I was at the end of my sophomore year at The Citadel when the letter arrived from Bill McCann, the former coach at Virginia, telling me that I had a job as a basketball counselor at Camp Wahoo. This was the first of two summers I dedicated to improving my game and to becoming the kind of player other teams feared. During the previous year, I had begun to understand how far behind my game was, compared to those of my teammates and opponents. The coaching I got in high school had been shaky and haphazard at best. I didn't have a clue about anything I did on the court. I'd learned everything by imitating players better than me. Coach Paul Brandenburg had surprised me by stopping a freshman practice and telling the team that I had the best reverse dribble he'd ever seen. I didn't have the foggiest notion what he was talking about.
For those two summers at Wahoo, in 1965 and '66, I lived in the center of the game through sunburned clinics at which I assisted famous coaches and players teaching the fundamentals to boys as eager as beagle puppies. I listened to men like the incomparable Jerry West explain the rudiments of ball handling and shooting and defense.
The campers arrived on a Sunday with their parents, and 20 15-year-old boys were assigned to my dormitory room that first summer. I took to the role of counselor my experience as the oldest brother among seven children. I was easy in the company of young boys, especially the sassy, rebellious ones sent by parents who needed a vacation from their mouthy sons. Camp Wahoo's genius lay in the fact that it kept even the crossest kid exhausted and out of breath.
An odd, unsettling event took place on my very first workday. As I was walking with other counselors and campers toward court number 5, a voice called out, "Conroy!"
I turned around and was shocked to see Mel Thompson, my head coach at The; Citadel, smoking a cigarette on the steps. He seemed as surprised to see me. "What the hell you doing here, Conroy?" he asked.
"I needed to work on my game, Coach."
"That's the truth. Who told you about Camp Wahoo?"
"Coach Brandenburg got me the job."
He eyed me obliquely. "He did, huh?" Coach Thompson always looked at you from odd angles, as though there were a tree or a bush blocking his view. "Why didn't you tell me about it?"
"I didn't know you'd ever heard of Camp Wahoo, Coach."