Flotsam: Revisiting My Losing Season

Photo courtesy of Hal Sundt

“I linked my destiny as a writer to that of myself as a basketball player because both seemed to represent realms of achievement that would always be denied me.”                                                         — Pat Conroy, My Losing Season

Near the end of my senior season at Oberlin, as my college basketball career sputtered to a close, I was summoned to a meeting with the coaching staff. I shuffled across the cold tile floor leading to their office, my sweat-caked practice gear hanging stiffly from my frame. I was in the coaches’ doghouse: I’d played less as a senior than I had in any of my previous years on the team. I took a seat in the office on a padded chair to the right of the door. I slouched.

I’ve told few people what happened next. Though I’ve tried to hide from that memory, it always finds me. Early this past March it found me again, just after I learned that Pat Conroy died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 70. Though Conroy wrote many books during his life, I’d only read one, My Losing Season, which chronicles his fraught college basketball career at The Citadel.

Conroy’s book begins with a frank admission: “I was born to be a point guard, but not a very good one.” When I first read Conroy’s book, the summer after my freshman season, I believed that sentence had been written just for me. That year, my fantasy of being a dominant basketball player collided with the harsh reality that I was anything but one. In 25 games that season—of which my team only won five—I shot 25% from the field and averaged 0.9 points per game.

“What I had,” Conroy writes, “was a powerful will and a fiery competitiveness and the burning desire to be a great player in the Southern Conference when there was not even the slightest chance I could be a memorable one.”

As I devoured Conroy’s book that summer, I lived a double-life: that of the player obsessively practicing and that of the 19-year-old boy having tearful conversations with his parents about wanting to quit the team. Come fall, I actually did quit, the night before my sophomore season would begin. Within a day I was pleading with the coaches and my teammates to let me back. I used to say it was a love of the game that brought me back to basketball; now I know it was a fear of what I would be without it.

When Conroy died, I picked up My Losing Season again. His book made me relive my final college season, which probably explains why it had been nearly seven years since I last read it. Like Conroy, at the end of my senior year I promised myself I’d “never think of that pockmarked, quicksilver year.” I lied.

***

As I slumped in my chair, the coaches proceeded to list all of my faults. They said I was a negative influence on the team, that I’d been showing up to practice with a bad attitude (probably because, like Conroy, I felt I was “doomed to be a spectator while my life as an athlete went flashing past me on the fly”), and that in four years I hadn’t improved as a player. In my coaches’ eyes I was petulant, weak-minded, and (considering I’d once quit) unreliable.

While they spoke, I refused to make eye contact with them. When they finished the diagnosis, they asked me to respond. A long pause followed before I said, “I disagree.”

My senior season ended a few weeks later with a humiliating 37-point loss at home in which I missed every shot I took.

***

The following fall, I enrolled in graduate school for creative writing at Columbia. My first essay was about my final college basketball game. Hoping to redeem my past, I gave the story a sentimental ending, but my classmates thought it lacked depth and honesty. My professor concurred. She said, “I think this is really a story about failure.”

It’s been nearly four years since that workshop. Now, I teach a college writing class and keep my distance from basketball in a way I never could have imagined when I was 19. I play maybe once a week, on Wednesdays at noon after class.

Those of you familiar with Conroy’s book know that I’ve failed to mention a crucial difference in our experiences. Early in his senior year his trajectory as a basketball player changed dramatically. By looking inside himself to find joy in the game, he learned how to overcome fear’s “shameful scent” and carved out a meaningful role for himself on the team.

“Once I began believing in myself and not listening to the people who did not believe in me,” Conroy writes, “I turned myself into a point guard who you needed to watch.”

Eventually, Conroy approached each contest “brimming with confidence and a euphoria about the game.” Though his team struggled to an 8-17 record, he finished the season averaging 12 points per game and was named his team’s Most Valuable Player.

Fraught, troubled, unmemorable—when describing my college basketball career, I’ve always tiptoed around what it really was: a failure. But the longer I’ve lived with my failure, the more comfortable I’ve become with its presence. I spend a lot of time considering why, exactly, my college basketball career turned out the way it did; in what ways did the system fail me, and in what ways did I engineer my own demise?

In truth, I don’t think I loved basketball so much as I hoped it would love me. Early on in his book, Conroy asks, “Where did all those games go, the ones I threw myself headlong into as a boy, a rawboned kid who fell in love with the smell and shape of a basketball … who lived for the sound of its unmistakable heartbeat, its staccato rhythms …?”

Basketball never sounded like music to my ears. I couldn’t tell you what a basketball smells like. I talk about the game not as something I long for, but as something I endured. Where basketball gave Conroy “glimpses into the kind of man [he was] capable of becoming,” the basketball court was the ultimate arena in which I did battle with the boy I was and the man I hoped to be. If I was playing well, I would pray for the game to end quickly so I could preserve the memory.

Now Conroy’s book reads to me as a cautionary tale. Rather than fret over what’s to come, or seek solace in excuses, I need to “be alive in the moment, open to every possibility and configuration, and make that moment [mine] only, again and again.” Such advice rang as platitudes in my ears when I was 19 because I believed I still had a chance to forge a legacy I could one day revel in.

At the end of my first year of grad school, I revisited my essay about that last game. In the rewrite, I didn’t hold back my shame and regret. Sad though it may have been, my professor smiled after we workshopped the story in class. She leaned close to me and said softly, “You may not be a basketball player, but you’re definitely a writer.”

***

I mentioned Conroy’s death to the class I teach because earlier in the semester we’d looked at his opening sentence from My Losing Season—“I was born to be a point guard, but not a very good one”—as an example of how to hook a reader with a surprising claim. I tell my students at the start of every semester that I love basketball and that I played in college, but I never reveal the full truth of my experience. That day, I did.

Whenever I’m teaching, I almost always manage to drop the chalk. It shatters, fragmenting into shards that skid across the tile floor. After mentioning Conroy’s death, as if on cue, I dropped my chalk again. Then, spontaneously, I told the class, “My inability to hold on to that might explain my shortcomings as a basketball player.” It was supposed to be a joke, but my students didn’t seem to find it funny. A few of them sighed. Some covered their faces. What surprised me was how freely I shared my failure and how unembarrassed I was by my clumsiness. Though I stepped gingerly around the broken pieces on the floor, I was in no hurry to pick them up.

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Hal Sundt teaches writing at Columbia University, where he received his MFA in nonfiction writing. His work has appeared in The Rumpus, The Classical, and Away. He is working on a book about failure.