Fourteen or so years ago, my brother and I cut across a parking lot by Thompson-Boiling Arena on the way to a Tennessee/Notre Dame football game. We wove among tailgaters talking about our mom’s cancer having come back, trying to make sorts of the crushing news and the next thing I knew my brother was sprawled (and I do mean sprawled) out on the ground having been taken out by a kid. I looked at the kid to make sure he was ok, smirked at my brother and in with in a second was paralyzed by fright. A voice said something like this “Tyler, I’ve told you a hundred times”. I REALLY made sure the kid, one Tyler Summitt, was ok. The last thing I needed in my life was my brother harming the prince of East Tennessee. Everybody knew Tyler, everybody knew Pat and now my brother was sprawled out on a parking lot having taken out a kid. Great.
The first thing Pat Summitt did was make sure my brother was ok. | stood there stunned. Pat made Tyler apologize, then she apologized and we parted ways. As we walked away, I looked at my brother and said you had better be grateful you didn’t harm Tyler Summitt.
Since I went to my first UT game in 1988 until last year, one thing was the same. Pat would prowl the sidelines, barking at her team, the officials, Smokey and just about everybody at TBA. This year has been nothing short of painful. Every game, every venue opposing fans would pay tribute. Reporters from major outlets have talked about how Pat Summitt single handedly changed the perception of women’s athletics (with a major assist from Title IX). As clearly as I can see the fantastic title game in Kansas City, I can see the painful losses – the national title game in Philly where they carried Geno around … and the back door cuts after back door cuts. The loss in the 2001 regional semi final where I was so mad, I went out at got something good that was orange. A cat (really) – it’s how Jackson came into my life. He was almost named Pat – but I had a nephew Patrick and well, Jackson is a boy.
Pat Summitt has done it all in her sport: the first Olympic Captain for women’s basketball, 1098 career victories, more than one court named after her, legions of fans, a 100% graduation rate: last night 3 graduate students started for Tennessee. I turned the game off at half time. I couldn’t watch it anymore. Tennessee was going to lose. I couldn’t see through my tears. This wasn’t the most talented team – Baylor deserved the win. I wanted a fairy tale ending. I wanted one more title.
The answer is that this is the legacy of Pat: more teams are more competitive than at any other time in women’s basketball. Stanford, Baylor, UConn, Tennessee, Kentucky, Duke, Maryland, Notre Dame, LSU, Georgia all have or are building in the case of Kentucky, deep basketball traditions. Women in sports are becoming more the norm: I work with a former DI hockey player. My niece is a fantastic ball player. A daughter of a friend is on a traveling volleyball team. There were other programs that embraced Title IX (Anson Dorrance at UNC leaps to mind with soccer) but basketball is a sport that most individuals will probably play (from H-O-R-S-E to competitive) at some point during their lives.
I watched the clips from Holly Warlick and Kim Mulkey today. Both were fraught with emotion and near tears. At some point, Pat will step down. Probably this off season. It hurts. Alzheimer’s is an ugly, brutal disease that does nothing but rob people.
As I’ve thought about how much this feels painful, I remember that crisp October afternoon. A chance encounter with an iconic figure. And oh, how she will be missed.