Pat Summitt was in rare form. Staring daggers with voice raised, the Tennessee women’s basketball coach boiled as she watched her team practice.
I sat in the stands with a lump in my throat.
Hands literally trembling, I recall.
It was sometime during the 1991-92 basketball season, and I was a student reporter covering the Lady Vols. I attended practice to grab a story on a freshman guard.
Practice was terrible, at least by Summitt’s standards. The Hall of Fame coach fumed. She stopped drills to correct mistakes, to plead with someone to box out, to admonish poor execution.
I grew up in Tennessee, so like everyone else on Rocky Top, I loved Pat Summitt. All Tennesseans — men and women, young and old, basketball fans and non-basketball fans — adored Pat Summitt.
That warm, universal embrace was one that few public figures ever encounter, which was reflected in the outpouring of sorrow and solemn remembrance Tuesday over news that Summitt had died at age 64 after suffering from early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s.
As fans, we admired her toughness. She was unapologetically tough. My family and friends often (half) joked that we wished she was governor because she would whip politicians into shape.
And her stare? Whew, that icy stare made people quiver.
Her love of Tennessee filled us with pride. Summitt went into labor with her only child, Tyler, during a recruiting trip to Pennsylvania. Summitt finished the visit, hustled back to her private plane and instructed the pilot to fly directly to Knoxville because her baby was being born in Tennessee, nowhere else.
Tennesseans smiled, said darn right and loved her even more.
I met Summitt for the first time as a cub reporter at that ragged practice. She seemed in a really bad mood. Suddenly, my prearranged one-on-one interview didn’t sound like such a swell idea.
At the end of practice, Summitt told me to accompany her to her office for the interview.
My legs wobbled as I made my way. Summitt sat down, smiled and said, “Now, what would you like to talk about?”
She was fabulous. She was gracious and insightful and funny. She treated me with respect, made me feel at ease, heck, even important.
My admiration for Pat Summitt multiplied that day.
How does one accurately and thoroughly articulate the legacy of a legend? Summitt wasn’t just a basketball coach. She was a pioneer, a champion for women.
Her impact on women’s basketball is immeasurable. Her influence on my home state cannot be overstated.
Summitt gave women’s basketball a voice and credibility in a male-dominated sports world.
I remember hearing my dad and one of his brothers discussing and dissecting a Lady Vols game. Two brothers raised in a generation that largely ignored women’s sports.
Summitt built a dynasty from scratch on blue-collar toughness and humility. Her program exuded class. Everything earned, nothing given.
She showed that it was acceptable for coaches to push women athletes, be tough on them and demand excellence. Heaven help a player who relaxed on defense or didn’t dive for a loose ball.
Provincialism is a hallmark of every state, and Summitt’s success gave my state constant reason to gloat. She won 1,098 games and eight national championships. She took 18 teams to the Final Four.
Lady Vols basketball became appointment viewing in many households.
Success never dimmed Summitt’s fire. She kept pushing and demanding and loving her players. And they loved her back.
“She has been players’ mothers, players’ fathers, she’s been your sister,” former player Jody Adams said. “She’s been a little bit of everything to a lot of us.”
Adams is a friend of mine from my hometown. She first met Summitt the summer before her ninth-grade year while attending Summitt’s camp. During a scrimmage, Adams landed awkwardly on a rebound and tore her ACL.
Summitt, who was there to scout Adams, came on the court, scooped her up with both arms and carried her off the court. That was Summitt in a snapshot, always protective of players.
Fast forward six years, 1991. Summitt kicked Adams out of practice because she didn’t yell “outlet” loud enough on a fast-break drill. It was a week before conference games started. Tensions were high.
“It was her way of making me tougher before we try to go win an SEC championship,” Adams said. “She wanted to make sure my switch was on.”
Adams led the team to the national championship that season.
Summitt loved pushing buttons to foster competitive fight. She pulled Adams aside one day to talk about the way she walked. Adams was small, only 5-4. Summitt wanted her point guard to carry herself like a confident giant.
“She said, ‘You have to walk with a purpose, you’ve got to say things with a purpose,’ ” recalled Adams, now the women’s basketball coach at Wichita State. “In my own way, I needed to demonstrate a strength that the team would need and would want to follow. It’s all about energy and fight.”
Adams laughs about it now.
“She tried to change my gait!” she said.
Pat Summitt changed the world in ways both big and small. Maybe it was by demanding proper rebounding position, or pushing for gender equality, or displaying courage and grace in the face of failing health.
She was a champion to many, a strong leader who showed how to be tough yet gracious with a splash of southern charm.
I deeply admired her for all that she was and all that she gave to her beloved Tennessee and beyond.