At the top of the key, Heyman drove hard for the rim, rising upward with Conner and Wetzel. I didn't even see the moment when Heyman at the top of his leap flipped the ball back to me. Running at full speed, I caught the pass belt high, as soft as an exchange of feathers between children. As the three players crashed to the floor in a pile of tangled limbs, I laid the ball into the hoop without a soul around me. It was the most beautiful and precisely delivered pass I had ever seen.
My task that summer at Camp Wahoo was to learn how to play tough defense. Tom Carmody, who coached at Bethel Park High, outside of Pittsburgh, said that defense took courage and commitment and the heart of a Siberian tiger. I burned that summer with a desire to help my team win games by refusing to let my man score a single point.
I lived for those night games. All I wanted to do was make beautiful passes to my teammates and to shut out the man I was guarding. I stayed low and in my man's face the whole game. Defense became something I dreamed about at night. I stopped Spider Lockhart on Tuesday and Hugh Corless of LaGrange College on Wednesday and the gifted Paul Long of Wake Forest on Thursday.
On Friday night I faced off with Johnny Moates of the University of Richmond, whom I had guarded on occasion in the Southern Conference during the previous two years. The games that summer were an offensive show put on for the enjoyment of the campers, a factor that worked in my favor. None of the pros or the counselors put much effort on the defensive end, except in those rare encounters with the big cats, like Heyman. My sudden dedication to defense struck some of the players as weird. Moates did not like it worth a damn.
I picked Moates up full-court my last night at my beloved Camp Wahoo, and I stuck to him like a wood tick. No one set a screen for him the whole game. No one helped him get open. His frustration turned to anger. The game was an agony for him, and he began to push me away.
"Just play ball, Conroy—this is bulls—," he yelled, then pushed me off him again.
I was not a step away from him the entire game, and Moates did not score. When the final whistle sounded I was the happiest son of a bitch in the state of Virginia.
After the game I went out into the darkness and looked at the school buildings, watching the campers and counselors drift toward the dormitories. Young boys called my name and reached out to touch me as they flowed past.
Just then, someone slapped my fanny, disrupting my reverie. A large, dark shape moved past me on the left—Mel Thompson, my college coach, smoking, that slap his wordless praise, his acknowledgment of the hard work I'd put in that summer.
We come, then, to last games. We come to the Southern Conference Tournament game against Richmond at the end of the 1966-67 season. The Citadel had gone a dismal 8-16, but there had been optimism in our locker room after the defeat by Davidson in our last game, the thought that we had given a great effort and actually frightened the Wildcats on their court. Before the tournament our practices were lively and our enthusiasm catching. I was convinced we had as good a chance of winning the tournament as anyone. If we could win three games in a row, we could spend the rest of our lives calling ourselves champions.