In many ways, the world of women’s basketball is like a family. There are feuds. There are moments of great joy. And, of course, there are trying times, like what happened Tuesday, when Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt announced that she suffers from early onset dementia.
In that moment, Summitt’s family rallied around her.
“Coach Summitt you never cease to amaze me with your strength and your courage,” tweeted Candace Parker, a player Summitt helped make a millionaire.
“There is no doubt in my mind that Pat will take on this challenge as she has all others during her Hall of Fame career — head on,” her coaching nemesis, UConn’s Geno Auriemma said in a statement. “I wish her all the best.”
There was more. Support for Summitt came from Tennessee fans like Nick Weaver, who told a local TV station: “She’s done more for women’s basketball than I think anyone else has.”
Ousted Tennessee men’s coach Bruce Pearl told Sporting News: “When I found out it was just comforting to hear how incredibly positive she is about this. She is going to take this and run with it, and she’s going to lead through it. And she’s going to be an inspiration for anyone that’s dealing with this type of dementia and Alzheimer’s.”
At a WNBA game, retired Virginia coach Debbie Ryan told the Seattle Times that she cried when she heard the news.
“This is so difficult because she’s really been the matriarch of our whole sport and someone who you see as such a pillar of character and leadership,” Ryan said of Summitt, who led Tennessee to eight NCAA titles. “She will turn this around into something very positive because that’s the way she handles everything in life. She’ll find a good plan in helping millions and millions of people that might have to go through this. This was the first step, to talk about it.”
“Matriarch” is a fitting title for Summitt, a fierce — but loveable — living legend.
For years, she has been a fixture on ESPN, a role model for a generation of girls who grew up knowing that without women like her, they might not have a chance to take on the boys at all. Summitt has coached players who were barely older than her. After her counterpart for the men’s program was embroiled in a major recruiting scandal, she was many fans’ top choice to coach that team. Her story is littered with tales like that.
Like the time she dressed up as a cheerleader to lead a packed gym in the Tennessee fight song. Or went into labor during a recruiting visit. Or fought off a raccoon that made the mistake of coming near her deck.
Summitt helped drag women’s basketball into the mainstream, and she showed others how to succeed. Some of her players grew up to become coaches themselves. Sometimes they coached against her. As of 2009, 45 of her former players were coaches — most notably that list includes Nikki Caldwell, who recently left UCLA to go to LSU, and NC State’s Kellie Harper. She’s made her mark in the pros, too. Currently, 11 former Tennessee players can be found on WNBA rosters, a number that’s tied with UConn for the highest of any school.
Early onset dementia is a fickle disease and a terrible, unfair way for the invincible Summitt to bow out. Summitt has said she plans to continue coaching for another season, and — if possible — another season after that.
“There’s not going to be any pity party and I’ll make sure of that,” she told the Knoxville News Sentinel Monday night.
Summitt inspired women to start picking up the ball and playing the game. She helped make it possible for girls to watch — and cheer — for people like them. The legendary coach has for her entire career showed young women how to win and lose with grace and grit.
That, and always keep a spare shovel around. In case of raccoons.
Nina Mandell is a staff writer at the New York Daily News. Follow her on Twitter at @ninamandell.
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