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‘Losing Season’ is a big winner for Pat Conroy

SHARE ‘Losing Season’ is a big winner for Pat Conroy

You won't find many references to Barbra Streisand in your average sports section, so it may seem odd that the man who wrote "Prince of Tides" also penned one of the most popular sports books of the past year.

But there lies the genius of Pat Conroy, whose latest offering can make a bad season of Citadel basketball interesting, and make even the manliest of men forgive him for "Beach Music."

"My Losing Season," now in its 10th week on the New York Times best-seller list, has been promoted as the tale of Conroy's last year as the point guard for The Citadel basketball team, and the lessons learned as that team wallowed in mediocrity and struggled to a losing record.

The prose is pure Conroy, comfortable and enveloping and unmistakable in its meaning. Conroy tells what is on the surface a sports story, without resorting to the worn-out themes of overcoming adversity or good sportsmanship. If there is one writer who could be passionate about a bad year of basketball and bring a new twist to the story, it is Pat Conroy.

Of course, the losing season of 1966-67 doesn't begin until nearly the halfway mark of Conroy's novel, and it is his insights on the making of an athlete that make "My Losing Season" truly remarkable.

Like many grown men, Conroy remembers his days as a young athlete with great fondness. Unlike most, he is also brutally honest about the kind of athlete he was.

"I was born to be a point guard," Conroy writes, "but not a very good one."

In the 30 or so years he has been publishing, Conroy has made a career out of baring his personal demons to the world, and he makes no effort to hide them here. Before the end of the introduction, Conroy introduces his physically abusive father and emotionally abusive coach, and it is clear they will influence the story much the way they influenced Conroy. They enter the story suddenly and violently, and leave abruptly.

It also becomes clear that basketball becomes almost as much a demon as the father Conroy calls "The Great Santini." He is drawn to it, he loves it, but he will never fully appease the game.

Conroy's father was apparently a remarkable basketball player in his younger days, good enough that his oldest son could never satisfy the legend. In the book, Conroy could have taken the easy way out. He could have stuck with basketball in a failed attempt to win the approval of his father. Instead, he gives the best explanation possible for why young men pursue hopeless athletic careers.

" . . . athletics provided the single outlet for a repressed and preternaturally shy boy to express himself in public." Conroy writes, "Games allowed me to introduce myself to people who had never heard me speak out loud, to earn their praise without uttering a single word."

Any parent of a teenage athlete would do well to read "My Losing Season," and then immediately pass the book on to his or her child.

As a military brat, Conroy played basketball for four different high schools, and at each one he became something of a star (it would be fair to say Conroy was probably a better point guard than he gives himself credit for), eventually winning a scholarship to The Citadel, a Southern military college, then all-male.

As a side note, anyone considering an education at The Citadel should read Conroy's account of his four years there. He is clearly pleased with the man The Citadel made him, but he is equally clear in his reservations about the method.

Losing is tough, and it wears down the psyche. Conroy did plenty of it. He lost his starting position, and in three years at The Citadel, he played for only one winning team. Conroy connects the dots between the losses and the effects on his teammates expertly, making it easy for the reader to draw from the story whatever lessons are relevant.

If there is a flaw in the book, it is in Conroy's basketball narrative. While he played enough to know basketball, it doesn't appear he has ever written much about it. The game accounts can be repetitive, and Conroy didn't miss any basketball cliches.

That is a small complaint about a powerful novel, one that should be on the reading list of sports fans and Streisand lovers alike.