American Mormons have a longstanding and well-documented relationship with basketball. Aside from a few outliers like Steve Young and Bryce Harper, our most famous athletes are all basketball players—Jabari Parker, Jimmer Fredette, Shawn Bradley, Danny Ainge, and those two missionaries who went viral for balling out in full shirt and tie. Basketball is one of the few sports missionaries are allowed to play, though the handbook says they should only play half-court—a rule that, in my experience, is less stringently obeyed than the others.
According to BYU historian Jessie Embry, the love affair between Mormons and basketball has its origins in a church-wide basketball tournament that ran from 1922 to 1971. For 50 years, the church sponsored a tournament in which teams from all over Utah—and, later, from all over North America—would compete in regional tournaments, the winners of which would compete in the finals in Salt Lake City.
“Part of the motivation for building gyms in all of the Salt Lake-area churches was so they had enough gyms to play their entire church-wide tournament,” Mormon architectural historian Paul Anderson told me. But the church never meant for the gymnasiums to serve only as basketball courts. They were also meetinghouse cultural halls, made for hosting devotionals, weddings, parties, and other assorted large gatherings.
In an effort to more fully change the identity of these rooms from gymnasiums to cultural halls, the church began carpeting them in the late 1970s. Here is how scholar Robert Jackson—one of the central architects in the Mormon church’s building department when the decision was made—described it in his 2003 history of Mormon architecture:
After nearly three years of consideration and more than a year of careful investigation, which included travel to various school buildings around the country, determination was made to cover the cultural hall floors in the ward meetinghouses with a thin carpet material instead of hardwood. This was an agonizing decision, and the controversy regarding it will probably continue until volleyball and basketball are no longer played in the cultural halls, an unlikely occurrence.
The literal carpeting over of gyms meant fighting a love for the game that the church itself had inculcated in its members. Two decades later, in virtually every church with carpet, it had been ripped out and replaced with hardwood. Ultimately, the basketball players won.
For three years during high school, I attended a church with a carpeted gym. It still had two hoops, and all the right court markings; it’s just that instead of on hardwood, the lines were painted on maroon carpet that stretched from wall to wall. Aesthetically, that probably reads as more horrifying than it was. Mormon churches are benignly-colored and inoffensively minimalist. Functionally, a carpeted court was plenty horrifying; still, it didn’t stop my youth group from playing pick-up in the gym, in part because there are a finite number of ways to entertain 15-year-old boys in suburban Boise, Idaho, and in part because ball is life, Idaho weather notwithstanding.
Playing four-on-four one night, I claimed a rebound and threw an outlet pass to a streaking teammate. But I overthrew him, so by the time he grabbed the ball he was almost out-of-bounds. He tried to jump stop and did so effectively—an advantage of the carpet—only to get hammered from behind by his recovering defender, and complete a full somersault. I have played hundreds of hours of pick-up basketball in my lifetime, and I have never seen someone do a full somersault on wood or asphalt, no matter how authoritative the foul. After my teammate got up, we could see fiery red rug burns over both of his forearms. That, too, only happens on carpet.
When you ask why some of our churches have carpeted basketball courts, the first thing any Mormon will tell you is that they’re practical. “The gym is a multi-purpose room, not just a basketball court” or “they’re more cost-effective”—the latter answer the one I received from a spokesman at the Mormon church’s headquarters. And it makes sense, because Mormons are pragmatists at heart.
Still, I don’t know a single Mormon who prefers playing basketball on carpet. A cursory survey of my friends drew a spectrum of opinions from “It’s bad, but it’s also still basketball, I guess”—a resounding endorsement—to “Satan scourges us with it, for our sins.” One man I spoke with once tore his Achilles tendon on a carpeted gym floor, only to be told by his doctor that injuries like that were common on the surface. I have seen rug burns that run down an entire calf. There are even local leaders who specifically request carpeted gyms in order to discourage basketball. These efforts are largely in vain: The people will have their basketball.
And yet, if anyone were to suggest that maybe they’d rather the church skimp on bathroom tiles, say, or stage curtains, all of us erstwhile carpet-haters would, perhaps despite ourselves, come quickly to the church’s defense. We’re mostly good company men after all, and carpet really is cheaper.
The carpeted gyms were in part a consequence of a shift in the way the church built its meetinghouses. Originally, when the Mormon church experienced its post-World War II boom in membership, local congregations would split the cost 50-50 of building their meetinghouse—either by donating money or by donating time and labor— with general church financing. This meant local congregations hired independent architects to design their building, with some supervision from the Church Building Department, and the result was a diverse array of floor plans, interior design schemes, and fixtures.
In 1965, however, partly as a response to a need for meetinghouses in areas where members did not have enough time or money to contribute to their own meetinghouse, and partly to satisfy budget constraints, the church created a Church Building Committee that centralized the financing and design of buildings. Now, while local congregations have some say in the features of their meetinghouses, they are mostly choosing from an established set of architectural design templates.
You can see evidence of this transition most starkly in Utah, where there are over 1,200 church buildings in the three counties nearest to the headquarters in Salt Lake City. The older buildings stand out as idiosyncratic monuments to the localized scheme that built them, while the newer buildings follow more fixed patterns. It’s in the second wave of these template buildings—think 1980s and early 1990s, and the smaller ones especially—where you generally find the carpeted gyms.
Many, if not most, of these carpeted gyms have a number of other irritating features that hamper pick-up ball, including low ceilings, narrow courts that eliminate corner threes, and in some cases, no three-point lines at all.
In fact, the Hyde Park meetinghouse in Chicago that Jabari Parker attended during his high school years featured all three of those deficiencies in its gym—a gym where Parker frequently played and where he once dunked so hard he broke the rim. If you strain yourself, you can almost see the remnants of his church-playing days in Parker’s game. For much of his rookie and sophomore years in the league, before this year’s injury-shortened breakout season, Parker spent a lot of time in the cramped 10–16 foot range, as though he was still playing on the miniaturized Hyde Park court. It was only this year that he mostly replaced his attempts from the midrange with three-pointers, as efficient NBA players do.
Still, Parker’s talent, shaped as it was by the conditions of the court he frequented, did not have to suffer from the indignities of carpeted floor. As a member of his Hyde Park congregation told me, “No way Jabari goes number two overall if that gym is carpeted.”
The carpeted gym is a dying breed. In the last decade, the church has gradually removed most of the carpeted gyms that were installed during the 1980s and 1990s. Les Goforth, an architect in the church’s Architecture, Engineering and Construction Department, explained that over time, the carpets became less cost-effective than hardwood. “Refinishing a hardwood floor, after 30, 40, 50 years, is cheaper than replacing carpet.” Cold practicality—once the justification for the carpeted gyms—now authored their doom.
There is a metaphor here about how institutions centralize and consolidate power as they grow larger, in a way that gradually detaches them from the people whose needs they originally existed to meet. While there are few Mormons grieving the loss of carpeted gyms, the centralization of the church’s meetinghouse construction did not occur without some harm to the local congregations. The architectural historian Paul Anderson noted that the modern method has stifled no small amount of local innovation, and stylistically modern meetinghouse templates frequently clash with the architectural tones of a given locale, especially in areas outside of the western United States. “I had to convince President Hinckley to make the church in Fayette, New York taller, like a northeastern revivalist church. They wanted to do it in a California ranch style, low and flat.”
These may seem like small concerns, but they mark a tension between competing visions for how a church should be structured, and how its power should be allocated. Certainly, there are members and former members of the church who can’t hear the phrase “cost effectiveness” in a religious context without feeling that something tangled and magical has been replaced by something corporate and hierarchical.
But carpeted gyms speak to another phenomenon within the modern Mormon church, namely the tension between the radical, Revivalist weirdness of its Joseph Smith-era origins and the staid, Puritanic pragmatism of its cloistered, post-pioneer Utah-era. You can understand it as a tonal paradox between the Mormonism of angelic visitations, gold plates, and seer stones in hats, and the Mormonism of tactically sound city-planning and large-scale systematic irrigation.
Carpeted gyms achieved their real zenith of peculiarity when they weren’t actually being used for basketball at all. Cash-hoarding misers that we are, Mormons frequently hold wedding receptions in church gyms, carpeted or otherwise. A few years ago, I attended the wedding reception of a friend on the same carpeted gym floor where we had played basketball nearly a decade before. As with gold plates and stringent restrictions on coffee, I couldn’t imagine explaining the irreducible weirdness of the experience to a non-Mormon, nor its moving appeal.
It’s easy to see the latter spirit in modern Mormonism—you heard about it often in the planning and execution of the 2002 Winter Olympics, led by the Mormon Mitt Romney—while the former sometimes echoes more distantly. Carpeted gyms are a messy marriage of the two. They are a practical and cheap innovation in meetinghouse construction, but then they are also disarmingly weird, as the occasional non-Mormon who showed up to play pick-up with us could attest.
But if the carpeted gym represents anything of importance, it’s that even dramatic changes to church meetinghouses won’t stop Mormons from playing basketball in them. Paul Anderson said that once, another architect told him that “when you go into a Mormon building, it seems like the gym is the most impressive room in the building, rather than the chapel, the sacred place.”
“Well,” Anderson responded, “I guess there’s nothing more sacred than basketball.”
Evan Hall is a writer based in Ithaca, New York. You can find him on Twitter @evanghall.