TrueHoop: Pat Conroy

I touched on it the other day -- Pat Conroy wrote books about the painful aspects of his basketball-infused youth, and in so doing alienated his father, his school (the Citadel), and countless others.

If you have read the Lords of Discipline, or My Losing Season, or the Great Santini, then you know that Pat Conroy's childhood was ripped in half by pain and fear. It'll make you cry.

But decades later, it's a different story. And this new story, of resolution? It might never be told better than ESPN's Wright Thompson tells it.

Thompson's story starts like this:

Pat Conroy's dad hit him after games. He hit him with fists, and with open palms, hit him until blood ran from Pat's nose or lip onto his basketball jersey. Don Conroy didn't hit his son only after games. He hit him for smiling at the wrong time, talking at the wrong time, crying at the wrong time, for trying to defend his battered mother at the wrong time. On occasion, he hit him just for the hell of it. Pat's first childhood memory is of sitting in a high chair watching his mother try to kill his father with a kitchen knife and then his dad laughing while beating her to the floor. 

That's Don Conroy, who has since passed away.

How often does a story that starts like that later have a paragraph like this?

Reading about himself disgusted even Don Conroy. Starting that day and continuing for the rest of his life, Don set about proving that his son's description of him was false. He completely changed. No one could believe it. When Pat went on a book tour, Don went with him, signing books and often adding: "Thanks for reading my son's work of fiction." Then he would underline fiction, like, seven times. Finally, he and Pat were talking. And laughing. They became close. Don became the book, putting "Santini" on his license plate. He loved the movie, exclaiming to Pat when the Oscar nominations came out, "Son, you and I were nominated for Academy Awards last night. Your mother didn't get squat." It was all so strange, but nothing more so than this: When Pat wrote the book, he humanized the main character, sanding off some of his dad's edges because he didn't think readers would believe the truth. Later in life, Don took on those good traits Pat had invented; Pat Conroy rewrote his father. 

Well worth taking some time to read the whole thing. 

I have said a couple of times that I think Pat Conroy's "My Losing Season" is the best book I have ever read about basketball.

Conroy is an award-grade practitioner of English language on any topic, but in this instance, he happens to be telling true stories of being on a basketball team.

It's a gruesome tale of a boy having his heart torn out by a father, a school, and a coach that are so hell-bent on toughening him up that they leave almost no room at all for the enjoyment life. They set out to break the boys on the team, and they succeeded. It's a dreadful thing, to live your teen years without spirit.

The bonds of common suffering, however, among the teammates, are tremendous. And this book goes a long way to explaining how the massive role teammates play in each other's lives.

Of course, by wholly demonizing aspects of the Citadel, in this and other books, Conroy did not help his relations with the school. 

Charles McGrath of The New York Times tells the story:

Conroy never fully bought into the Citadel system, especially the freshman hazing. By his own admission, he was "mouthy," and was such a sloppy, demerit-ridden cadet that even as a senior he had not advanced beyond the rank of private. In later years, when asked to compare himself with a typical Citadel grad, he liked to say, "I'm richer, smarter, more famous and nicer."

Relations between Conroy and his alma mater began to deteriorate in 1970 with the appearance of "The Boo," his self-published novel based in part on Lt. Col. Thomas Courvoisie, the assistant commandant of cadets when Conroy was there.

"It was banned on campus for about six years," Conroy said, sitting in the Citadel's McAlister Field House, a place to which he used to think he could never return. His exile from the Citadel really began in 1980, he added, when he published "The Lords of Discipline," a novel that depicted racism, brutality and official corruption at a place called the Carolina Military Institute, though the disguise fooled nobody.

"That was the nuclear explosion," Conroy said. "I was warned that it would be dangerous for me to go back to the Citadel and so I didn't."

He reluctantly missed [his nephew] Ed's graduation in 1989 and, a few years later, the graduation of his best friend's son.

Then, to make things worse, in 1995, Conroy publicly embraced the cause of Shannon Faulkner, who was attempting to become the first female cadet to enter the Citadel. Back then, Conroy was not just unwelcome on campus, he could not walk the streets of Charleston without someone stopping a car and hopping out to yell at him.

"There was one guy," Conroy said, "who got back in his car and then jumped out again and shouted, 'Class of '59!' "

Conroy laughed and shook his head. "Citadel grads are the biggest bunch of loudmouths who ever lived."

But here's the amazing thing: With time, there is reconciliation. Would you believe the Citadel recently held a parade in Pat Conroy's honor? His nephew Ed has become the head coach of the basketball team. School officials even praise Conroy and some of what he has stood for (for instance, there are now girls attending the Citadel, and racial attitudes have apparently progressed).

Pat Conroy is back in the embrace of the Citadel, and smiling this time. Having felt the pain of the rift's creation -- as expressed in Conroy's writing -- I can now also feel quite viscerally the relief of reconciliation, and the world is just a little bit of a better place for it.

How did it come about? Read the whole story. Amazingly, his father played a key role. And there's also this reality, as expressed by Conroy: "What is sillier," he asks, "than a 60-year-old man feuding with his college?"