The film “Spirit of the Game” tells the true story of the “Mormon Yankees” basketball team — a team comprised entirely of LDS missionaries serving in Melbourne, Australia, in 1956.
The film is based partially on the book “Mormon Yankees: Giants On and Off the Court” by Fred Woods, a BYU professor in the Church History department. Woods also shared interviews and research materials that were used in the film.
Many Australians held negative and misinformed views of the LDS Church despite the valiant efforts of missionaries serving during the 1950s. However, public perception began to change in 1956 when the “Mormon Yankees” — a team of missionaries trying to build community ties by participating in a number of YMCA championship basketball games — were asked to help prepare the Australian Olympic team for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.
Bob Pedersen was one of the missionaries who played with the Mormon Yankees.
Not only did the Mormon Yankees improve the quality of basketball in Australia, but they also improved the reputation of Mormons in Australia.
“We were no longer strangers,” Pedersen said. “Basketball and the Mormon Yankees had a significant, credible impact upon the growth of the church by opening the interests of people to let missionaries into their homes to teach them.”
The Mormon Yankees had many opportunities to teach the gospel along with improving Australians’ perspective of missionaries.
“Baptisms at that point forward doubled, tripled, quadrupled … and not too long after that, they formed the first stake in Sydney,” Pedersen said. “We taught, we testified, we traveled, we worked and we played basketball.”
Pedersen also noted the elders were very careful to follow the normal missionary schedule.
“We always maintained very, very high missionary work standards,” Pedersen said. “We’d get up early, work late, sign hundreds of copies of The Book of Mormon to the players we played against, and we became known as the Mormon Yankees of the 1957-59 period. It was a very fabulous time.”
The Mormon Yankees not only competed against the Australian Olympic team, but they also went on to play exhibition games against other Olympic teams, such as the French, Russian and Formosa China teams.
Of the 10 exhibition games played against Olympic teams, Woods said the Mormon Yankees won half of them.
“It’s amazing to me that they would win half of those exhibition games they played when they were only playing on Wednesday nights and having practice on Saturdays,” Woods said.
The lead character in “Spirit of the Game,” Elder Delyle Condie (1934-2014), is played by Aaron Jakubenko. Jakubenko said the story of the Mormon Yankees stood out to him because of its beauty and kindness.
“To play a man who is so full of compassion and kindness and someone who is a light in this often dark world was really refreshing,” Jakubenko said. “And when I met his family, they all agreed that was who he was. It was really beautiful that we had the opportunity to put someone who was so beautiful on screen.”
Jakubenko also said the story of the Mormon Yankees taught him not to sacrifice what he believes in.
It’s important to “be true to yourself,” Jakubenko said, “and pursue the things that do better for society. Whether environmental issues are a key issue for you and you want to fight for them, or if you’re religious — whatever the story it is that you are passionate about and you want to tell, commit to that.”
Jakubenko also hopes those who watch the film will recognize and remember the importance of kindness.
“We all have so much going on in our life, but if you can put kindness at the forefront, I think we can do some good stuff,” Jakubenko said.
Woods said he hopes the pattern of missionary work exemplified in “Spirit of the Game” is something members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will apply to their own missionary work.
“I think that’s what every member missionary should do; find the common ground and open the door so the missionaries can go in and do the teaching,” Woods said. “You’re definitely going to get the spirit of the ‘Spirit of the Game.'”