Pat Conroy

My Losing Season

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My Losing Season Summary

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In the sports memoir My Losing Season (2002), American novelist Pat Conroy recounts his journey as a basketball player for a second-tier college basketball team in South Carolina. The memoir was Conroy’s first nonfiction work in nearly three decades and received widespread praise for its humor, fast-pacing, and sympathetic look at comradery among young men. It was a New York Times Bestseller.

Its themes include love, perseverance, and the value of losing.

From a very young age, Conroy loved playing basketball and showed some skill as a point guard (leader of a team’s offense), though he always knew he wouldn’t be the greatest point guard out there due to his physical normalcy. In the prologue, Conroy writes that he grew up in a very athletic family, though basketball was always his passion (he tried to play football and baseball to make his father, Don Conroy, happy).

From 1963 to 1967, Conroy was a player on the Citadel Bulldogs, a NCAA Division I basketball team. He’s thankful for athletics for teaching him to acknowledge and deal with all of his weaknesses and strengths; dealing with the aggressions of other people, in particular, was a skill he would routinely use as a future journalist and writer. Though he wasn’t the most gifted at basketball (he was only 5’10), all of his coaches from when he was nine to 25 loved him for his unflagging enthusiasm that inevitably spread to his other team members. While he, like the other players, didn’t enjoy losing, he in particular had a way of learning something valuable from each defeat.

In chapter one, Conroy recreates the eleven other players on the team. As the memoir develops, he’ll rely on interviews with each teammate and the work of other sports writers to describe his own role on the team in objective terms.

In My Losing Season, Conroy focuses, in each of the book’s four parts, on his final season with the Bulldogs. It’s during this season that he realized he wanted to become a writer (he’d go on to have immense success with The Prince of Tides and The Great Santini). However, Conroy does flash back to many basketball-related memoirs from elementary, middle, and high school, when he was on the all-state team.

In Conroy’s final season, Mel Thompson coaches The Bulldogs. (When Thompson retired in 1967, his record would be 67-96). Conroy writes that Thompson motivated his players by berating them; that’s what he intended at any rate, but the tactic would often backfire and many of the college students chose to leave the sport rather than continuing playing under him.

Along with a pretty bad coach, Conroy wasn’t exactly helped by his emotionally (and sometimes physically) abusive father. When his father attended a game, it wasn’t unusual for him to yell obscenities at his son all up until the final quarter. Don Conroy used to play basketball himself, and after a poor performance, he didn’t hesitate to slap his son across the face after he had lost yet another game. This is damaging for Conroy; since he was 17, he had used success in basketball as a way to win his father’s love. During Conroy’s last season, the two don’t have much to talk about unless it’s sports-related.

Conroy wonders if he was better suited to handle Thompson’s general malevolency because he grew up in a highly hostile home. In one detailed flashback, Conroy relieves a time when his mother attempted to stab his father. His father slapped her with all his might, causing her to fall down. To everyone’s surprise, his father than started to laugh uncontrollably.

Despite his historically rocky relationship with his father, Conroy reports that the two made up by the time Conroy Sr. died in late 1990s. After the publication of The Great Santini (1976), Don Conroy apparently took a long hard look at his life and reformed himself to be a kinder person.

The team would lose twice as many games as they won (final record: 8-17). But more than the specifics of who won or lost, Conroy remembers most vividly the times when the five people on the court worked in perfect harmony. Even when they lost, the moments when the teammates could read each other and know how the other would act before they acted were, for Conroy, sublime.

The team was prototypically “mediocre.” They weren’t the worst team in Citadel history (that title belongs to the 1955 team, which lost 37 straight meetings).

Conroy writes that he was a “military brat,” meaning that his family moved on the whims of his father’s job. Growing up, he was lucky if they got to stay in the same spot for more than 18 months. The Citadel, a military college, provided the sort of stability he had always longed for as a child. Even as the team quite literally had a losing season, his teammates provided a sort of paradise of comfort compared to the judgmental environment managed by his father.

Conroy concludes the players in any sport learn more from loss than from winning. Losing prepared him for many of life’s disappointments.