"Who is that guy who wrote a book about Citadel basketball?" Al Fralinger wants to know, referring to Pat Conroy's "My Losing Season."
WHO: The Citadel at Western Carolina
WHEN: 2 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Ramsey Center, Cullowhee, N.C.
"If he thinks he had a losing season, he should look at our record," said Fralinger, who played for the Bulldogs' 1953-54 team. "I could write a book better than what he wrote."
Conroy's best-seller chronicled his senior year at The Citadel in 1966-67, when the Bulldogs went 8-17 under coach Mel Thompson. And the book is emblematic of a defining characteristic of Citadel basketball; the Bulldogs have won 20 games in a season only twice, and have never played in the NCAA Tournament.
But, until this season, it was Fralinger's 1953-54 team that set the standard for basketball futility at The Citadel, losing 16 games in a row.
For 60 years, that has been the military school's single-season record for consecutive losses, now matched by this year's team. If the current Bulldogs (4-24, 0-13 in the Southern Conference) lose in Saturday's game at Western Carolina, they will break that long-standing record with 17 straight losses.
But today's Bulldogs should know this - the guys who played 60 years ago are rooting for them to win.
"Those kids playing today are a lot better than we were," says 81-year-old Skeet Von Harten of Beaufort, who played for that 1953-54 team. "They are really athletes, and they deserve a scholarship to play that level of basketball. In my time, the school didn't have money for basketball scholarships. We were just a bunch of kids who liked to play basketball."
The Bulldogs of 1953-54 were coached by Leo Zack, by all accounts a nice man who also was an assistant coach for the football team and went on to found the Leo Zack Insurance Agency in North Charleston. His first team, in 1952-53, went 4-14 despite the efforts of Bob Fischer, who led the team in scoring in 14 of 18 games that season.
"A wonderful player," Von Harten said. "Boy, could he handle the ball. When we played at North Carolina, Frank McGuire went up to Bobby after the game and said, 'Fischer, I defensed this whole game against you and you still scored 20 points. You were their only player on the floor.' Well, that was something I really didn't want to hear."
But the next season, without Fischer, the Bulldogs lost their first three games before a 71-60 win over Newberry. They then lost the last 16 games of the season, losing twice each to South Carolina and Clemson and giving up 45 and 53 points to Furman great Frank Selvy in losses to the Paladins.
Without scholarships, Fralinger said, many of the Bulldogs worked part-time jobs to make money. One of those jobs was delivering newspapers in the barracks on campus.
Players also often drove themselves to road games in their own cars.
On one trip from Tennessee to a game at Davidson, the players threw their sweaty uniforms into a canvas bag strapped to the top of the car. When they arrived for the game, the uniforms were frozen stiff.
"We had to lay them out on the radiator to thaw them out," Fralinger said.
Though the undermanned Bulldogs were competing against McGuire's Tar Heels and teams like Clemson, South Carolina and Virginia Tech - all in the Southern Conference at the time - the losing streak did weigh on them.
"It was a big deal, and we were embarrassed," said Von Harten. "But we did the best we could with what we had. If the other team was better, there's not much you could do."
After that 1-19 season in 1953-54, Zack was replaced as coach by Jim Browning, a respected professor on campus. But the 1954-55 team, captained by Von Harten and Al White, fared little better. Those Bulldogs lost their first 14 games - extending the combined losing streak to 30 games - and finished 1-18 with a lone win over Jacksonville Naval Air Station.
That year, Furman's Darrell Floyd scored 50 points in a 154-67 win over The Citadel. In the next meeting, The Citadel played a slow-down game and lost to the Paladins by 26-24.
"Coach Browing told us plain out, 'They are going to cut you,'" Von Harten said. "The only way to do it was to slow it down, and Furman decided they would play our game. There was no shot clock then, so we'd stand around and look when we had the ball, and they would stand around and look when they had the ball. I imagine it was boring as heck, but at least it was close."
Sixty years later, Fralinger and Von Harten say, the memories of the good times and adventures remain, while the sting of the losses has receded.
Von Harten went on to a distinguished career in the Marines (he received the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart) and was awarded the Order of the Palmetto in 2009 as one of Beaufort's leading citizens and conservationists.
Fralinger, from New Jersey, also served in the military and with an initial investment of $100 built one of the most respected engineering firms in south New Jersey, Fralinger Engineering. He married a Charleston girl (Caroline Molony) and has 25 grandchildren, some of whom attend College of Charleston and the Medical University of South Carolina.
"I'd tell the players now that it's just a game," Von Harten said. "It's not life and death, that's what you have to remember. Go to class and learn your stuff and play basketball for the pure joy of it. In a few years, whether you had a winning season in college won't mean a doggone thing. Have fun and improve your body and mind. If you win, that's a bonus."