"The Final Season: The Perseverance of Pat Summitt," will be published Oct. 1 by University of Tennessee Press. The book can be ordered online here.
Chapter one ran today on the site of Swish Appeal.
The following is chapter two from my book for IT subscribers.
Copyright © 2016 by The University of Tennessee Press/Knoxville. All Rights Reserved.
SPRING AND SUMMER 2011
Dean Lockwood was the third assistant coach on the staff to know Pat Summitt had dementia. Holly Warlick and Mickie DeMoss knew about a week earlier, because Lockwood was on vacation in his home state of Michigan and was sometimes out of the reach of wireless devices. The two other assistants opted to alert him after he returned to Knoxville.
May is one of the few quiet months for basketball coaches. The players are finishing exams and getting ready to go home for a few weeks before summer school starts. The head coach’s basketball camps are in June—all hands are on deck for those, including the players’—and July is a monthlong, cross-country journey to evaluate recruits, with international trips added if Lady Vol prospects are playing in USA Basketball world championships events. So May is the one month when coaches take vacations and, in Warlick’s case, the month of her annual motorcycle ride with former Lady Vol Nikki Caldwell, the head coach at LSU, to raise awareness and funds for breast cancer research.
In 2011, Summitt used May to travel to the Mayo Clinic with her son, Tyler. She knew something was wrong, though there were valid explanations. Rheumatoid arthritis had taken its toll on her joints, and the medications to alleviate the pain and symptoms could cause memory loss and confusion. The staff and players had noticed changes in Summitt, though nobody thought it rose to the level of dementia. DeMoss had returned to Tennessee for the 2010–11 season after stints at Kentucky and Texas. DeMoss had been by Summitt’s side from 1985 to 2003. The time away from Tennessee gave her a different perspective on Summitt, and she noticed some changes.
“She was just quieter,” DeMoss said. “She seemed a little bit more detached from the program. She wasn’t constantly talking and coaching. That is just not Pat. That was not the Pat that I knew. I was very concerned. But I didn’t know. You certainly don’t want to jump to conclusions. It wasn’t just one day or one moment. It was a process.” While DeMoss wasn’t overly alarmed, she did push for Summitt to get a thorough health assessment at season’s end.
Examinations at the Mayo Clinic confirmed that Summitt had early onset dementia, a diagnosis she resisted before coming to terms with it over the summer. Tyler immediately took charge of the situation in terms of a medical plan back home and restructuring of finances. Immediately after the trip to the Mayo Clinic, Summitt went to Destin, Florida, for the SEC annual meetings. June and July were filled with summer basketball camps and recruiting, and then the reality of the diagnosis hit her in August.
Summitt retreated to her darkened bedroom for several days, and it took Tyler breaking down to get her to her feet. Lockwood returned to Knoxville from vacation and learned of the diagnosis. He still struggles to recall the details of how he found out. “Here’s the thing. A lot of things I can have crystal clarity about, but that isn’t one of them,” Lockwood said. “Pat went to the Mayo Clinic in the spring. We were noticing things. She had decided it’s time to go and something’s not right. She went and came back. I don’t know who she told first and when, but she laid low for a while. She didn’t just come back and say, ‘Here is what happened.’ When I came back is when I knew for sure. It was later in May when I actually knew it had been diagnosed.”
Warlick was among the first to know. She went to Summitt’s house soon after the return from the Mayo Clinic. “I suspected something. I noticed very subtle things. You explain it by being tired, and I forget stuff,” Warlick said. “But to hear her say what she said . . . you are talking about this person who had been sharp and on her game all her life. You find out she has this disease. She was crying. We were crying. We were at her house on her back porch. It was so surreal. She was telling us about the testing.”
Summitt was hosting an event that day, so after telling Warlick, she had to immediately get ready for guests. “We ended up going over to the pool house,” Warlick said. “Pat said, ‘I can use it to my advantage.’ She said, ‘I can have anything I want to drink. And if someone says, ‘Pat, you’re drinking too much,’ I can say, ‘I forgot. I have dementia.’ ”
The coaches closed ranks as they determined how to proceed. Debby Jennings, of course, was told. She had been a trusted confidant of Summitt’s for 35 years. Joan Cronan, the interim athletics director at that time, and UT-Knoxville Chancellor Jimmy Cheek were notified in August, a few days before the team was told. Summitt went into the August meeting with longtime lawyer Robert B. Barnett, who had forewarned the head coach that the school could ask for her resignation. Instead, Cronan and Cheek cried, vowed to help Summitt as much as they could, and told her she would remain coach for as long as she wanted to do so. Summitt expressed a desire to coach for three more seasons, if possible.
“Your first thing—and I am wired this way; I was raised this way—but you protect people in your program,” Lockwood said. “This place has always been like that. Pat has always run it like that. She brought people in her circle and you did things together and confided in one another. It is more like a family than just colleagues.” Lockwood coached on the men’s side at Tennessee with stints at Northwood University in Michigan, Central Michigan, and Saginaw Valley State University. His admiration and respect for Summitt had always run deep. He worked her camps, and while Lockwood was a Vols assistant coach at Tennessee from 1986 to 1991, he would watch her practices and takes notes. Summitt was a coaching colleague and friend to Lockwood, and he returned to Knoxville in 2004 for one reason: the chance to work for her. Now, he had to ponder the sea change he knew was coming.
“I was just very sad and certainly thought of the implications. How is this going to impact her? Will she be OK? My dad had dementia in the late years of his life. How soon will we see another turn? I thought about her coaching and how much she loved coaching and how this would, quite honestly, shorten the time she had left to coach. I wasn’t dwelling on them by the hour, but those things were in my head. And really it came back to this: ‘What is best for Pat? What do we need to do to protect Pat and this program?’”
The basketball community is a close-knit and insular one. Coaches, especially ones like Summitt who have been in the game so long and won multiple national titles, are closely scrutinized by their colleagues. Lockwood heard from one of those coaches about two weeks after the 2010–11 season ended. He declined to identify the coach but said her intentions were those of concern: “There was a Division I coach that loved Pat. Just respected Pat to the nth degree. Read every book that she’s done. Read every clinic note that she could get her hands on. She studies Pat. Every time a game is on, she watches. And she called me that spring about two weeks after the season was over and she said, ‘I don’t mean to pry. Is Pat OK?’ I said, ‘What makes you ask?’ She said, ‘I’ve just noticed there’s a difference. She is not quite the Pat I have seen. There is just something that is different. She is just not the same. I just hope she is OK.’” The staff had been asked about Summitt during that season, too. Tara VanDerveer, the longtime coach at Stanford, had inquired about her colleague. Those who had known Summitt well—or like the coach, had watched her so closely—noticed changes, although nobody thought it was as serious as Alzheimer’s.
Summitt was one of the game’s trailblazers and a major reason TV contracts became commonplace and women’s basketball coaches became well compensated. She was well liked and respected, but the staff also knew there were some among their ranks who would try to exploit her diagnosis, especially in recruiting. Some coaches were jealous of Summitt and resented her popularity and ability to reel in top recruits, and a vulnerable Summitt would be an opportunity for them to pounce. It would become brutal once the news was officially released later that summer, so the coaches tightened the circle around Summitt on the road while they still had control. It wasn’t easy, however. Summitt is popular at any gym she enters. Coaches want to talk to her. Fans want autographs. Photographers turn their lenses in her direction.
That started with the summer recruiting circuit. Coaches sit on bleachers for hours in gyms that sometimes lack air conditioning. It is very cozy and also a time for coaches to chat informally, away from the daily pressures and demands of the season. “That summer we made an extra effort to circle around her if people were trying to get too close,” Lockwood said. “People just want to be around Pat, and she is so welcoming. We were a little bit of a buffer. We didn’t want people who were prying and trying to find out more.” Former players and those close to Summitt penetrated the buffer. The rest were kept from getting direct access to her. “We wanted to keep them at bay,” Lockwood said. “There were other people we felt like we kind of needed to have our radar and antenna up [around], and we circled up around her. We were aware of that at the onset.”
The staff knew the news would rock the sport. The first step was for the coaches to adjust to a different but still quite capable Summitt: they had to get through a vital recruiting period unscathed. The second step was to tell the Tennessee administration: that went very well with Cronan and Cheek. The third step was to tell the team. The final step was to announce it publicly.
When the players walked out of the basketball offices on August 23, 2011, they were about to embark on a basketball season like no other.
Copyright © 2016 by The University of Tennessee Press/Knoxville. All Rights Reserved.