The first time I ever met Pat Summitt, the feisty, proud, defiant, and groundbreaking Tennessee Lady Volunteers women's basketball coach, she was benching her star player. On the road. In the player's hometown. Where half of the jam-packed crowd were cheering for the opposition.
It was January 2, 2008. The player in question was future back-to-back NCAA champion, #1 draft pick, and Naperville native Candace Parker, whose appearances in the Chicago area were infrequent at best--SEC-Big East matchups switch venues or are played during tournaments like the Maggie Dixon Classic. The venue was DePaul's McGrath-Phillips Arena. The game was a sellout.
Parker, making her final appearance in the Chicago area as a senior, was benched for the entire first half, potentially humiliating her in front of 60 friends and family members wearing Vols' orange, including her mother, family, friends, and several thousand fans hoping to catch a glimpse of the Beyonce lookalike, and future "face" of the WNBA. Not to mention a picture and autograph that would surely be worth something.
Why was Parker sitting? She had violated her New Year's Eve curfew, and Summitt lived up to her reputation as a no-nonsense, rule-abiding bulldog. Parker sat docily on the sidelines during the first half, as the #15 Lady Blue Demons tried to keep pace with the ferocious Vols. At the half, the Demons trailed 52-34.
Summitt told ESPN and the Associated Press at the time that she was torn on not playing Parker.
"I wanted to start her," the Hall of Fame coach said. "With our rules we have to be consistent."
As ESPN reported: "Parker started the second half to a rousing cheer from the crowd. After drawing two quick offensive fouls, she finally scored on a layup. She finished with 17 points as Tennessee scored over 100 points for the first time since last season in a 102-68 rout"
True to form, Summitt didn't let any hoopla determine the lessons of what she wanted to teach her player--that everyone, regardless of position and potential, needed to play by the rules.
Like her or not, Summit has always stood for uncompromising excellence. That's what made her the winningest coach ever, men or women. Her legacy is set.
Today, Summitt is battling in two different worlds.
As she told Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post, she'd started experiencing odd memory lapses.
“Sometimes I draw blanks,” Summitt finally admitted. Her first clue that something was badly wrong came last season, when she drew a blank on what offensive set to call in the heat of a game. Her son told the Post that she'd lose her keys three times a day. Initially, Summitt and her coaches thought it might be a reaction to the rheumatoid arthritis medication she was taking. But after a trip to the Mayo Clinic, where doctors confirmed for the 59-year- old Hall of Famer that she showed “mild” but distinct signs of “early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type,” the irreversible brain disease that destroys recall and cognitive abilities over time, and that afflicts an estimated 5 million Americans.
Unlike so many others who just faded away, Summitt's ferocity and determination to overcome rivals dictated that she couldn't walk away; she would continue to helm the Lady Vols.
"You don’t know me. You don’t know what I’m capable of,” Summitt told her doctors.
As of this day, the Lady Vols are #9 in the country at 13-9. But Sports Illustrated's 2011 Woman of the Year no longer has the control or command she once did with the team.
But as Assistant Coach Mickie DeMoss, the former Kentucky Wildcats coach who came back to help her mentor, told firstname.lastname@example.org, "We are in uncharted waters here." Her assistants have taken over a portion of her day-to-day duties.
However, that doesn't mean she isn't still fighting, or finding people to rally to her side.
The Southeastern Conference launched "We Back Pat!" Week, working to raise awareness and support for The Pat Summitt Foundation during the week of January 15-22. During the 17 women’s and 12 men’s games slated for the week, various efforts will be made to increase awareness of the Pat Summitt Foundation Fund. It is the hope of the Foundation to find a cure for Alzheimer's Disease and dementia-related disorders.
I give much credit to the SEC for initiating this event. However, as Summitt fights this progressive disease 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, it should be noted that while a week is nice, a commitment to fight and win against large odds is an ongoing battle that will not be won in a week.
For that reason, I urge that not just the SEC, but everyone who appreciates Pat Summitt's contributions to the game , families of Alzheimer's and dementia-related disorders, and all those who love women's basketball gather together and donate to this cause. A few links are provided below, courtesy of the SEC:
Visit patsummitt.org or text PAT to 74700 (message & data rates may apply). http://bit.ly/y51tEo