Thursday, June 10, 2010

Painful Growth

My Losing Season
by Pat Conroy

Conroy is undoubtedly among the best writers of our time (IMHO). I have long been enamored of his novels - ever since I read The Prince of Tides in 1990. This memoir of his senior year at The Citadel, playing point guard for their basketball team, is every bit as insightful and moving as his fiction. It is well known that Conroy's novels are autobiographical - The Great Santini is based on his own father, Don Conroy. The Lords of Discipline is based on his own plebe year at The Citadel. My Losing Season is brutally honest, detailing Conroy's own battles with depression and other demons. In typical Conroy fashion, though, it is also peppered with humor and wit. Conroy is also able to articulate the dark side of any experience while at the same time pointing out the light that pierces through even the worst of circumstances.

My Losing Season frankly discusses the intra-team rivalries of the Citadel's players, as well as the psychological and emotional manipulation that their coach, Mel Thompson, used to keep his players obedient to him. His tactics were successful in that his players were all utterly submissive to his will, but the same tactics kept the players from trusting each other. They did not really develop friendships until long after their playing days were over, and failed to jell as a team as a result. Conroy readily admits that his own basketball skills were limited, but he loved the game and wanted nothing more than to play it. It was basketball that gave him some incentive to survive his own father's brutality, and the sport provided a ticket to higher education for him.

My only complaint about My Losing Season is that the detailed play-by-plays of so many games get old (and I like basketball). The story comes much more to life when Conroy lets us into his own emotional wrestling and eventual growth that came out of that ill fated 8-17 season. Conroy was not the best point guard at The Citadel (by his own assessment), but he played a lot that season and served as co-captain of the team, largely because of some grudge the coach was holding against a more talented player. There were moments of pure magic when Conroy made exactly the right play at the right moment, or when he sunk a beautiful basket at just the right time. Even though the team was not doing well as a whole, Conroy writes that he had "never before felt so alive and so necessary." Who does not need to feel alive and necessary? What makes you feel that way?

Conroy has long had a love/hate relationship with The Citadel. After he wrote The Lords of Discipline, he could not go on the campus for more than 20 years because of death threats. However, My Losing Season brought much needed reconciliation with his basketball teammates and even led to some uneasy truce with the school itself. He hates the degradations and humiliations of the plebe system and refused to participate in it as an upperclassman. Nevertheless, he acknowledges that the school helped him find his way as a writer and as a human being. His statement that we learn more from the losses in life than we do the wins is powerfully wise, and a welcome antidote to the "win at all costs" ethos that surrounds us in our culture.

Reverent Reader


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