My Losing Season
by Pat Conroy (Doubleday, 2002)
(This column first appeared in the January 9, 2002 issue of ArtVoice of Buffalo.)
Long time readers of this column may recall my opposition to Division 1-A sports at the University at Buffalo. I continue to feel the same way and Pat Conroy's My Losing Season reinforces my view. But you would be misled if you thought that this fine book directly supports my arguments. It does not. What it does instead is make clear how different those times when Conroy was playing for The Citidel were and how different from our contemporary players he himself was. Sadly, however, his basketball coach, like his dad, the model for his earlier book (and Duvall movie) The Great Santini fit today's mold.
This is a book that is, quite simply, about an athlete deeply committed to his sport of basketball. Listen to him: "I have loved nothing on this earth as I did the sport of basketball. I loved to break up a full‑court press as much as anyone who has ever lived and played the game, black or white, male or female, in the shades of Spanish moss, beneath the roiled heat and sunshine of Dixie. I would not sell my soul to be playing college ball somewhere in this country tonight, but I would give it long and serious consideration. It was only when I had to give up basketball that I began to attract the unfavorable attention of the rest of the world. Basketball provided a legitimate physical outlet for all the violence and rage and sadness I later brought to the writing table. The game kept me from facing the ruined boy who played basketball instead of killing his father. It was also the main language that allowed father and son to talk to each other. If not for sports, I do not think my father ever would have talked to me."
This is a book about losing -- "the agony of defeat" as that sports trailer has it -- but the author puts a different spin on that old bromide: "Sports books are always about winning because winning is far more pleasurable and exhilarating to read about than losing. Winning is wonderful in every aspect, but the darker music of loss resonates on deeper, richer planes. I think about all the games of that faraway year that played such a part in shaping me, and it is the losses that stand out because they still make their approach with all their capacities to wound intact. Winning makes you think you'll always get the girl, land the job, deposit the million‑dollar check, win the promotion, and you grow accustomed to a life of answered prayers. Winning shapes the soul of bad movies and novels and lives. It is the subject of thousands of insufferably bad books and is often a sworn enemy of art.
"Loss is a fiercer, more uncompromising teacher, coldhearted but clear‑eyed in its understanding that life is more dilemma than game, and more trial than free pass. My acquaintance with loss has sustained me during the stormy passages of my life when the pink slips came through the door, when the checks bounced at the bank, when I told my small children I was leaving their mother, when the despair caught up with me, when the dreams of suicide began feeling like love songs of release. It sustained me when my mother lay dying of leukemia, when my sister heard the ruthless voices inside her, and when my brother Tom sailed out into the starry night in Columbia, South Carolina, sailed from a fourteen‑story building and plunged screaming to his death, binding all of his family into his nightmare forever. Though I learned some things from the games we won that year, I learned much, much more from loss."
Conroy can be most moving in his recollections. Here he is at the Vietnam wall: "The last two names belong to two of the managers of my basketball team. I touch Carl Peterson's name then move to the last on my list. I move my finger to Joe Eubanks's name, the orphan from Concord, North Carolina. I come to the Rat. Last, I always come to the Rat.
"It is always here, at this name, that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial unhinges me and I weep as though I will never be able to stop. My weeping is so public and visceral that I always draw the attention of other visitors, and they put their arms around me to try and console me. Veterans ask me if Joe was a member of my unit and I shake my head no. Women ask me if I lost a brother. The sons and daughters of men whose names are on the wall want to know why Joe Eubanks meant so much to me, and all look disappointed, even dismayed, when I blurt out in a tearstrangled voice, 'He gave me towels. The Rat gave me towels.'"
Yes, there are plenty of game descriptions, some wins among the losses and plenty of background information -- especially about the hazing of first year students, the same hazing that drove away the first woman plebe. But Conroy comes through and he maintains an honorable posture throughout.
Here he sums up his experience: "Many of my teammates wish that year had never happened. I consider it one of the great years of my life, if not the greatest. If I could change history, if I could change everything that happened that year, if I could bring us a national championship, I would not do it. I would choose again the same teammates I had in 1966‑67. I would take to the court with them forever, these same guys. It was the year I learned to accept loss as part of natural law. My team taught me there could be courage and dignity and humanity in loss. They taught me how to pull myself up, to hold my head high, and to soldier on. I got dizzy from loving that team, and I never told them.
"But my team taught me most importantly to accept my fate with valor and resoluteness, and I say this to all of you and believe it with every fiber of my humanity: I came to the right college, to play ball with the right players, and I was born to be coached by Mel Thompson and to learn everything about loss and life and everything in between as we struggled and limped and staggered toward March, brothers of loss and, so much more, bound forever by our losing season."
This book represents a fine antidote to the "Do Anything to Win" philosophy of virtually everyone nowadays. I consider it the very best example of what today's NCAA is not.
To me the NCAA spirit is exemplified by the opposing coach who sidled up to one of the ends on a football team I once served as trainer. The player had missed most of the previous season with a broken shoulder. The coach whispered to him, "My boys are going to work on that shoulder today."