Arts & Culture

Pat Conroy, on Basketball and Sportsmanship

The late writer, a one-time point guard, gives advice to his grandson in a note that is both practical and tender

The writer Pat Conroy, who died in 2016 from pancreatic cancer, is buried in a Gullah cemetery on Saint Helena Island, South Carolina. He left behind his widow, the novelist Cassandra King, a loving family, and legions of devoted fans. But he also left behind decades of notes, correspondence with family and readers, and unpublished writings. A collection of those pieces was published shortly after his death in A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life.

The volume gathers letters Conroy wrote about subjects ranging from favorite books to the deaths of friends. There are also interviews, speeches, magazine articles, and a handful of Conroy’s short nonfiction pieces, as well as tributes from Conroy’s many friends and a personal essay by King about their life together. Among the gems from Conroy himself is a letter he wrote in 2015 to his basketball-playing thirteen-year-old grandson, Jack, after a particularly tough game (Conroy played point guard for the Citadel, the subject of his 2002 memoir, My Losing Season.) “I loved basketball more than anything on earth,” he writes in the letter. “But I had it under my command. I mastered the part of it I could, but first I had to master the passion and the fury that is the natural condition of the Conroy and the Giguiere males.”

Garden & Gun Exclusive: Read Conroy’s full letter:


A Letter to My Grandson on Sportsmanship and Basketball

Dear Jack, Beloved Grandson,

Let me tell you about refs and big men and fouls. No one related to you knows the subject so well. First, you must know that I write you as a Citadel point guard who was always the smallest man on the court every college game I played. No one ever worked referees like I did. I made them love me. Often, when I was called for a foul in a game, even when I didn’t think I’d committed one, I often said, “Good call, ref.” I know that’s never occurred to you in your life and it has rarely occurred to any of you big guys. We little guys have to figure out how to survive. During a practice game, the great Citadel center Dick Martini once stuffed the ball down my throat and sent me flying into the stands. He stood over me in triumph and said in triumph, “Hey, stump, don’t ever come in here when us big trees are around.” I stole the ball from him the next three times down the court when Martini tried to dribble. “Hey, tree,” I yelled at him, “don’t try to dribble when us little stumps are around, caveman.” It’s the little guys that are getting you into foul trouble.

Here is my advice. First, a basketball player is cool whenever he or she takes the court. Our team depends on us having clear heads and perfect control of our emotions. We are passionate about the game, and it is a fiery, wonderful game, but we never lose our heads even in the midst of the most fierce competition. The great big men are the coolest cats on the planet. Here is what they do not to foul out. They work on their footwork all the time, and they have powers of anticipation and an instinct for moving to the right place at the right time. Learn to dance. Dance every dance at the school prom with your girlfriend, your sisters, or your mother. Learn to be a ballerina on the court. When the big man learns to move, it is the death song for point guards like me. Also, don’t try to block every shot. If I saw a big man doing that, I would drive the basket right at him every time. When the big man tries to swat the ball, he goes off balance and then the point guard or the savvy forward eats him alive. Go straight up. Don’t lean in. Don’t swat. Get in the way. The block will come from your position and height. The ball will come up toward your hand because you’re the biggest cat in the litter.

Now we come to the most important thing…attitude, demeanor, your presence on the court. Basketball is a sport of inordinate nobility, and you owe it your deepest respect. Your character as a man and a player will be judged by how you comport yourself on the court in victory or defeat. By being gifted in a sport, you become a role model for everyone around you, your teammates, your family, your school, and your community. In sports, you will feel everything…elation, despair, wonder, failure. Sports can teach you everything you need to know about yourself. Carry yourself with immense pride. Sportsmanship is one measure of manhood that you can trust with absolute certainty. Your grandfather the Great Santini was the best basketball player the Conroys ever produced and I could not carry his jockstrap, as he reminded me after every game I ever played. Don Conroy was also the dirtiest basketball player I ever saw, and I didn’t want to be a thing like him. But I could leave the game on the court. I wanted my opponents to respect me and my teammates to love me, and they did. I won every sportsmanship trophy on every team I was ever on. I had your same competitive temperament, but I learned to control it. I learned to use it to my advantage. I wish to hell I was a big man like you, and I envy the skills your mother tells me you have because I was never a natural athlete. But I learned how to use my speed and I could dribble like few people on earth and I could take it to the hoop. I loved basketball more than anything on earth. But I had it under my command. I mastered the part of it I could, but first I had to master the passion and the fury that is the natural condition of the Conroy and the Giguiere males. Work hard on moving fast, going straight up, and sweeping the damn boards. Make peace with yourself and our glorious game. I love you with my heart.

Great love,