MY LOSING SEASON is a sports memoir as honest and heartbreaking as a double overtime loss to a hated rival.
It is also the only memoir that deals directly with the true story --- step by step, game by game --- of an NCAA Division I basketball team that won a mere eight games (out of 25). This is counterintuitive for a sports book. You see, we are supposed to remember those athletes and teams that never lose, the Knute Rocknes, not the Bill Buckners. Yet both examples offer powerful stories.
This was the only type of sports book Pat Conroy could write.
In a moment of kismet while on the book tour for BEACH MUSIC, Conroy reconnected with his former teammate John DeBrosse. They found themselves replaying the minutiae of a loss on a basketball court 30 years ago. Both men were marked by that losing season. This encounter served as catalyst to search for meaning from this lost season. Conroy devoted two years to pouring through old newspaper clips, interviewing former teammates and diving into his own memories to reignite the fires of regret and disappointment.
He recalls that the best memories his teammates had from the 1966-67 Citadel Bulldogs Varsity Basketball team were of the great players they went up against. They remember the Michael Jordans --- or in this case the Johnny Moates. Conroy writes, "In every home I entered as I reconstituted my team, I found instead of memory scar tissue and nerve damage. There is no downside to winning. It feels forever fabulous. But there is no teacher more discriminating or transforming than loss."
This memoir peeks audaciously into the minds of players on a losing team: what made them tick, what they thought and who made them what they became. So the daring part is --- who cares about a bunch of losers?
You will, and whether or not you ever played college ball you will soon discover what pushed this entire team to fixate on a single season, letting it overshadow major accomplishments. This was no ordinary team --- these men were the products the Citadel, a military college in Charleston, South Carolina. Recounting the emotional destruction that is Plebe life (freshman military hazing) to the harsh demands of athletic scholarships (vomiting on the basketball court during six-hour workouts), it is the story of a terrible rise to manhood in a microcosm.
Before landing at the Citadel, Conroy was a military brat whose family was always on the move, with the only consistency being a father who wielded love with flying fists and words of debasement. Bloody beatings, unexplainable scars and raw masculine brutality slowly built the foundation of Conroy's childhood memories. His very first memory is from age 2, "my mother tried to stab him (Conroy's father, Colonel Donald Conroy) with a butcher knife and he backhanded her to the floor, laughing, a scene I observed from my high chair." After each game Conroy played his father made a point to wait and dismantle his self worth. He loomed above him at 6' 4" to his 5' 10". "You're sh*t. You didn't have an off night. You couldn't hold my jock as a ballplayer. I used to eat guys alive on the court," he would say.
The treatment of Conroy by his father is often overwhelming. At age 9 the young Conroy decides to become the best basketball player alive and prove his worth to his father. At 17, when he enters the Citadel, he is a human emotional husk (a neophyte, a virgin), and it becomes for him the ultimate fantasy to conquer the windmills of his father's brutal Chicago childhood. He wants to show his father he exists, that he is unique and worthy of love.
The intimate domestic politics of Pat Conroy's family is well-mined territory (THE GREAT SANTINI., THE LORDS OF DISCIPLINE, THE PRINCE OF TIDES, BEACH MUSIC), but never has it moved with such visceral force as when it is described through the eyes of a young, willful basketball player whose only and last bridge between father and son is sport. Conroy does not overstate his pain, it is real. (Conroy's brother committed suicide and his mother died of Leukemia.) Conroy has contemplated suicide many times when taking stock of the shipwrecks in his past.
Mirroring life, the story of Conroy's senior year basketball season in 1967 is complex, his pain is fierce and its shadow lurks behind every word he writes. This was no ordinary season; it was a dismal season, one of loss, pain and very few personal triumphs for the author as well as his teammates. In this personal history the moments that make up Conroy's brutal upbringing find an equal immediacy to the game of basketball.
Conroy never gives up on himself or his team because he yearns for the freedom a Citadel education can give him. He eventually graduates from the Citadel a member of their prestigious honor board, the head of its literary magazine and the captain of his basketball team as well as its most valuable player. In this way the budding author overcomes the regrets --- the "what ifs" --- that have pursued him throughout life.
MY LOSING SEASON is work of heartbreak and loss, it is honest and true to life, not a testament to "ifs", it simply is.
Reviewed by R. Scott Hillkirk (firstname.lastname@example.org) on January 22, 2011