The man who inspired MY LOSING SEASON left us too soon…
Hey, out there,
My basketball teammate John DeBrosse died September 25, 2013 in Dayton, Ohio. He was the shooting guard on the Citadel team I wrote about in my book My Losing Season. It was John’s surprising and unexpected arrival at a book signing for Beach Music that reignited a friendship I’d lost when I graduated. I spotted him wandering through the aisles of books looking as awkward as a wildebeest in the shopping mall where I was signing.
“Hey, DeBrosse, you ever been in a bookstore before?” I asked. “Once, Conroy,” he came back fast, as he always had, “I was lost.”
“You ever read any of my books, DeBrosse?” I said.
“I tried once. They all sucked. Just like their author,” John said. “Hey, Conroy, would you come home and meet my wife and family? They think I make this shit up. They don’t think I know you at all.”
That ride into the Dayton night with John DeBrosse changed the course of my whole life and the arc of my career. We talked about the team we played on together in 1966-67 – that humiliated, beaten down tribe who staggered to an 8-17 record and felt lucky to win eight games. The painfulness of that year lay etched in DeBrosse’s round Ohio face as he described his mortification over a losing season that’d happened thirty years ago.
When he began to discuss the last game we ever played together, he asked me if I remembered a layup that he had missed in the final minute of a tournament game against Richmond. I told him I remembered the moment down to its last painful detail.
“I didn’t miss layups, Conroy“ he said with sudden fierceness. “I never missed a lay up in my life.”
“It didn’t come at a good time, John,” I said, knowing that the missed layup had cost us the game and our chance to meet West Virginia in the semi-finals of the Southern Conference tournament.
At the next red light, John DeBrosse reached across the van and squeezed my wrist hard. “I didn’t miss that layup on purpose, Conroy. I promise I didn’t miss on purpose.”
I laughed and said, “Of course you didn’t, John. You couldn’t even think like that.”
“Our coach did. Mel Thompson thought I missed that shot on purpose because I knew I could get him fired.”
“Hell, I’d have missed the layup if I thought Mel would’ve gotten fired,” I said.
My long conversations with DeBrosse that night led to the writing of My Losing Season. I tracked down all my teammates and my coach and interviewed them about every single aspect of that disheartening year. I listened to grown men cry about their frustrations and failures and resentments of that long ago season. I ended up falling in love with their families and children and could feel that love returned in full measure. In the end, my team came together again because the book turned us into the team we should have been, but never could be. It might be the best book I ever will write. It all began when John DeBrosse walked into a bookstore for the first time in his life.
My shooting guard, John DeBrosse, died this past Wednesday after being in a coma for a week. I was in New Orleans when I talked to his wife Pam and she told me that their children had assembled in the room to discuss taking him off life support. I cried on the phone, but Pam was rock-like and spent her time comforting me. She and John used to come to Fripp Island to spend weeks in our summerhouse. Every time I’d see John, he’d bring up that god-forsaken season again and again. It especially galled John that Coach Thompson had named me most valuable player on that undeserving team when John had enjoyed a far better season than I had. With humor and some petulance, John would grab my tarnished trophy and walk about with it around the Fripp Island house.
“I’m taking it, Conroy. It’s mine. I earned it and you didn’t,” DeBrosse would say.
“I’ll let you sleep with it, DeBrosse,” I said. “Or you could take it for rides in Beaufort. But bring it back, loser. It belongs to me.”
“You, the most valuable player? The worst player on the team gets MVP. And you’re a Bolshevik who voted for Obama,” John would say, fuming. “How did you get to be a Communist going to a school like The Citadel, Conroy?”
“I met so many nice Nazis like you, John. It was easy.”
“That MVP award? That trophy still should be in my house and not yours.”
“You didn’t deserve it, DeBrosse. You missed that layup on purpose and got our poor coach fired,” I said, as John grabbed the trophy and held it in his lap.
In the time we were young men together, John and I were part of an American generation of males who had no clear ways to talk emotionally with each other. We had to invent a language that only we could understand and interpret. We would curse each other and knock each other all over the court and elbow our way to the basket and stick our forearms into the chests of those who came at us in the controlled fury of games. Even as adults, DeBrosse and I would pick at each other, mouthing off as we showed off to our wives and kids, and turning almost boy-like again when surrounded by our own teammates from that lost, ugly year. But I knew the secrets of how men communicate by observing DeBrosse and my teammates as we gathered ourselves together after My Losing Season came out. When we cuss each other out, call each other the vilest names on earth, and put each other down with thoughtless cruelty, it is the only way we know and the only language we have to express our ardent love for each other. John and I were men of a lock-jawed generation who lacked a specific language to communicate in the deepest places those hardest of things.
Dave Bornhorst and Doug Bridges are going to the funeral to represent our team. I’m on a book tour and cannot, to my shame and guilt, attend. But Dave and Doug are carrying up a memento from those days of anguish and friendship. They are taking a huge basketball trophy up with them to present to the family with a plaque that reads:
Most Valuable Player
The Citadel Basketball Team 1966-67
From his teammates in My Losing Season
Before John died, I asked Pam to do something for me as a favor. I asked her to kiss John for me, then whisper these words into his ear:
“Hey, John DeBrosse, your point guard says goodbye and he’ll love you the rest of his life. Thanks for giving me My Losing Season.”
Pam did so.