Conroy gets personal with sports memoir

While on tour promoting a previous novel, “Beach Music,” Pat Conroy met members of his Citadel basketball team as they began showing up at different book signings. At that time, he and his wife were in the process of a divorce.

He realized that his teammates were coming into his life at a time of need, so he began recreating his 1966-67 senior year: the last year he served on the Citadel basketball team and the 21 basketball games that changed his life. These recollections, combined with dreadful childhood flashbacks, shaped “My Losing Season.”

Conroy, author of “The Great Santini” and “Prince of Tides,” never thought that he would write a novel about his senior year or the Citadel Bulldogs. It all began when John DeBrosse, a former teammate, came to see Conroy at an Ohio bookstore. After a long conversation, both men realized they were marked by that losing season: losing 13 games out of 21.

For Conroy, it was a year of transformation from athletic boy to novelist man. For DeBrosse, it was an experience that “partially ruined [his] life.”

To revive their experiences, Conroy sought out other teammates who had attended South Carolina’s most legendary military college, the Citadel. Through this exploration, he rediscovered their few triumphs and more discomfiting defeats. But what he discovered in this search was that athletics played a vital role in each of the lives of these young men, helping all of them find their places in the world today.

Specifically, Conroy recounts his game as a point guard. He admits not being very good, but he never gives up. He complains of having hands so small that he had to shoot a two-handed lay-up. And he writes about his ruthless coach, Mel Thompson, who not only verbally abused the players but also worked them so hard that it was borderline physical abuse. Conroy remembers one player throwing up because of the way Thompson conducted his favorite drills.

Even though Thompson was abusive, he never hit the players and that is why Conroy admits to loving him. Growing up in a military household, Conroy was constantly moving. His despotic father, Col. Donald Conroy, would use his fist as a form of discipline and the fact that Coach Thompson did not made him an idol to Conroy.

Conroy tells a story of one high school game that his father attended where Conroy scored 40 points. When they got home after the game, he found himself on the floor, covered in blood, as a result of not playing defense throughout the game.

In another incident, his father took a glass and broke it across Conroy’s face for laughing at the table. So, although set during the season of loss, the novel centers on Conroy’s heartache living with a father who hit him more than he spoke to him.

However, Conroy believes that if it weren’t for basketball, he would have had no outlet for his anger and pain and definitely no relationship with his father. Once he became a novelist, writing became his outlet.

Through his words, it becomes apparent why a season of loss turned into a great victory in his own life.

Conroy admits that his senior year was one of the greatest because it was a year that taught him loss is a natural part of life; a year that taught him to accept those times when one doesn’t win. He learned through his team that there is still dignity in fighting battles that are not won. This helped him cope with the violence and sadness he experienced with his father.

As a Pat Conroy devotee, I must say he has a style of writing that makes you feel as if you are experiencing his life yourself. Those non-sports fans out there, however, may lose interest and stop reading after the first few chapters because Conroy spends much time describing each practice and locker room conversation. It isn’t until several chapters into the novel that he begins to intertwine his life experiences. Once he includes off-the-court stories, the book really takes off and you’ll agree that it’s worth getting through the first few chapters.

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