I doubt I’ll ever forget catching “The Stare.” The soul-scorching gaze was diluted by a thousand miles of cables and filtered through my TV screen, but there on “60 Minutes” was Pat Summitt, glaring straight into the camera and the core of my being.
It was then I understood the force of personality she carries. There would never be an issue of authority on a Pat Summitt team. She could coach any age, any gender. She could have Kobe Bryant slapping the floor at mid court in a pick-up game.
I imagined what it would be like to play for someone who could summon so much genuine feeling about basketball, about your team and about you as a player and person. I assume every Lady Vol who has donned a Tennessee uniform since 1974 wakes up every few months or so in a cold sweat, The Stare boring through her consciousness.
Pat Summitt is reasonably fit and at the top of her exceptionally demanding profession—a brilliant and tireless recruiter, teacher and motivator. Yesterday it was announced she has early onset dementia, a precursor to Alzheimer’s.
How could this be?
There’s a genetic component here: Summitt’s family has a history of the disease. Yet it hardly seems logical that the very embodiment of willpower could be claimed by this insidious illness. That inevitability creeps darkly into the equation for one who has shaped such a singular and important existence is deeply disturbing.
I’m not sure exactly why learning of Summitt’s condition so affected me. I typically have difficulty connecting with the distant tragedies of strangers or celebrities.
Summitt is certainly a stranger, but upon hearing the news I immediately think of my obsessively healthy mother who is almost the exact same age. Her short, highlighted hair is not unlike Summitt’s. She’s another woman who lead a successful career while raising a single son. I turn over our recent phone conversations and interactions during my last visit back to Seattle: was there anything I missed? Anything I can or should do?
Dementia can be unspeakably cruel. At first, small, odd things are outwardly apparent, like leaves falling before the season changes. But dementia does it’s damage internally, and the victim and his or her people soon recognize that an unstoppable rotting is at work.
The juxtaposition of Summitt’s strength and impact on women’s basketball and the human frailty laid bare by the announcement of her illness is halting.
Everyone says and writes that she doesn’t want anyone’s pity. I’m sure she won’t get it from her bitter rivals in the Southeastern Conference or around the country. Not because they’ll revel in the opportunity to kick her while she’s down or settle a score after years of UT dominance. No, everyone will give Pat Summitt’s team their best shot because that’s how you pay respect to someone who truly cherishes competition.
In a perverse way, yesterday’s upsetting announcement humanizes a living titan. The compelling mythology that sings of Summitt’s stare or the way she drives her players to exceed all expectation is certainly well-deserved. But when we remember—or are reminded—that all these columns and statues were erected in honor of an essentially vulnerable human, we truly appreciate all it takes to be Pat Summitt.
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