Did You Really Expect Pat Summitt To Go Quietly?Posted by jstevrtc on August 24th, 2011
We don’t often wander into the territory of women’s college basketball. In the past, it’s taken some landmark occurrence — say, a coach reaching one of those round-number milestone games, or some ridiculous play, or an awesome fight may have gotten a mention in the Morning 5. This isn’t really because of any animosity or lack of respect toward the women’s game. It’s simply not what we cover. You could say the same thing for the men’s game in Division II or III. It’s not what our editors and correspondents all have in common. Only the most extremely newsworthy circumstances would result in a mention around here.
Unfortunately, something extremely newsworthy happened yesterday.
By now, you’ve heard the news that Tennessee coaching legend Pat Summitt has been diagnosed with a disease called early-onset dementia of the Alzheimer’s type. There’s a good chance you’ve read at least one or two of the glowing articles about Summitt, all unquestionably well-founded in their praise and their rememberances of her career. Other than to mention that surreal number of career wins and preposterous-looking record — that’d be 1,071-199 and counting (on which more in a moment), an 84.3% win rate — we will not cover that well-documented ground here. We’re not going to use this woman being diagnosed with a cruel disease as a reason to start talking about women’s college basketball or what she’s meant to that game like we’ve been secretly following it all along as some sort of afterthought. We all know she’s a legend, a title she’s earned regardless of her gender or that of the athletes she coaches. Everyone’s aware of how she belongs in the discussion, if not carved into the theoretical rock, of possible candidates for a basketball coaches’ Mount Rushmore, if one were ever to be constructed. She needs our approval about as much as she needs a flat tire or an IRS audit.
As we read through the several articles generated from yesterday’s awful news, however, we were floored by one piece of information that has nothing to do with Final Fours or national championships or all-time wins numbers. It’s bigger than any of that. What got our collective head shaking in admiration was that, having been given this diagnosis, after working through the denial and anger phases of grief that come with this sort of news, she didn’t decide to retire and attend future UT games as some legend emerita, soaking up compliments from spectators in inferior seats, taking photos and signing autographs until she simply couldn’t anymore. Not even close. No, folks, THIS woman…decided to continue coaching.
Given what we know about her, our surprise evaporated quickly. According to the article by Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post — the author is a good friend of Coach Summitt, and the article is one you simply must read for yourself — Summitt has already yielded some of her coaching duties to her assistants, and that includes in-game play calling. You know how hard that must have been for her. And the effects of the disease are already showing. This wasn’t just found on a routine checkup, you see. In her article, Ms. Jenkins describes how Summitt has been noticing memory deficits for about a year, and has known about the diagnosis for the past three months.
This is why Summitt’s decision to continue coaching is especially remarkable. There aren’t many entities with a better win-loss record than Pat Summitt, but unfortunately Alzheimer’s disease is one of them. If you could take a medical snapshot of the planet right now, you’d find that Alzheimer’s disease is currently fighting battles with about 30 million people, and it’s winning every one of them. It is undefeated. And that’s just right now. That undefeated record stretches back to the beginning of time.
Pat Summitt, though, is not impressed by 30 million wins against zero defeats. She isn’t whining because only 7% of people who are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s-type dementia have the “early-onset” subtype, meaning that she didn’t just get a bad deal, but the worst possible bad deal. And Coach Summit is not intimidated that her opponent is still a relative unknown. Our brains are just a conglomeration of nerves that talk to each other with electricity and chemicals that travel at unreal speeds between those nerves. As of now, the best theory about Alzheimer’s disease is that maybe it’s caused by big gobs of a weird type of protein that gets deposited in one’s brain and makes those nerves get tangled up and not work as efficiently, if at all. When that happens, the electricity doesn’t travel as fast. The chemicals don’t get made or sent. The conversation between nerves stops. And because every thought, emotion, action, and memory you’ve ever had and ever will have has been/is determined by that interplay of electricity and microscopic amounts of those chemical substances, if that conversation slows or stops…well, over time, memories start to vanish. The ability to acquire new memories departs. Personalities change, then disappear. Movements become difficult or impossible. We don’t need to describe how it plays out from there. You know. Her 20-year old son knows.
Pat Summitt knows all of this. She knows we’ll see it, especially now that everyone will be watching for it. Still, she chooses to remain in the public eye and live according to her true nature; she is a coach. Better put, she is a teacher, and now she’s teaching all of us.
People watch sports for various reasons. Sure, there’s drama, amazing athletic ability, that feeling of enhanced identity when “your” team wins. On a deeper level, though, people watch sports for the same reasons they attend the theater or take refuge in music or enjoy any other art form: they show us what is possible, offering us wonderful moments in which something previously unknown about ourselves is revealed to ourselves, and we come away changed for the better. It may happen in the upcoming season, or it may happen years from now, but sometime in the near future we will look at Pat Summitt on the sideline notice a difference in her movements or demeanor, and think, “She’s not the same,” and we’ll be sad. It’s at that moment that the lesson is proffered: that you are here, you are perceiving, and there is still some “possible” left inside of you. It’s the easiest lesson there is, but it’s the one nobody talks about because it sounds trite or hyper-emotional or a little too Tuesdays With Morrie. It’s the one nobody likes to acknowledge because we’re all just too cool for that. It’s the one that’s the easiest to take for granted.
We don’t cover women’s college basketball. But we know greatness when we see it. Pat Summitt earned that descriptor long before many of our readers were born. 1,071-and-199 will do that for a person. We don’t care if she’d gone 0-and-1,270, because Pat Summitt’s career will be best defined by what comes next, by every occurrence of her stepping out onto a basketball floor as a coach. It’s more valuable than any number of victories. She was a legend before yesterday. Even considering everything she’s done, in terms of greatness, trust us — we haven’t seen a damn thing, yet.