How do you write something you never wanted to write?
We all knew this day was coming. Early onset dementia spares no one, and the disease can move horrifyingly fast.
A little over four years ago, Pat Summitt walked off the sideline for the Lady Vols for the last time. On June 28, 2016, she succumbed to a brutal disease just two weeks after her 64th birthday, depriving one of the greatest coaches of all times the prime years of her life.
Summitt should have been sitting on the back deck at her house along Fort Loudoun Lake with her beloved dogs watching the sun set and reminiscing about nets cut and lives impacted. Instead, she passed away quietly in a darkened room at a care facility. Her son, Tyler Summitt, ended visits with his mother on Monday as it became apparent that her life would be measured in hours.
Those closest to her – and it was a rather long list since it included not just family and close friends, but also coaches and former players – had been paying their respects over the last two weeks. When the news of her death came early Tuesday morning, the tributes started and have not stopped. Icons in every arena have saluted Summitt.
A few weeks ago, Summitt was doing OK – at least as well as could be expected with this disease. But her condition deteriorated rapidly – Summitt also had suffered for years with rheumatoid arthritis – and the cumulative effect took its toll.
Still, the news was stunning, even to those closest to her. While we all hang onto life by a proverbial thread, and death can come at any time, it had seemed that Summitt would live longer than five years after her diagnosis in 2011. But the life expectancy following onset of symptoms – in Summitt’s case, that would be 2010 – can be six to 12 years, depending on dementia type and other health factors. In a clinical sense, Summitt’s death is within the parameters. In the emotional sense, it’s impossible to understand.
An email sent by a friend today summed it up well. She knew Summitt was ill. She knew the end was at hand. She closed the email with this: “But how does a mountain disappear?”
I emailed back something former Lady Vol Kelley Cain posted on Facebook: Pat is probably telling Jesus to play defense.
I knew we both needed to smile. And I don’t know how a mountain disappears.
Summitt was an iconic figure in the game. The tone could be reverential when she was discussed, especially in the final season when the awards and honors seemed endless. During one particularly over-the-top presentation by a group in 2012, Summitt looked at her staff and said, “Well, hell, I’m not dead! I’m still here!”
The remark cracked up the room.
Yes, Summitt would curse at times. She always frowned upon the deification of coaches. She once told me: “I’m just a redneck from Henrietta.” When Summitt was introduced to anyone, she would extend her hand and say, “I’m Pat Summitt.” When I pointed out later that the person already knew that, Summitt would smile and say it was the polite thing to do.
At her core, she was a teacher. The basketball court was her classroom. A player who stepped across those white lines was hand-chosen by Summitt to wear orange and white, and the expectations extended well beyond basketball. The 100-percent graduation rate of players who completed their eligibility over her 38 years was her proudest accomplishment.
Summitt opened up her classroom to the media and fans. I watched hundreds of practices and got the best basketball education of my life.
The numbers are well-documented – the 1,098 wins, the eight national championships, the eight halls of fame, the John R. Wooden Legends of Coaching lifetime achievement award, et al. Summitt would shake her head if anyone starting reciting the list. The numbers are never what mattered to Summitt. She always pointed out that she never scored a point for the Lady Vols. Her humility endured even as she became a household name.
The tributes are pouring in for Summitt – and rightly so. She deserves every accolade. She changed the sport of women’s basketball and captivated fans across the world. The Lady Vols moniker became synonymous with excellence.
Over the last three days I have appeared on radio and TV – even the BBC from London called – trying to capture the essence of Summitt in the allotted time for each show. I don’t think any of us have our arms around this just yet. While waiting in the WATE-TV newsroom Tuesday evening to appear on a special tribute to Summitt, I saw a live interview with Holly Warlick on a monitor. It was apparent she had been crying. Lady Vol Nation lost its coach. Warlick lost her best friend.
The former Lady Vols have mentioned in multiple interviews that they have leaned on each other to get through the death of their coach, mentor and mother figure. They are being strong for Summitt.
What can all of us do? Go to her foundation and make a donation of any amount. Summitt wanted her life’s final act to be finding a cure for Alzheimer’s.
Back Pat. Always Back Pat.