College Sports

Teammates revisit Pat Conroy’s ‘Losing Season’ at The Citadel

gmelendez@thestate.com

They wore the ring, of course.

Of the hundreds of mourners Tuesday at St. Peter’s Catholic Church near Beaufort for the funeral of iconic South Carolina author Pat Conroy, probably a minority were graduates of The Citadel. Those, though, were, like Conroy, privy to the Charleston military school’s traditions and heritage – and symbols.

Some of them, members of The Citadel’s Class of 2001, had been invited by Conroy, their commencement speaker and newly welcomed back into the Cadet family after years of estrangement, to someday attend his funeral. He read to them the opening sentence from “The Lords of Discipline,” the thinly disguised “fictional” account of a Charleston military school that caused his alma mater to banish him for so long.

“I want you to say this before you enter the church at which I’m going to be buried,” Conroy said. “You tell them, ‘I wear the ring.’ ”

They understood, of course. At The Citadel, the class ring is a special part of the school’s military mystique, a cherished symbol of four years in the Corps of Cadets and a lifetime of belonging to an exclusive brotherhood.

Three Citadel graduates, though, also “wore” something else that day. Something invisible to the eye, but as much a part of them as their Citadel rings: the scars of a shared time in athletics hell.

From 1963-67, Pat Conroy was a member of The Citadel basketball team. An undersized, lightly skilled but tenacious point guard, he endured the physical and mental trials that all Cadets go through – plus a whole lot more, some a whole lot worse.

So did his former teammates: Doug Bridges, a Columbia Realtor; David Bronhorst, an attorney in Charleston; Tee Hooper, a Greenville businessman. Each found it fitting that The Citadel’s basketball coach, Duggar Baucomb, had arranged for two current players – senior Quinton Marshall and junior Warren Sledge – to serve as the funeral’s honor guard.

“Pat would’ve loved that,” Bridges said.

Bridges, Bornhorst and Bornhorst’s wife “broke down” during their old friend’s funeral, which Bridges called “solemn.” Then he laughed. “That (solemnity) was not characteristic of most Conroy gatherings.”

Conroy’s invitation to the Class of 2001 “was a confirming message that he did love The Citadel,” Hooper said. “The environment of The Citadel builds bonds, and certainly there was a bond between” him and his former teammates.

“Pat had an up-and-down relationship” with his alma mater, Hooper said, “but he always appreciated the bonding.”

That was confirmed in 2002 when Conroy, by then famous for his novels about dysfunctional relationships modeled on his own life, published “My Losing Season,” the true-life account of his senior basketball year – one that reads like his fiction.

He wrote of his oft-conflicted love for his school, his teammates and especially basketball. And he told how his coach, Mel Thompson – by all accounts as mentally and emotionally abusive as the Marine Corps pilot and father, “Bull” Meecham, in Conroy’s “The Great Santini” – nearly destroyed that love, and the team’s season.

The book took Conroy six years to produce; six years of researching, digging up decades-old memories – some bitter, some sweet, for him and his old teammates.

This week, those teammates, all closing in on 70, told how the book – or, as Bridges says they refer to it, “The Book” – came to be. First, though, a look – three looks, really – at that losing season.

DOUG BRIDGES: THE ROGUE

If you had put my will or (John) DeBrosse’s or (Tee) Hooper’s into Bridges’ head, his name would still be sung in clear anthems by basketball fans. He had as beautiful a body as I have ever seen, and could look like a combination of Michelangelo’s “David” and Baryshnikov when he soared to bring down a rebound. (My Losing Season, page 331)

Conroy, chronicler of his and others’ lives, no doubt found it amusing that Bridges – described in 1966-67 as a talented athlete with a casual attitude toward the game – now maintains a treasure trove of Conroy memorabilia: photos, newspaper clippings and letters, including one, written on the author’s standard yellow legal-pad sheet, that urges Bridges’ wife to ditch her husband and “marry Conroy.”

Bridges, Hooper and others were better athletes in 1966-67, but Conroy, the former walk-on, “brought the basketball team together,” Bridges said. “He made fun of The Citadel, those ‘military a------s.’

“Every day I’d get out of class at 3:30 p.m. and want to get to the armory (where the team practiced), because I knew Pat was there with some funny, sarcastic story. You didn’t want to miss his act.”

In much of the book, Bridges comes across as wickedly funny, too, with a devil-may-care demeanor that defused some of Thompson’s harassment.

“Mel would always yell at me; his favorite two words to me were ‘start running,’” Bridges said, laughing.

In one memorable scene from the book, Thompson sends an assistant coach to “find women” in Conroy’s barracks room. When the coach opens the bathroom door, he finds Bridges, naked but for a physics textbook, sitting on the toilet – and still searches the shower. Bridges is howling with laughter as the assistant leaves.

But those antics, Bridges says, were a defense. Thompson was “a monster. I remember during that season, when Mel was taking me out (of the game), my interpretation of that was, ‘He’s not going to play you.’

“So you didn’t necessarily get fired up for a game. I was more, ‘You win, coach.’ He destroyed our team.”

Only years later, Bridges said, did he figure out Thompson’s self-defeating coaching style.

“He played for Everett Case at N.C. State, an old-school coach, and the attitude toward players then was: ‘You’re a piece of meat,’” Bridges said. “Mel was a 6-foot-3 center in the ACC whose game was hustle, box out, hard-nosed. He didn’t understand why we weren’t that way.”

Bridges said Thompson knew only one way to coach: intimidation, punishment – a joyless grind.

“You can beat up on players, degrade them, but you can’t leave them down there,” he said. “He did. There was never any ‘OK, let’s go get ’em.’”

A junior in Conroy’s senior year, Bridges was lucky. Thompson was fired after that 8-17 season, and Bridges played his final season for Dick Campbell (and an assistant, Bill Foster, who would later be head coach at Clemson).

“I finally played for someone who knew what he was doing,” he said.

Bridges paused, then added: “If there was an upside (to playing for Thompson), it was learning never to feel sorry for yourself,” he said. “Don’t ever get so down you want to give up; you need to get over it.”

He laughed again. “I only needed 45 years to think about that.”

DAVID BORNHORST: THE RECRUITER

“Sure, coach,” Dave said with such brio and generosity that he turned a painful moment into a lesson in the subtle, but difficult, art of teamwork. In his clumsiness and self-deprecation, Dave’s deficiencies as an athlete faded into nothingness when placed beside the essence of his character. (My Losing Season, page 149)

Probably no other player from 1966-67 has remained as connected to the program – happily so – as Bornhorst, a lawyer for 45 years in North Charleston. Every home game, he can be found in McAlister Field House – “Row 1, Seat 2,” he said – leading cheers while wearing a Citadel-blue wig, a red clown nose and waving pom-poms.

“Haven’t missed five games in 20 years,” he said in a YouTube video produced by the athletics department. “The Citadel was a great experience for me. I enjoyed every moment … well, except freshman year” – a Cadet’s “knob” year of upperclassman abuse.

Bornhorst, like Bridges a junior in 1966-67, said he was “the worst basketball player on the team, by far,” but his personality and smarts made him invaluable to Thompson.

“Coach liked me very much. I was his recruiter,” he said. “I was the one who took recruits out on visits, on the school yacht, talked to them about life in the barracks. I was a good salesman.”

As such, he had one ironclad instruction from Thompson: “Don’t let recruits talk to Conroy.” Said Bornhorst, laughing, “He was deathly afraid if they talked to Pat, he’d tell them, ‘It’s horrible. Why are you thinking about playing at The Citadel?’ ”

His own introduction to Conroy, as a 17-year-old freshman, came one day as he stood, “bracing (at attention) and sweating on the quad. Pat came up behind me and said, ‘Made a good decision, huh?’ I thought, ‘Who is this wise---?’”

But when Conroy and his classmates insisted that all basketball players be equal on the court – no “freeze, knob” abuse from upperclassmen in the gym – Bornhorst gained respect for the quiet, intense guard.

“When Pat spoke, everyone listened,” he said. “You didn’t want to cross Conroy, because you’d lose any verbal battle.”

Bornhorst’s favorite story involves Bridges’ gift for mimicking Thompson’s unchanging halftime routine.

“Mel would come into the locker room, cigarette in his hand, go to the urinal, throw away the cigarette, then come talk to us,” he said. “One game, Doug does the whole bit (using a piece of chalk as a cigarette prop), and everyone is laughing.

“Then Mel comes in, and we’re all stone-cold sober – except Conroy, who couldn’t stop laughing. Mel yells, ‘Conroy, you think playing bad is funny?’ And Pat is saying, ‘No, sir,’ but still breaking up. Mel yells, ‘You’re off the team!’ Back in the barracks, Pat’s saying, ‘My father is going to kill me’; back then, he’d never shared the Santini story (of his father’s abuse).

“Coach reinstated him the next day, but Bridges nearly cost Pat.”

Later, Thompson’s treatment of players was much more costly. Bornhorst and the others endured Christmas night practices when players were forced to get “dinner” from vending machines. They saw the coach bench Dan Mohr – a good player, but one with fragile self-confidence – for not wearing a jacket on a road trip. Conroy pointed out that Mohr couldn’t afford a jacket, but Thompson didn’t care.

Later, Conroy and fellow guard John DeBrosse “would get the team together when Mel came down on a player, (saying) ‘Don’t listen to Coach,’” Bornhorst said. “What could’ve been a divisive action for the team, instead turned out OK, because of Pat. Time and again, it was like that.

“If someone needed help, Pat was the first to do it.”

TEE HOOPER: THE SCAPEGOAT

Tee then walked into Mel’s office as emotionally unbalanced and distraught as he would ever be at The Citadel. He passed the spot where the plaque honoring his induction into The Citadel Athletic Hall of Fame would hang one day. The best athlete in the history of The Citadel would enter Mel Thompson’s office to learn both his punishment and his fate. (My Losing Season, page 321)

Of all the memorable characters in Conroy’s memoir, none was more harshly – and unfairly – impacted by the actions of Mel Thompson than Hooper, a sophomore guard that season who would become one of the school’s all-time greats.

Arguably, no one remains as impacted by his relationship with Conroy, starting nearly 50 years ago and continuing even after death.

When the author approached former teammates about writing “My Losing Season,” Hooper admits he felt a mix of anticipation and angst.

“It was kind of neat to be in a book by Pat Conroy; I’d have a hard time saying I didn’t feel good about it,” he said. In fact, he says a character in one of Conroy’s novels – named Tecumseh, nicknamed Tee – is modeled on him.

But a real-life account, with real names?

“I was worried before (he read it). You never know about what Pat writes,” Hooper said; his wife “was scared of it. She had read Pat’s other books.”

But “he treated me really well,” Hooper said. “I think we all felt good about the book. No one really knows what goes on between players and coaches unless someone who was there writes about it.”

Hooper’s story in “Season” is a precursor to the climax – The Citadel’s heart-breaking loss to Richmond in the Southern Conference Tournament – and shows just how crushing Thompson’s actions were to his young athletes.

Hooper had played well early that season, but “then, 10-12 games in, (Thompson) sat me down and never would tell me why,” said Hooper, who believed (correctly, Conroy would write) he should’ve been starting. Weeks went by, and his distress grew deeper.

As Conroy writes it, the final blow came when the team traveled to Florida to face Stetson.

“I was at the end of the bench, didn’t care, I was lost,” Hooper said. During the game, he talked with two Stetson cheerleaders, and “when the teams filed out, I stayed behind. The cheerleaders said, ‘Come out with us’ – I was still in warm-ups – and I didn’t get on the bus to go back.”

Thompson discovered Hooper’s absence at a postgame meeting, and called the player to his office. There, Hooper poured out a season of disappointment, asking why Thompson had buried him on the bench. The coach’s answer was, if anything, worse than that exile.

“He said he had heard I was talking about him in the barracks,” Hooper said. “That blew my mind. I didn’t know what he was talking about.”

Conroy wrote that Thompson believed Hooper had bragged about telling the coach who to play in games, a bizarre notion. Hooper, a straight-arrow, intense youngster, lost it.

“With the mystery of a loused-up season finally clear, Tee Hooper burst into tears,” Conroy wrote. “(Said Hooper) ‘I didn’t play because of a rumor some jerk hears from the barracks? It’s not fair, Coach. You should have told me. You should have told me man to man.’”

Conroy learned about the rumor and its impact on Hooper when he was researching the book.

“Thirty years later in Tee’s elegant office headquarters in Greenville … none of the pain of that season had diminished for Tee,” he wrote. “The memories still stung like paper cuts.”

Fourteen years since publication, that still hasn’t changed.

“It destroyed me for that year,” Hooper said. “I was angry … We had no respect for Thompson. He was awful. … I’ve never met a person who I felt like that about.”

For some teammates, reading about that season, with its depressing environment and stories of hard-fought victories and friendships forged, has been by turns enjoyable and liberating. Hooper, while happy with his portrayal, didn’t see benefits to his treatment back then, nor does he today.

“I became angry, and I played that way” the rest of that season and his career, he said. “I felt cheated, and I took it out on other players. It’s hard to see how that was a positive … it turned me into a more aggressive player. I took advantage (of that), and it made me a better player. But I hate to credit that, a miserable year. It destroyed me for a few months.”

Today, “I didn’t think of (the book) as cathartic,” he said. “By then I had moved on; it was a negative year, but I had moved on.”

THE BOOK

In 1996, Conroy was at a book signing in Dayton, Ohio, when he looked up and found former teammate John DeBrosse (since deceased) smiling at him, a copy of Conroy’s “Beach Music” in hand.

Bridges: “Pat looks up and says, ‘DeBrosse! You blew that layup (on purpose) because of Mel. And Johnny says, ‘No, I didn’t!’

“That’s how the book got started,” Bridges said.

In the climactic scene of “My Losing Season,” The Citadel battles Richmond and star Johnny Moates in the Southern Conference Tournament, a shootout that left both teams exhausted. Near the end, DeBrosse stole the ball from Moates and raced toward the layup that might’ve won the game … and missed. The Citadel lost, 100-98.

In the fall of 1996, Conroy and several teammates convened in Charleston for The Citadel’s homecoming. A six-hour meeting later, Conroy left with the notion of a book in his head.

“It wasn’t totally his idea,” Bridges said. “He didn’t think it’d sell at all. (He said) ‘Who’s going to read a book about losers?’”

Once in motion, though, Conroy worked tirelessly and researched extensively, calling his teammates, visiting and spending long hours reviving memories, retelling stories.

“He told me and Dave and DeBrosse, ‘Guys, we’ve got to get this right,’” Bridges said.

“We talked and he taped for 16, 18 hours,” Hooper said. “He spent the night at my house, and we talked that first day long into the night. Pat was into the problems we had with the coach, what happened to us.

“He put a lot of energy into uncovering the stories and the thoughts of the players: what do you remember about it, what do you feel today?”

Bridges says the book could’ve been published in 2000, but “an editor sent it back, said ‘we need more about your dad.’” He laughed. “I think Pat took two more years to finish out of spite.”

When the book was released and teammates read it, all were moved by seeing their long-ago travails in print, the product of Conroy’s masterful crafting. Hooper and some others believed Conroy was “too soft” on Thompson, now deceased; “sort of like he was with his father (Donald Conroy, aka Santini),” Hooper said.

But for Bridges, and others, the experience was a way to move on.

“It all came out. It was revived in the book,” he said. “I remember thinking, after I finished school: ‘Is that the end of it, right now? There’s got to be more.’”

He smiled. “The Book – that’s the rest of it.”

Early in his career, Conroy wrote two non-fiction works: “The Boo,” about The Citadel’s Lt. Commandant Nugent Corvoisie, in charge of discipline for decades (in “Lords of Discipine,” Corvoisie’s character is “The Bear”), and “The Water is Wide,” about Conroy’s brief, frustrating teaching career on Daufuskie Island. Late in his career, he wrote several books on non-fiction topics.

But “My Losing Season” remains special: nonfiction, but with the feel of his novels – a coming-of-age story that deserves a high rank in the author’s resume. It was also insightful, revealing the education (academic and otherwise) of a man who would become so important through his writing to so many.

Bornhorst sums up Conroy and “My Losing Season” best.

“His writing was very good,” he said, “but his heart was so much better. He loved The Citadel, and (as a Cadet) he had the opportunity to watch humanity in action in the barracks. Those years gave him more material than he could ever write about.”

The ring. The scars. The despair. The love. It’s all there.

The Citadel’s 1966-67 team

A look at four team members featured in ‘My Losing Season’:

Doug Bridges

Columbia Realtor

A junior described as a talented athlete with a casual attitude toward the game.

Pat Conroy

Late author

A senior and an undersized, lightly skilled but tenacious point guard.

David Bronhorst

Charleston attorney

A junior who says he was ‘the worst basketball player on the team, by far.’

Tee Hooper

Greenville businessman

A sophomore guard who would become one of the school’s all-time greats.

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