Surviving the agony of defeat
Pat Conroy turns a wistful eye on a losing season
To the winners go the sports biographies; to the losers go the deathly quiet locker rooms, the self-flagellation, the proverbial kiss from your sister. As a result, we know a whole lot more about the thrill of victory than the agony of defeat.
Pat Conroy didn't set out to rectify that inequity by writing My Losing Season, a painfully detailed memoir of his senior year on the 1966-67 Citadel Bulldogs basketball squad that soldiered through an ignominious 8-17 season. Call it a requiem for all the runners-up who, like Conroy, turned defeat on the playing field into victory in other aspects of their lives.
As a fast, street-hardened 5-foot-10 point guard, Conroy was a fiery competitor who always believed he could play above his physical limitations and frequently did. Like his teammates, Conroy didn't lose well. Unlike the others, however, he found a way to learn something from each defeat that would make him a better ballplayer.
His steely resolve in the face of such a spirit-crushing season ultimately gave him the self-confidence to become one of America's best-loved writers. If losing builds character, Pat Conroy is your poster boy for also-rans.
"What was for these guys the worst year of their lives was in many ways the best year of my life," Conroy says by phone during a seaside vacation in Maine. "It was certainly the year I found myself, found out who I was and what I was going to do. And found belief in myself, which I don't think I ever had before that year."
Conroy was at a personal low point in 1996 when a former teammate stopped by his Dayton, Ohio, book signing for his most recent novel, Beach Music. On the cusp of the big 5-0, the author was in the middle of a messy divorce and seriously contemplating suicide ("I have a history of cracking up at least once during the writing of each of my last five books," he admits).
Somehow, reminiscing about glory days, even of such an inglorious season, seemed to lift his spirits. "The one thing I knew about basketball, despite how hard that year was, is that nothing has ever brought me joy like playing basketball," he says.
Conroy spent the next year dropping in on his former teammates, picking their memories to reconstruct a season most had worked hard to forget. Playing under a tyrannical old-school coach had spoiled the game for many of them; few had even bothered to stay in touch after graduation. "I ruined their lives reliving this. They were in agony talking about this year!" he says, letting loose his distinctive Irish chuckle.
For Conroy, however, even a dysfunctional team had been a welcome respite from the desensitizing plebe system at The Citadel and a horrific upbringing under his abusive father, the tough-as-nails Marine fighter pilot who inspired The Great Santini (1976).
As unpleasant as the forced march through Palookaville had been for his teammates, it paled in comparison to their apprehension at actually appearing in one of Conroy's books. After all, here was the guy who had rather spectacularly alienated his family with The Great Santini and The Prince of Tides (1986), and lobbed a literary grenade at his alma mater with The Lords of Discipline (1980).
"None of them have read a word of [My Losing Season]," he admits. "It tickled me, they were so terrified of it. (Mimics locker room chat) 'Look what he did to his f—-ing school!' 'School? Look what he did to his old man!' Their wives are scared to death."
They needn't be. All of the Bulldogs come off as stouthearted and true, if considerably browbeaten by circumstance.
One memory from that long-ago campaign left Conroy speechless:
"I remember the East Carolina game as being the first game Mom and Dad ever saw me play college basketball. It was a big deal for me. And all I remember was how it ended up, with Dad putting me against the wall saying, 'You're s—-, son. Your team is s—-, your coach is s—-, you couldn't hold my jock on your best day.' It was a horrible scene, and I was 21 then, I wasn't a kid anymore.
"To go back to that game and find out I scored 25 points stunned me; I had assumed I'd scored two or three. It shocked me. I scored more points than anybody on either team. And when I wrote that, when I saw the box score, I said, I had a father who couldn't be proud of a son who scored 25 points in a college basketball game. What could I have done to earn the respect of that son of a bitch? It simply amazed me."
Equally amazing, Conroy reconciled with his father before the real Great Santini died in 1998.
"Yeah, we did. I was surprised. I hated him so badly when I was a child and when I was in college that I thought I would never speak to him again after college. It shocked people when we became friends," he recalls.
Conroy's life has taken a happier turn in recent years. At 56, he's married to fellow writer Cassandra King, whose first novel, The Sunday Wife, was published by Hyperion in September. They live on Fripp Island near Beaufort, South Carolina, the setting for most of his novels and the one place on earth Conroy considers home. He's hard at work on his next novel, set in Charleston and the mountains of North Carolina.
Though he wouldn't want to relive it, Conroy says the trials of his youth helped him withstand the barbs of critics.
"I always tell myself, would I rather get a bad review in The New York Times or report to my First Sergeant's room after evening mess? The answer is always the same. I think that being beat up as much as I was during my childhood is a great preparation for being a writer. To be a writer in America is a contact sport. You've got to be tough."
Jay Lee MacDonald is a writer based in Naples, Florida.