Editor's Note: Author Pat Conroy, whose novel "The Lords of Discipline" and memoir "My Losing Season" were based on his experiences as a Citadel cadet and basketball player, writes about his cousin and Bulldogs coach Ed Conroy, a former Citadel player who has led The Citadel to the greatest turnaround season in Southern Conference history.
In the Conroy family, there are three sacred subjects: The Catholic Church, family itself, and the sport of basketball. My father was on the Parker High School team that won the Chicago city championship in his senior year. On scholarship, he went to a small Catholic city college called St. Ambrose in the river city of Davenport, Iowa.
The kid could play.
Before he left St. Ambrose to fight for the Marines in the Pacific Theater, he had achieved a short but stellar career that landed him in the St. Ambrose Sports Hall of Fame.
Among my brothers and sisters and a huge and rowdy cousinry, I'm the only one who remembers my father playing basketball. He was the star on every base team he ever played for and he was a ferocious rebounder, a prolific scorer and the biggest, fastest and meanest player on any court he played on.
Before trash-talking came into existence, my father would taunt the players on the other team and even their fans who were watching the game. A group of Navy men were cussing my father with such venom and loathing that my mother moved my sister and me to empty seats on the other side of the gym.
By sheer force of personality and a beautiful one-handed set shot, he would overwhelm the opposing teams as he shook his fist and cackled at the maddened fans. During one of these games, my mother leaned over and said, "Pat, if you ever play this game, don't play it like your father."
I did play the game of basketball, and I didn't play it like my father. I was not nearly as good as he had been and he reminded me of this salient fact whenever he saw me play from the time I was 10 years old until my final game as a point guard on The Citadel team of 1966-67. I was a mediocre player at best, a marginal player at worst.
When "The Lords of Discipline" came out in 1980, I was not expecting the tsunami that washed over me as The Citadel world reacted to my latest work. To say The Citadel went nuts would be an exercise in understatement. Though I've had controversial moments in my writing life, nothing compares to the explosiveness of my alma mater's response to that book. My exile from the school lasted almost 20 years, but there was one great gift I received from writing that book.
In the early 1980s, I received a long distance phone call from Iowa, and I heard an unfamiliar voice on the telephone.
"Cousin Pat," the voice said, "this is your cousin, Ed."
"Okay, Ed," I said. "Explain to me exactly who you are."
"I'm one of Ed and Carol's seven children. The third-oldest. The second-oldest son."
"Ah, the basketball player," I said. "My father's kept me posted. You've had a heck of a year, cousin. Why don't I know you any better?"
"Because I was born the year you graduated from The Citadel, 1967," said cousin Ed. "You're a lot older than me."
"Thanks, kid. What can I do for you?"
"I just read 'The Lords of Discipline' for the fourth time," Ed said.
"You want to do a book report?" I asked.
"I think I want to go to The Citadel, cousin Pat," he said.
"What is it, Ed?" I asked. "Dyslexia? A learning disability? Why would anyone in their right mind want to go to The Citadel after reading that book?"
"For the brotherhood, cousin Pat," he said with some fervor. "The brotherhood."
"The Citadel is as good as any school on earth when it comes to that."
"And the discipline," he said.
"They've got plenty of that stuff, Ed," I said. "I've got one piece of advice. Change your last name before you enroll there."
"I'm proud of being a Conroy," young Ed said. "I'm proud that you wrote that book."
"Promise me you'll never tell anyone that if you go to The Citadel," I said.
"I promise, cousin Pat," he said.
So began the journey of my cousin Ed's masterful career in the Corps of Cadets. In the long history of The Citadel, very few cadets have distinguished themselves as Ed did in academics, athletics and the military. That he was to become the Regimental Executive Officer still annoys me. As a senior private, there was always something moth-eaten and disheveled about me as I slinked around campus with my platypus gait and my unshined shoes. I looked like a plantar wart in comparison to cousin Ed's glittering brass and proud carriage in his full dress uniform.
I got to see Ed play in four or five away games during his career, and I could tell the first time I saw him bring the ball up court that he was a better player as a freshman than I had been as a senior. As a brother point guard, he was a joy to watch and he brought great pleasure into my father's life. My father witnessed over 40 of cousin Ed's games and would laugh when I reminded him that he'd attended one of mine.
"You weren't any good, son," my father would say. "Ed's the real thing."
Of all the regrets I have in my life, one of the greatest is that my father did not live to see young Ed Conroy become the head basketball coach at The Citadel. I had tears rolling down my face when Uncle Ed called me with the news. I search for the power of circles in my life, and my cousin's coaching at The Citadel is one of the most astonishing and exhilarating.
If Dad were alive, he and I would drive to Charleston tonight to watch The Citadel play Furman and try to extend the Bulldogs' 10-game winning streak. We would talk about the strangeness of history and the ties of blood and the blind indifferent swiftness of the passage of time. The entire Conroy family is so proud of Ed that the cousins want to climb up the water tower to paint his name and scream all over campus, "We've got the longest win streak in the nation."
I'll have to stand in for my father. I'll do it with great pride. I'll root for the Bulldogs with all my power and passion and I will stand tall in the knowledge that there will be two Conroys in the gym who wear the ring. Both of us have made our mark on The Citadel. Both of us take immense pride in our college. I'll sit in the Field House as the author of "The Lords of Discipline." Coach Conroy will be on the sidelines because he once fell in love with that book.