I happen to be a fan of women’s college basketball, specifically the University of Connecticut’s Lady Huskies. There wasn’t a lot of attention paid to women’s basketball for a very long time, until UConn and the women who played for the University of Tennessee’s Lady Volunteers gave the country something worth watching. As much as I love the Lady Huskies, though, it is the coach of the Lady Vols, Pat Summitt, who has done more for this sport than any other single individual.
Any conversation about Pat Summitt should, of course, include all that she has accomplished during her career in womens’ basketball. It’s been the focus, in one capacity or another, for most of her life. As a player, she and her team won the Gold Medal at the Pan American Games in Mexico in 1975. She was on the Silver Medal winning team for the United States during the 1976 Montreal Olympics. She was the head coach for the women’s team at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles and they won a Gold Medal. Her tenure at Tennessee, and her teams’ astonishing record of titles, is nothing less than legendary.
It wasn’t an easy road for Coach Summitt or for women’s college basketball when she began to lead the Lady Vols 38 years ago. She was paid $250 a month and had to launder the team’s uniforms. No one really cared about women in sports then and they were certainly overshadowed by the men who played basketball – at both the college and professional level. Summitt, perhaps without even planning it, changed all that when the NCAA finally sanctioned the sport and her teams began to win games – a lot of games. To date, the women of Tennessee have taken home eight National Championships, one more than the Lady Huskies. They are a fixture in the brackets during playoff season, as if a spot was simply reserved for them, just a matter of fact.
This is only a part of this woman’s story, however. There’s another part which has been private, and nowhere near as exciting, but, at least from my perspective, says much more about her. The last few years have challenged Coach Summitt in different ways. In 2006, she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, her father died and she and her husband separated. It wasn’t obvious to fans or reporters, and she coached her team to back-to-back championships in 2007 and 2008. No one who watched her stride along the sidelines, shouting at refs and players alike, would have ever known that anything had changed. That other stuff was her personal business and never found its way onto the court.
About a year ago, her professional and private life became a public discussion as she announced that she had been diagnosed with early onset dementia – Alzheimer’s. She was profiled on “60 Minutes” a while back and, with her son by her side, explained everything to a television audience. She talked about how she first ignored little things like losing her keys 3 to 4 times a day, or not knowing what the date or day of the week was. Then the coach realized that she couldn’t recall plays for her team during games – something that, for a woman who knew these things better than almost anything else in her life – finally frightened her enough to face the problem.
She went to the Mayo Clinic and endured a battery of tests, most of which she admits, tested her patience more than anything else. When the doctors confirmed their diagnosis, Summitt realized that she had to make changes in her life, including her role as the coach of her beloved basketball team. Her son has described it as the moment when his Mom – the super hero – realized that she had a chink in her armor.
Summitt, along with her assistants and team, decided that she could take a less active role while still remaining a member of the coaching staff. It wasn’t easy for any of them. Her team and assistants, both former and current, consider her their mom, their sister and their friend. She, herself, felt that a decision to remain as head coach would shortchange the players, and might have resulted in embarrassment for all of those involved. The toll the disease has taken on her is becoming more obvious, but she’s not taking it easy by any means. The coach has a daily regimen of physical and mental exercises which she carries out with the same level of determination and will that she had for coaching. Her son is there for her, as her best friend, her staunchest ally and her biggest fan.
The other day I wrote a post poking fun at Time magazine’s list of influential people, and I still think they deserved it. I’d like to email them and ask them if one of the names, oh, I don’t care which one – Ashton Kutcher, maybe; I don’t know what he’s doing there anyway – be removed to make room for a woman whose achievements far outshine most of those candidates. Her influence will be felt for a very long time. The most heartbreaking aspect of all of this is that she will, eventually, have no memory of any of it.