Task: Read a book about sports.
Okay, this one is definitely a book about sports, unlike my first effort to complete this task.
I have a dear friend who’s kind of a big deal in the basketball writing world. I’m not naming him because it feels sort of gross to name drop my legitimately well-known buddy on my blog that I’ve been writing for eight months behind a privacy wall and that is prooooobably going to have a very small audience when and if I ever let someone read it. I don’t want to embarrass him. But I asked him for recommendations, and I got a great list, including Tuff Juice by Caron Butler, Writing on the Wall by Kareem Abdul Jabbar, and Pacific Rims by Rafe Bartholomew.
And he also texted me, “My Losing Season by Pat Conroy is incredible. It’s about being on a team that just sucked. SUCKED. It is the opposite of ‘Determination and heart conquers all!’ Well, no, it turns out that if you suck at basketball, it doesn’t really matter.”
That recommendation delighted me, a) because it sounded up my alley, and b) because at 34 I find I have fewer and fewer friends who would know how to recommend a sports book to me that I might genuinely like, and it was hugely comforting to be known that well by someone. So thank you, Unnamed Famous Sportswriter Friend!
My Losing Season is Pat Conroy’s memoir of his senior year playing for the Citadel Bulldogs in 1966-67. Over the course of the year, he finds his voice as a writer, finally shakes the hold his hideously abusive father has on his sense of self-worth, and just loses and loses and loses on the court. His coach is nearly as bad as his father, and makes terrible decisions and breaks down his players to the point where they can’t function as a team.
Every scene with Conroy’s father is hard to read. His Marine Corps pilot father was physically abusive until Pat was big enough to defend himself, but he remained jaw-droppingly and disgustingly psychologically abusive throughout his son’s college career. There are no scenes that make his father seem sympathetic. The kindest gesture he ever makes is to pay for Pat’s tuition when he doesn’t win a basketball scholarship, but even then he refuses the living expenses portion, leaving his son without any living money. Pat’s desire to please his impossible coach is painfully and obviously related to his relationship with his father.
Conroy writes about his games like he’s on fire. Most of the book’s chapters are organized around a game, though the first few recount his early basketball-related memories in the various towns his constantly moving military family lived in. He writes about every game in a voice that’s part sportscaster, part tent revival preacher, part bleeding-heart adolescent. Given the fact that his father was a Marine and his college was a military one, it’s not surprising that he uses a lot of language of war to describe his games. Or maybe more specifically, the language of ancient war epics. It’s…honestly a bit fatiguing.
Every so often, though, there’d be a break in which he’d describe the first time he read Faulkner or something painfully true about young adulthood, and those bits felt like welcome chances for Anne the English major to come up for air.
It never occurred to me a single time in the year I am writing about that I was in the dead center of living out my own life, accruing the experiences and gathering the raw materials to form the only life I was ever going to have. (182)
Conroy’s team was terrible, and their season ended in a bitter defeat in the very first tournament game. When that game was over, Conroy knew it was the end of his career as a basketball player and that he wouldn’t ever play in a packed gym ever again.
I’m admittedly snotty about school athletics. I think there’s too much money, too much time, too much pressure, and too much importance attached to it. This paragraph, though, did make me pause and consider a different perspective on the subject:
What does a boy do when they take his game away? In front of boys I had suffered with, I sobbed and I couldn’t help it. I removed my jersey and put my face into the number 22 and my sweat mingled with my tears in the sacramental moment, when I surrendered my game to the judgments of time. I gave it up, gave basketball up, gave my game up, the one I played so badly and adored so completely. I gave it up in Charlotte, in emptiness, in sorrow, in despair that I played it so badly yet in gratitude for what the game had given me. … Basketball had rescued me from the malignant bafflement of my boyhood. It had lifted me up and given me friends that I got to call teammates. The game gave me moments where I brought crowds of strangers to their feet, calling my name. The game had allowed me to be carried off the court in triumph. The game had allowed me to like myself a little bit, and at times the game had even allowed me to love the beaten, ruined boy I was (340).
This book stirred up some ancient memories for me. I mean, okay, I’m talking about the intramural basketball I played from maybe third through sixth grade. But for those few years, I adored the sport. I loved the blown-out feeling in my lungs after pounding up and down the court. I loved my parents for coming to my games and bringing me cold drinks at half time. I loved the squeak of our tennis shoes on the polished floor of the youth center court. I was one of the worst players in the league, but I had one thing going for me – I hit my growth spurts early, and so I was tall. I wasn’t a bad center, just because no one could get around me (weirdly, I’m of a perfectly average height now, but I do still sort of identify as as a tall person).
That was why my coach told me that my sole purpose in one particular game would be to guard this bruiser of a fifth grader named Mackenzie. And damn it, that’s what I did, to the point that the ref yelled at us. Something like, “FOUR and TWELVE, I don’t wanna see any more of that pushing!” It was literally the only moment in my life that I felt like an honest-to-god athlete.
I even spent one season in 1994 an avowed fan. That was the year that the Arkansas Razorbacks won the NCAA championship. I’m not sure I could name more than one player on any professional sports team to save my life, but the 1994 Razorbacks are burned into my memory – Corliss Williamson, Scotty Thurman, Corey Beck, etc.
And while I dropped organized sports like a poisonous snake when the stakes were raised in junior high and my pubescent awkwardness reached the deafening height of its fearsome power, I played and watched enough basketball to know that it is a thrilling sport. So I’ll forgive Pat Conroy for getting a bit lost in his over-the-top descriptions of his games, because, you know, that really is what it feels like to play.
I’m glad I read this.