"The smaller the ball," George Plimpton once wrote, "the better the book, which is why no one has ever written a good book about beach ball." Publishers everywhere might want to start scouting for that great American beach ball book, because with "My Losing Season" Pat Conroy has just upped the ante by writing the best basketball book in years, the basketball equivalent of Jim Bouton's "Ball Four" and Pat Jordan's "A False Spring" rolled into one.
I don't know why more writers haven't been able to use basketball as a theme; my guess is that it has something to do with finding a prose style that reflects and translates the rhythm of the game itself. John Updike partially succeeded in fictional form with his Rabbit Angstrom novels, but only in brief snatches of recollection when Rabbit's playing days were through. Last year, John Edgar Wideman gave it a shot with "Hoop Roots," a nonfiction attempt to use basketball to knit together the lives of the author and his family with mystic threads of sports and memory.
But Wideman, for all his literary gifts, couldn't emotionally distance himself enough from basketball to draw the right metaphors from the game. In "My Losing Season," Pat Conroy has found the key to understanding the link between basketball and life, namely that for everyone not named Michael Jordan, there is more to be learned from losing than from winning.
"My Losing Season" is, firstly, about emotional honesty. "This is the story," he tells us early on, of his senior year playing varsity ball for the military college the Citadel, "of a mediocre basketball team that is remembered by few, a team that spent a year perfecting the art of falling to pieces." Conroy began playing basketball as a "pathetic attempt to build some common ground [with his father], and it never worked." It didn't take him long to realize that "I desired greatness for myself and longed to be the best point guard who ever played the game." What he got after torturous years of being driven by his Marine pilot father and an ultramilitaristic college career at the Citadel was the knowledge that, as he says in the kind of opening sentence writers kill for, "I was born to be a point guard, but not a very good one."
Having come to terms with his own ability and what he sought from the game of basketball, Conroy then sets out to test his recollections against those with whom he shared his "losing season." In perhaps the book's best chapter, he visits his old coach, now retired from the game, who can scarcely recall the players or the games that had such an enormous impact on Conroy. ("I haven't read any of your books," mutters the ex-coach.) "My Losing Season" becomes a book not just about basketball but "about the gauzy indistinctness of memory itself."
What Conroy recalls most vividly (as readers of his novel "The Lords of Discipline" will have observed) is the "plebe system" at the Citadel, where incoming freshmen were "initiated" by upperclassmen with a viciousness that left many emotionally (and in some cases, physically) scarred for life. Conroy came to the school in the last years of the tenure of Gen. Mark Clark, the man who vowed that the Citadel "would have the toughest plebe system in the world. I personally attest that he succeeded admirably ... Citadel men were expected to provide an unshakable bulwark against the rise of Communism ... I've yet to meet the Communist who has treated me as abominably as the cadre of our company did my plebe year." The hazing left Conroy and numerous others "terrified, brutalized, altered ... It was mind-numbing, savage, unrelenting and base ... They called the first week 'Hell Week,' and Dante Alighieri could not have coined a more accurate nomenclature."
Having endured the Citadel plebe system after receiving similar treatment from his father during his boyhood, and a dispiriting basketball career with an unimaginative coach, Conroy was buoyed by the fact that he "loved nothing on this earth" as much as he did the sport of basketball. In the end, he has survived to tell us that "there is no teacher more discriminating or transforming than loss ... Losing prepares you for the heartbreak, setback and tragedy that you will encounter in the world more than winning ever can. By licking your wounds, you learn how to avoid getting wounded the next time." Let's see Shaquille O'Neal write that.