Sports and sports journalism are replete with overwrought praise, military imagery, and hero worship. I get that. I’m a theologian; when the excesses of this sort of thing get really out of hand, few feel worse about it than me. But I’ll take the risk now, and I won’t dare try to be objective. Pat Summitt is the reason women’s college basketball matters, and why it matters to me.
Sometime in 1997, I discovered this game. I’m pretty sure it was right in the middle of the celebrated Tennessee-Connecticut rivalry you may have heard about. Summitt was leading her group to the middle third of a trio of national titles. I didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to miss the significance the announcers and commentators were ascribing to the lady with the icy stare and her team of orange-clad killers.
The more I looked into the game and into the team, the more I understood what I was really seeing: the transformation of sports as we knew it—and it had been well underway—and Summitt was leading the charge. She was and is by no means alone, but she is the dean. Everyone of significance in this game is contextualized in reference to her. That really isn’t meant as a slight; many of them might even say it is a frank acknowledgment of reality.
When Geno Auriemma ignited a minor tempest by calling Tennessee the “Evil Empire,” the ‘Evil’ was a stretch, but the notion of an empire certainly isn’t. You may know the score: 8 national championships, 18 Final Fours in 31 tournament appearances (every NCAA tournament contested) and countless other achievements. Her 1,098 wins rank first all time, men or women. It is absolutely preposterous that student athletes in that basketball program had a better than 50-50 shot of making the Final Four each year. I’ve never seen anything like it.
On the day she announced her retirement, Summitt’s stepping aside was the lead story on Sportscenter. Did anyone in previous decades ever dream of such a thing?
Title IX is anything but cost-free, and some aspects remain controversial. But no one would doubt that women’s sports owes Summitt a great debt. She continues to leave things better than she found them by sharing her diagnosis of early onset, Alzheimer’s-type dementia. She worked right through it this season, openly defying a disease that robs of dignity and robs people of themselves. It is gutsy, courageous, and inspiring, but it is also classic Summitt. Why would this challenge be any different than any other?
We might have had some writers throw cold water on us by pointing out that dementia doesn’t care how great you are, or that you have a stare that could melt lead. And that would be true, of course. But then, you’d mentally add, “but I wouldn’t bet against her.”
And I never could.
At some point, I became a fan. I fill out brackets for both tournaments every year, because of Summitt. I now appreciate this game, often mocked but seldom watched, because of her. Any idiot who says women’s basketball is unwatchable doesn’t understand basketball, period. And she has taught generations of young women how to play it with a fundamental soundness that it still lacks at the highest levels, more often than not.
Can you let it sink in that only 208 games were lost in 38 years? I’ve done the math; that’s a record of 28-6, on average. At other schools, that’s Coach of the Year material, a record like that. At Tennessee, it’s called disappointment.
I’ve wanted to cry about this thing. I thought we’d see Pat for two decades more, and even then, she’d kick and scream as she dragged her oxygen tank behind her. But she wouldn’t want me to. She’ll be defiant to the last, and I can appreciate that. I only wished I’d truly taken it all in.
A few weeks ago, when the Baylor Bears were cruising to a 40-0 season and a national title (while assuring the Lady Vols would not reach the Final Four with a senior class for the first time ever), the talk turned to their junior superstar, Brittany Griner. Griner has been so dominant that the media asked Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard about her skills. We all thought it at the same time, surely: “No way this happens without Pat Summitt.”
The fact is that Summitt absolutely deserves to be mentioned alongside Wooden, Rupp, Knight, and Krzyzewski. The game is different; it’s better; young people have more opportunity to chase their dreams because of Pat Summitt. If women’s equality is more than the agitprop posted on bulletin boards in Marxist havens, we owe it partly to Pat.
The sadness of her departure is all ours, while the glory is all hers. The next time you fathers play a pickup hoops game with your daughters, you may want to call to mind one Patricia Sue Head Summitt. If she dreams of more than pickup games with Dad, you’ll know who to thank.
Jason Kettinger is a contributing editor to and senior sports writer Open for Business.
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