"I do remember when Chamique Holdsclaw said to me – she was up in Stokely shooting one day – and I walked in, and she turned around and stood there and she was just staring at the goal. She didn't even know I was in the gym. I said, ‘Chamique, what are you thinking about?' She said, ‘I just can't wait until postseason.' I just had a sick feeling in my stomach."
In October of 1998, the Lady Vols were getting ready to begin a new season following three consecutive national titles in 1996, 1997 and 1998 to give Tennessee a total of six championships. The coronation of the 1998-99 team began early, but that team lost its second and last regular season games – with 24 wins in between – won the SEC tourney and then fell in a regional final and missed the Final Four.
The encounter with Holdsclaw occurred several days before practice was to get underway that season, and the memory of it has clearly has stayed with Summitt. It would be 2007 before the Lady Vols would secure the program's seventh national title. Now it's the fall of 2007, this year's team is the defending national champion, and Summitt does not want the players looking ahead to the postseason.
"I told our team if you have that mentality it's going to be a difficult year because you're not going to be focused everyday," Summitt said. "It's a natural thought process. I'm sure Chamique wasn't alone. I'm sure everybody on the team was like, ‘We've won three in a row, and here we go again.' But I said it is so important that you just take it one day at a time, and it's daily improvement. It's all about building our offenses and defenses and coming together as a team."
Summitt managed to get the team together two hours earlier than the official 7 p.m. start of practice on Friday by not using all of her allotted court time earlier this week.
"They've been working really hard. They had workouts with Heather (Mason) on Monday and Tuesday," Summitt said. "They got Wednesday and Thursday off, and we didn't use our two hours. So what I did is use two hours from this past week by starting at 5 today, because the actual starting time for the NCAA was at 7 so we used 30 minutes of our time for the new week. You didn't know I knew math, did you?"
The team practiced from 5 to 7:30 p.m. – 30 minutes counted towards this week's new clock – and Pratt Pavilion passed its first test. Summitt wanted to overlap with the men's team for the final 30 minutes – Bruce Pearl and his team assembled at 7 p.m. – to test the acoustics when both teams are using the facility.
Initially there were a few echoes across the expansive court, but when the divider was lowered between courts – it looks like a massive garage door – the atmosphere was conducive to teaching.
"I didn't know how the noise level would be," Summitt said. "I wanted to (overlap with the men) so we'd get a feel for when we were both practicing. It's going to be fine."
Pratt Pavilion is closed to the media and public for early season practices because it remains under construction. Media members assembled outside could hear muffled voices and the sounds of basketball – shoe squeaks and bounces – through the vented areas on the side of the building.
"It's fabulous," Summitt said. "It hit me two or three times. I can't believe this has really happened. It's a great teaching environment. We have our own classroom outside of Thompson-Boling Arena to go to, to teach and to practice.
"When we're not in there with them, the student-athletes have access around the clock. If someone has a poor shooting night and they're not happy, and they want to go in there and take out their frustration and sharpen up their skills, they can do it."
Thompson-Boling Arena, which also hosts events such as concerts, boat shows and the circus, will now have more open dates during the season for revenue generation. But Summitt said the team will hold several practice sessions at the arena – those will be open to the media and public – once it is ready at the end of this month. The floor is scheduled to be put in place Oct. 31.
The coaches wants to practice there, too, so the players will get a feel for the new court – it will still be The Summitt – and the new look of the renovated arena with black seats and skybox suites.
"We'll have time in there," Summitt said.
Pearl and Summitt met with the construction workers to thank them for getting Pratt ready for the start of practice and the arena for the start of the season. The men's first exhibition game is Nov. 2. The women play Nov. 4.
"Bruce and I met with them, both the arena people and the Pratt people, on two different occasions," Summitt said. "It was more to thank them for what they were doing and just show our excitement and our appreciation for how hard they were working. They're working overtime there's no doubt."
As the Lady Vol players filed out of the practice facility in their new white practice uniforms into the cool October evening, they were smiling and laughing with one another.
"I think they're excited about it," Summitt said.
Candace Parker, as planned, did not practice because she is on mandated rest after playing with the U.S. Olympic team during the qualifying tournament in Chile. She arrived back on campus Oct. 2.
"I wanted her to have at least two weeks off," Summitt said. "We're looking at the very earliest the 16th (of October), and we may wait until (next) weekend."
This was the first lengthy session for the freshmen – the individual workouts last an hour – and Summitt said they handled it just fine.
"I thought they picked up on things pretty well overall," she said. "Again I go back and give a lot of credit to our veterans. The one thing about it is they want help from this group (of newcomers). We lost two 3-point shooters (in Sidney Spencer and Dominique Redding). They respect their game. They respect their skills."
The freshmen also learned about the terms "rebound" and "two points." Players say "rebound" to bounce back from a mistake and "two points" to point out good plays.
"I talked about our ‘rebound' and ‘two points' – if they are criticized or make a mistake that they just rebound and keep moving on," Summitt said. "We're not going to dwell on the negative, and ‘two points' is to accent the positive."
The team will practice this weekend and Summitt will later schedule one-on-one meetings with the players.
"I told them I will be having individual meetings with all of them," Summitt said. "I want to wait and really assess their off-season improvement and get to know the freshmen in the mix better."
After practice Summitt met with her assistants, Holly Warlick, Nikki Caldwell and Dean Lockwood, to go over upcoming practice plans. The four coaches talked strategy and terminology as they walked from Pratt to their offices in the arena. It seemed pretty clear that their focus has shifted as the calendar flipped to the start of practice.
The coaches are complemented by a team loaded with veterans – two four-year seniors, two two-year seniors and two redshirt juniors. That was apparent during practice, Summitt said.
"I complimented the upperclassmen for the leadership they provided to our four new players and talked about being patient with them – all of us, coaches and teammates," Summitt said. "I encouraged the four freshmen to ask questions and understand we're here for you and understand when you're not clear on something, it is a classroom for us, and we're trying to teach every day."
The first lesson about not looking ahead has been delivered.