Cancer would be one thing. People of all ages get cancer, and famous coaches are people, too. Jim Calhoun has had it. George Karl has had it. Jim Valvano and Vince Lombardi died from it.
Cancer is bad, but with most cancers you figure you stand a fighting chance. Pat Summitt doesn’t have cancer. She has been diagnosed with early onset dementia, and in her two-minute videotaped statement to Vol Nation she was brave enough to mention the scariest word there is.
That word: Alzheimer’s.
Pat Summitt is 59. She’s among the half-dozen greatest coaches in the history of college basketball. Auriemma, Knight, Krzyzewski, Smith, Summitt and Wooden — there, in alphabetical order, is your list.
She has been the best thing about Tennessee sports for nearly four decades. I met her in 1977, back when she was Pat Head. Already in her third season as the Lady Vols’ coach, she was coming off a silver medal as a player for the U.S. women’s Olympic team, and even a raging dunce like yours truly could tell she was driven in a way only the best and brightest are.
Women’s college basketball was an afterthought then. The NCAA didn’t crown its first women’s champ until 1982 — anyone recall the old AIAW tournaments? — but from the first, Summitt and her Lady Vols comported themselves as if they were the UCLA of Wooden and Alcindor and Walton. Her teams played the hardest, were possessed of the best fundamentals and took the games the most seriously, and so what if she had to wash the uniforms herself afterward?
She has won eight NCAA titles and 16 SEC championships. Her teams have reached the Final Four 18 times. Over the years people have often wondered if the great women’s coach would have succeeded coaching men, and the answer has always been easy: She’d have won coaching fire ants. She’s that good at what she does.
But now she has early onset dementia. She plans to keep coaching, to try medication and “mental exercises” — doing puzzles before going to bed, that sort of thing. But the reason Alzheimer’s is the most terrifying of all diagnoses is because there’s no cure. You get worse and worse until you forget who those people around you are. You forget who you are.
Dean Smith, whose name appeared before Summitt’s in our above alphabetical Valhalla, is suffering from “a progressive neurocognitive disorder that affects his memory,” according to his family. But Smith is 80, and he last coached in 1997. Pat Summitt told Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post she’d like to keep coaching for three more seasons; at the same time, Summitt conceded there was a time last season when she couldn’t remember what play to call.
In her taped statement, Summitt said she’ll ask her three assistants to do more, but what she faces isn’t just a question of delegating. So long as she coaches now, she’ll be viewed in a way no coach has ever been. For decades we’ve watched her patrol the sideline and clap her hands and loose the Summitt Stare, but now, as cruel as it sounds, we won’t be thinking, “There’s the coach who has won more college games than anyone of any gender.” We’ll be wondering if she’s OK.
Then again … this is Pat Summitt. In September 1990 she’d flown, while nine months’ pregnant, to Pennsylvania to visit a prospect named Michelle Marciniak. Summitt went into labor, and en route home the pilot offered to land the private plane in Richmond.
The Lady Cavaliers of Dawn Staley were then Tennessee’s bitter rival. “I am not,” Summitt famously said, “having this baby in Virginia.”
Tyler Summitt, now a walk-on for Tennessee’s men’s team, was born in Knoxville. Six months later, the Lady Vols beat Virginia in overtime for the NCAA title.
Pat Summitt’s will can bend steel, but this is Alzheimer’s she’s facing. Proud as she is, I don’t believe she’d protest if we say a prayer.
By Mark Bradley