In Thelma and Louise, once the women are on the run from the law, driving toward Mexico, Louise reveals that she will never cross the border into Texas. By the end, we understand the heart of her reason, but with few details.
For me Tennessee is sort of what Texas was for Louise. I try to never cross the state line, and particularly never into the city limits of Knoxville. The heart of my reason is more prosaic I guess. When I went to work at the University in the morning, it was like dog paddling in a shark tank. When I went home in the evenings, it was like cowering in the corner from a monster. It was hard to know which was worse, the men at work or the man at home.
Except Tennessee was different for me than Texas was for Louise. By the time I left I’d met the love of my life, my husband now for 24 years. And, I’d met Pat Summitt, Head Coach of the Lady Volunteers.
Because of Tom, home will always be a place of refuge for me, the safe place in a confusing and sometimes frightening world. And because of Pat Summitt, I will always believe that women can make a difference in a man’s world, can change it fundamentally, rise above its meanness, and make it new.
Because of Pat Summitt I willfully brought Tennessee into my living room every time the sports channels deigned to carry a woman’s basketball game played there.
Meeting Pat Summitt—and she was always “Pat Summitt,” two words—was one of the highlights of my time at UT, glowing just a bit less brightly than the time I met my husband at Sam and Andy’s on the Strip, looked across the table and said to myself, “I will spend the rest of my life with you.”
She had a program called “Guest Coaches.” Players invited their professors to a game, where we would eat with the team, sit in the row just behind them during the game, be introduced to the crowd, follow the team into the locker room at half time and go to the press conference afterward.
My student and Pat Summitt’s player was a forward, who is now an English professor at Penn State. I remember watching dumbfounded as Summitt ran that game. I was so in awe of her.
At half time, the six or so “guest coaches” went to the locker room. It was a low stakes game, by which I mean the Vols were winning by 30 or more points. As we came in, Summitt, at 5’11’’ was looking up into the face of 6’6” Vonda Ward.
“Vonda, do you know what a rebound is?” she roared “Are you on vacation out there?” Those steely blue eyes demanded silence and obedience.
At that moment, someone brought in her baby son, Tyler, and Summitt melted into a warm, loving mother, taking him into her arms and ignoring Ward.
When she moved around the room to meet the “Guest Coaches,” she stopped and spoke to each of us. When she found out who I was there for, she took in a deep breath and said, “Oh, she’s one of our smartest students. We’re so proud of her.” And it was clear that she meant it. You couldn’t look into those blue eyes, steely when she was angry and twinkling when she was talking to babies and professors, and not take Pat Summitt very, very seriously.
My student took us on a tour of the locker room, which was spacious and well equipped, but only recently so because of Pat Summitt’s relentless leadership. She showed us the closet that held the evening wear for the players. Long (very long), sequined evening dresses and cocktail dresses that the women wore when entertaining boosters hung in a long row.
In order to survive as a national presence with decent facilities, Summitt and her team had to raise funds off the court by charming and entertaining people with money. Sometimes it took young women in sequined dresses to do the trick. Clothes to cover the muscles and smiles to cover the humiliation.
Pat Summitt changed the world of women’s basketball. Or maybe she just created it from the kudzu covered ground of eastern Tennessee. Whichever way you see it, there would be no WNBA, no national coverage and no world-class competition without Pat Summitt.
Little did she know as she was talking to a professor that I was a 5’3” former basketball player with the heart of a Point Guard and the ball handling skills of a toddler wearing mittens.
But she probably didn’t know, either, that I looked to her as Tennessee’s saving grace. A woman who rose up out of that sexist, racist place and taught the men a thing or two about sports at the college level. She taught them about winning and she taught them about coaching athletes who graduated with real degrees.
She taught us all about persistence and fierceness, about how love can drive you to change the world.
Pat Summitt has died today at 64. She will always be a spirit that animates my soul, and I’m grateful to have met her and to witness her work.
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