Before First Practice
It was on the morning of October 15, 1966, that the final sea-son
officially began. For a month and a half, my teammates and I had
gathered in the field house to lift weights, do isometric
exercises, and scrimmage with each other. Right off, I could tell
our sophomores were special and were going to make our team faster,
scrappier, and better than the year before. In the heat of
September, there was a swiftness and feistiness to the flow of
these pickup games that was missing in last year's club. My
optimism about the coming season lifted perceptibly as I observed
my team beat up on each other in the vagrancy of our uncoached and
I could feel the adrenaline rush of excitement begin as I donned my
cadet uniform in the dark, and it stayed with me as I marched to
mess with R Company. I could barely concentrate on the professors'
voices in my classes in Coward Hall as I faced the reality of the
new season and stared at the clock with impatience. It was my
fourth year at The Citadel and the fourth time October 15 had
marked the beginning of basketball practice. Mel Thompson was
famous for working his team hard on the first day and traditionally
ran us so much that the first practice was topped off by one of us
vomiting on the hardwood floor.
I made my way to the locker room early that afternoon because I
wanted some time to myself to shoot around and think about what I
wanted to accomplish this season. Four of my teammates were already
dressed when I entered the dressing room door. The room carried the
acrid fragrance of the past three seasons for me, an elixir of pure
maleness with the stale smell of sweat predominant yet blended with
the sharp, stinging unguents we spread on sore knees and shoulders,
Right Guard deodorant spray, vats of foot powder to ward off
athlete's foot, and deodorant cakes in the urinals. It was the
powerful eau de cologne of the locker room. I realized that my life
as a college athlete was coming to its inevitable end, but I did
not know that you had to leave the fabulous odors of youth behind
when you hurried out into open fields to begin life as an
As I entered the room, I waved to Al Beiner, the equipment manager.
He and his assistant Joe "Rat" Eubanks were making sure that the
basketballs were all inflated properly. Carl Peterson, another
assistant, had just returned with a cartful of freshly laundered
towels, still warm to the touch.
"The Big Day," Al said. He was reserved and serious and considered
the players juvenile and frivolous. Al's presence was priestlike,
"Senior year," Rat said. "It all comes together for the big guy
this year, right, Pat?"
Joe Eubanks was the only man on campus who called me "the big guy."
Five feet five inches tall, he was built with the frail bones of a
tree sparrow. His size humiliated him but his solicitousness to the
players made him beloved in the locker room. Joe hero-worshiped the
players, a rarity at The Citadel. His wide-eyed appreciation of me
reminded me of the looks my younger brothers gave me. My brothers
thought I was the best basketball player in the world, and I did
nothing to discourage this flagrant misconception.
When I began undressing, Carl brought over a clean practice uniform
and a white box containing a pair of size 91Ú2 Converse All
Star basketball shoes. Carl wore gold stars for his brilliant
academic work and moved quietly among the players, silent as a
As I sat down to open the new box of shoes, Joe Eubanks slipped up
behind me and began massaging my neck.
"Still hurt, Pat?" Joe asked. "It's been two years now." My neck
had been sore since Dick Martini knocked me unconscious in a
Behind me Carl rumbled by with another load for the laundry room.
Stepping out of the equipment office, Al warned us not to take our
shoes out unless we signed for them. Joe brought a box of tape to
Coach Billy Bostick, the mustachioed seventy-year-old trainer who
taped Doug Bridges's ankles as Danny Mohr waited his turn.
Jim Halpin sat to my right, struggling to put on the grotesque knee
brace which supported his ruined leg.
"Still happy about your choice of colleges, Jim?" I asked.
"This fucking place sucks," Jimmy answered as I knew he would. For
four years, all conversation between Jim and me began with this
"Tell me what you really think, Jimmy, don't hold back," I
"Conroy, Halpin says the same damn thing every day, year after
year," Danny said, sitting at the last locker, both his ankles
"Thanks for pointing that out, Root," Bob Cauthen said.
"Fuck you, Zipper," Danny said, not even looking at Bob. Danny we
called "Root" because he was not much of a leaper for a big man and
stayed "rooted" on the ground beneath the basket. Bob was called
"Zipper" by Danny because he was long and skinny. He was given that
name by a heckler from Georgia Southern, and it stuck.
"Don't you love the fellowship on this team?" I said. "Can't you
feel the brotherhood? The coming together of a group of guys who
can never be broken or defeated?"
"Conroy," said John DeBrosse, unbuttoning his uniform shirt as he
approached his locker. "Speak so us poor peasants can understand
you. I got to carry a dictionary around to understand what your
sorry ass is saying."
"Thank you, Lord, for directing my path toward The Citadel," I
said. "I love this place, Lord. I truly love this place. I've found
myself a home."
"This fucking place sucks," Jimmy muttered to himself.
"You're onto something, Halpin," Dave "Barney" Bornhorst, a
wide-bodied forward from Ohio, said. "Keep working on the
Danny said, "I had scholarships to Davidson, NC State, Wake Forest.
Do I go to any of those great places? Oh, no. I come to El Cid so I
can spend my life with Muleface."
I looked to the door, watching for the sudden appearance of our
coach. "Be careful, Danny."
Joe Eubanks came through the locker room. "Twenty minutes to get
dressed and on the floor."
"Eat me, Rat," Bob said.
"Don't irritate me, Cauthen," Joe said, putting his tiny fist
against Bob's chin.
"Make me laugh, Rat," Bob said.
"Leave Rat alone, Zipper," Danny called down from his locker.
Bob stuck up a middle finger at Danny and said, "Eat a big hairy
"What a team," Jimmy Halpin said, shaking his head sadly. "This
fucking place sucks."
The new assistant coach, Ed Thompson, came into the locker room and
walked down the straight line of lockers, squeezing our shoulders
or slapping our butts, whispering words of encouragement. A
sweet-faced, soft-spoken man, he looked like an aging Boy Scout as
he imparted his own enthusiasm about the beginning of the new
"Let's get ready to go, boys. Let's win it all this year. This is
the year for us. Can you feel it, boys? Tell me now. Let's get on
After he spoke to each of us, he retreated from the locker room
like an ambassador for a third-world nation intimidated by the
hauteur of the Court of St. James's. "Little Mel," as we called
him, was intimidated by us still and did not feel comfortable
interacting with us quite yet.
"Why'd Little Mel take this job?" Danny asked the room.
"He just lucked out," Bridges said.
"What a sinking ship," Bob said.
"Hey, none of that, Cauthen," DeBrosse said. "We're going to have a
great team this year. None of this negative shit. Leave that in the
"Who are you, the fucking Gipper?" Bob answered.
Danny Mohr finished lacing his shoes and said, "I like Little Mel.
What in the hell did he see in Muleface?"
"He just wanted to coach All-Americans like you, Mohr," Cauthen
"Eat me, Zipper," Danny said, again shooting Bob the finger.
"Can't you feel the team jelling?" I said. "Feel the camaraderie.
Feel the never-say-die spirit. Nothing'll ever get between this
band of brothers."
DeBrosse said, "Get the dictionary. Conroy's moving his lips
Rat appeared suddenly at the door and said, "Muleface left his
office. Hurry up. He's on his way."
There was a headlong scramble of all of us as we raced for the door
that opened to the floor. The sophomores had not spoken a word. It
was their first day on the varsity team and they were nervous and
"This fucking place sucks," Halpin said, then moved out toward the
sounds of boys shooting around, limping in his knee brace.
There was a tension in the gym among the players when the first
practice was about to begin. We were more serious as we took jump
shots, awaiting the appearance of the coaching staff at exactly
1600 hours. DeBrosse hit eight jump shots in a row from the top of
the key as I admired the perfection of his form and the
articulation of his follow-through. The net coughed as the ball
swished through again and again. It was the loveliest sound in a
shooter's world. Bridges and Zinsky both practiced long-range
jumpers from the corners. Everyone had his favorite spots to get to
when shooting around before practice. The managers were feeding all
of us retrieved balls as I caught sight of our two coaches, both
named Thompson, skirting the bleachers on the way toward the court.
Mel was talking quietly to his new assistant, and we wondered aloud
if "Little Mel" had any idea what he had gotten himself into. Mohr
believed that Mel Thompson was as charming in hiring new assistants
as he was when he recruited us.
Coach Mel Thompson blew his whistle, shouted "Two lines," and
without fanfare or commentary, our season began. He flipped me the
ball and proffered me the honor of making the first layup in the
first practice of my final year. A surge of enthusiasm rippled
through the team as the line moved smoothly, expertly. One thing a
college basketball player could do without thinking or breaking a
sweat was to move effortlessly through a layup line. Style was
important, and everyone brought his best moves into play during the
warmup. The big guys dunked it as we little guys did reverse layups
on the other side of the glass. You worked on being cool,
disinterested, unflappable. You knew that this period was the last
time during the season that the team would not be exhausted.
Getting out of bed tomorrow morning would require the forbearance
and strength of roommates.
A whistle blew again and Mel shouted, "Figure eights," and we broke
up into three lines of four men in a line. I passed the ball to Tee
Hooper, the sophomore guard on my left, and ran behind him as Tee
threw to Bridges and cut behind him, who threw it to me, cutting
behind me as I passed it to Tee, who put it in for a layup. Not
once did the ball touch the ground. Coach Thompson also turned it
into a disciplinary drill where we ran the figure eights until we
were close to dropping. The guys with bad hands--always the big
guys--had trouble sometimes handling the long passes and their
awkwardness infuriated Mel.
"Catch the goddamn ball," he yelled at Brian Kennedy, a willowy
sophomore. "Protect it. It's not a loaf of bread."
"Gee, it's not?" Cauthen whispered. "Why didn't someone tell
"You got something to say, Cauthen?" Coach Thompson barked.
"No, sir," Bob said, lowering his head. Our coach required gestures
"You still ain't worth a shit, Conroy," DeBrosse teased me,
slapping my butt as he ran by me.
"You're shorter than you were last year," I whispered, coming up
behind him in the figure eight line.
"I'm a half inch taller than you, duck butt."
In truth, John and I were both very small basketball players, and
that's why we were guards. John was prickly and defensive about his
height while I was not; I was prickly and defensive about my
shooting ability or lack thereof. All athletes disguised the secret
shame of their shortcomings. John spent a great deal of time
stretching his neck, lifting up, trying to convince himself he was
taller than I was. When I was listed as five foot eleven in the
program, DeBrosse went wild and said, "Honor violation, Conroy. HV.
HV. Turn yourself in."
"I didn't say I was that tall," I said. "Our coach has always
pretended I was. It makes him feel better."
"Why?" Johnny said. "You still can't shoot worth a shit."
In the middle of the figure eight drill, I got to study the
sophomores up close for the first time. Their speed and athleticism
impressed me, but it was their closeness as a class that was most
unique. Their freshman team put together a remarkable record. With
each game they improved at all positions. They were the first
freshman team I had witnessed who did not seem completely undone by
the plebe system. By the end of that first year, they had cohered
into something very special. I thought they would make The Citadel
a team to be feared in the Southern Conference. Even in the layup
line and the figure eight drill, they hung together, a team not yet
incorporated into our team. Incautious and reckless, they hurled
themselves around the court and brought an enthusiasm to this first
practice that made me feel a great affection for each of them. So
much of our team's destiny rode on their shoulders. So much would
be required of them, and no one knew how their egos would withstand
the changeable nature of our tempestuous coach.
Years later I read a copy of a program from that year which spelled
out this team's prospects in the words of Mel Thompson himself.
Though it was still a cautionary tale with loopholes and escape
clauses, I read between the lines that our coach was as optimistic
about this coming year as I was.
prospects for the season by Coach Mel Thompson.
The 1966-67 season will again find the Bulldogs in a year of
rebuilding. First, on a long list of musts, we must find a
replacement for Wig Baumann, the team's leading scorer and floor
leader. Our success will depend on finding a replacement for
Baumann and the ability of our younger players to find their
maturity in the early going. Senior Pat Conroy and Junior John
DeBrosse appear to have a shot at floor leading the Cadets.
DeBrosse appeared in all 23 games last season as a guard. He scored
248 points averaging just over 10 points per game. Conroy appeared
in 16 games scoring 74 points for an average of just over 4 points
per game. Both boys are excellent ball handlers. Conroy excels in
passing and dribbling. DeBrosse is a fine shot. He hit on 49
percent of his shots last year.
Excerpted from MY LOSING SEASON © Copyright 2002 by Pat
Conroy. Reprinted with permission by Nan A. Talese, a division of
Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.