Pat Summitt faces a new opponent

I’ve been staring at a blank page for hours. Usually when this happens, the problem is that no words are coming. Not today. Today so many words are coming that I can’t decide which ones to use. And a lot of them give rise to the kind of feelings I’m not used to sharing.

But how can I not write about Pat Summitt?

The news seems to be everywhere: The 59-year-old head coach of the University of Tennessee Lady Volunteers basketball team has been diagnosed with early onset dementia related to Alzheimer’s. Even news outlets that never cover women’s basketball are covering this, because Summitt is more than a coach; she’s a legend.

Here’s Pat’s statement. (If you can’t watch the video, you can read it here.)


Coach Summitt is an unlikely hero for me. I was too small to be good at any sport besides softball. I tried to play basketball in a church league, but rarely left the bench. Nobody tells the short kid that mastering the fundamentals can make a good player out of most anyone — at least nobody told me. Beyond that, women’s basketball wasn’t even part of my consciousness. I’m pretty certain I never went to a women’s game in college since, considering the effect women’s basketball players have on me, I surely would’ve realized my sexual orientation sooner.

In fact, I started watching WBB because of dating a woman who’d played in college. I watched whatever game was on and gradually caught on to the rules and strategy. And, of course, I started noticing that the women who played were very, very hot.

Then, one day, while watching a Lady Vols game, I saw UT point guard Kellie Jolly race down the court on a fast break with a defender in hot pursuit. Just as she reached the basket, with the defender sure to block her, Jolly threw a no-look pass over her shoulder to Chamique Holdsclaw, who was running behind her down the court. Claw caught the pass and got the lay-up.

It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in my life.

The more I watched women’s basketball, the more I realized that the best of the best all seemed to play for Pat Summitt.

At first, Pat scared me. I was uncomfortable with how she’d get in a player’s face and ream them for messing something up. But the more I watched, the more I realized that she was doing no less than calling the player’s best into being. I rarely saw a player fail to respond to such an encounter. UT players knew that they were always just one poor effort away from the bench.

When I got to see a few UT games in person, I saw that Pat watches the game like a hawk. She sees everything and knows exactly what each of her players is capable of. Every second of the game is an opportunity to teach. And every Lady Vol player has come there to learn from her.

To be honest, the past year or so I’ve wondered what was going on with Pat. Sure, she had a young team that needed to learn what it meant to be Lady Vols. But more than once, I saw Pat sitting silent on the bench in the face of a poor team performance. Sure, most coaches do that now and then. But Pat is not most coaches.

As devastating as a pre-Alzheimer’s diagnosis is, I’m glad the problem has been identified. She is responding exactly as we would expect — by calling her own best into being.

The definitive account of the story is by one of her dearest friends, Washington Post writer Sally Jenkins. Reading it will give you the facts and a glimpse of Pat and her son Tyler’s resolve in the face of this challenge. It’s also a damn fine piece of writing.

I don’t know if even Pat Summitt can beat Alzheimer’s. But I know that her having it means that more will be done to find a cure. And I know her days of sitting silent on the bench are over.

Join me in wishing her well.