March is a magical month for basketball fans in the United States.
It’s almost time for “March Madness” — the storied college basketball tournament for the top men’s and women’s teams in the country.
But for hoops aficionado Bryce Winkel, March is always a happy reminder of the week — 50 years ago — when he and the rest of the Orem, Utah, 20th Ward M-Men’s basketball squad were crowned the best Church ball team in the world.
On March 19, 1971, the Orem 20th Ward claimed the All-Church Basketball Championship.
It’s a title Winkel and the rest of the Orem, Utah, bunch never relinquished. The 1971 All-Church tournament would be its final iteration, marking an end to a chapter in Latter-day Saint history when wards from throughout the United States and Canada competed annually in a variety of sports for several decades.
In today’s global Church of over 16 million living in nations around the world, it’s tough to imagine even the logistical possibility of an annual “all Church” sports tournament. But a half-century ago, the Church was far different in size and scope.
“While on one level the men were playing a game, on another level the athletic tournaments provide an important lens through which one can view the LDS Church during the mid-twentieth century,” wrote Jessie L. Embry in his 2009 BYU Studies Quarterly article “Spiritualized Recreation: LDS All-Church Athletic Tournaments, 1950-1971.”
The importance of physical activity and healthy competition has existed since the early days of the Restoration. Joseph Smith famously enjoyed wrestling and stick-pulling matches. His prophetic successor, Brigham Young, was also a proponent of exercise and even reportedly had a gymnasium in his Utah home.
Over the first half of the 20th century, Church-sponsored sports had become ingrained in the Latter-day Saint culture for legions of boys and young men. Several prominent leaders — including President Thomas S. Monson and Elder L. Tom Perry — relished their own experiences competing for their respective wards on the softball diamond or basketball and volleyball courts.
Women never participated in All-Church tournaments, although many performed specialized roles, such as serving as tour directors and social chairpersons for teams visiting from outside of Utah.
For “elite” teams such as the Orem 20th Ward, a deep run through the annual All-Church tournament was an enticing target.
“It was a big deal,” Winkel told the Church News. “A lot of people loved the All-Church tournaments and tried every year to get there. Over the years, I’ve gained a much greater appreciation for what an amazing thing the tournament was — and how special it is to be on the team to win the last (M-Mens) tournament.”
Winkel played basketball at Utah’s Richfield High School before moving to Orem to attend Brigham Young University following his mission. His old high school basketball coach, Larry Schlappi, was coaching his Orem 20th Ward M-Mens team and was thrilled to have one of his former players on his roster.
Winkel wasn’t the only young elder in the ward who could play ball.
“That ward team could have beaten a lot of junior college teams at the time — we just had good players,” said Schlappi, who is now 80 but still remembers the 1971 tournament in crisp detail.
After winning at the stake and regional levels, the Orem 20th Ward earned their spot at “All-Church” — a double-elimination basketball tournament held in gyms across the Salt Lake Valley. Besides the M-Men adult division, there was also a youth division and a competition for college units. A Sunday night fireside ushered in the event.
“Elder Thomas S. Monson, who at the time was the youngest Apostle in the Church, was the fireside speaker,” remembered Winkel.
Despite the Orem team’s talent, the path to the championship trophy wasn’t easy. Obviously there was no way to really scout future opponents, so it was hard to size-up their competition prior to tip-off.
“We didn’t know what to expect,” said Winkel. “I do remember playing a team from Fremont, California, that was excellent.”
In the end, the Orem 20th Ward ran the tournament table — winning five straight games, including a 79-70 victory over Ensign Ward in the final. The championship game was broadcast on live television, and local newspapers, including the Church News, covered their victory.
Now 80, Schlappi enjoyed a long basketball coaching tenure, but his voice still betrays joy when he recalls winning the 1971 All-Church title.
“We were so excited that night.”
As a bonus, the Orem 20th Ward was also awarded the tournament’s sportsmanship trophy.
No one connected to the Orem 20th Ward knew they were competing in what would be the final All-Church tournament. Ending the annual tournament, said Winkel, was likely disappointing for many.
“You found a lot of camaraderie on some of these teams,” he added.
Church leaders identified several spiritual and social goals that they hoped the tournaments fulfilled, wrote Embry. “They included testimony building, reactivating members and converting nonmembers. Social goals included fellowshipping, building character, practicing sportsmanship and developing talents.
“Gaining a testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ was the most important goal.”
As cited by Embry, YMMIA General Superintendent W. Jay Eldredge announced the end of the All-Church tournaments in June of 1971, saying the focus would shift to smaller, regional events. As his words suggest, the Church has simply outgrown the feasibility and mission of the All-Church event:
“We want to stress that the reasoning behind the new program, which is under the direction of the General Authorities, is we will have the opportunity to hold larger and more interesting events. … We anticipate that the area tournaments will increase the activity of the youth and the participation of youth and adults in leadership roles.”
The All-Church tournament is now the sole claim of Latter-day Saint history. But for participants such as Winkel and Schlappi, the memory of that championship season remains alive.
The 1971 Orem 20th Ward players still gather for occasional reunions, although a couple of players have passed on. Three or four have served as bishops. The surviving players hope COVID-19 restrictions will loosen in the coming months so they can gather again to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their All-Church title.
Does Coach Schlappi plan on running his guys through some fitness drills and maybe a 60-minute scrimmage?
“Nope,” he said, laughing, “we’ll just reminisce and have some fun.”