also worked on rebounding. "A lot of guys got hit in the mouth but learned. They really (jelled), got better and really came together."

Not only did they become better players, but they became better friends, said James Larsen. They learned to play basketball, while their coach taught them teamwork and how to work hard.

Resourceful coach Doug Larsen obtained a book on coaching offensive basketball from a Phillips 66 gas station. The team practiced a couple of times a week, each for over an hour learning the new system. "We were so tired when we finished," said James Larsen. "It was easy for Doug," he chuckled, but did concede the practices were as fun as the games.

In the early 1940s, the 5th Ward had all of the senior James Larsen's brothers and a Priest — Marty, Joe, Roy, Doug and brother-in-law Dick Priest — as starters and sixth-man, respectively.

One of Doug Larsen's favorite stories is when his Fifth Ward team played the old Salt Lake 6th-7th Ward. When big man President Thomas S. Monson, now first counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, shot a free throw, Larsen stepped on his foot, so President Monson couldn't move. The referee didn't see it, grinned Larsen of the foul, and 5th Ward retrieved the missed shot. Perhaps justice was done when 6th-7th won anyway.

Now, Doug Larsen remembers then-Bishop Monson "just kind of looked at me. He just went on down the floor and was never the kind of guy" who would retaliate. "He was a nice guy and very friendly."

In past general conferences, President Monson has humorously recalled his church basketball career. In one game, he mistakenly shot at the other team's basket, but the ball bounced off the rim a couple of times and fell away. The vocal crowd chanted "We want Monson, we want Monson, we want Monson — OUT!"