Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Speaking personally about Pat Summitt

You learn early that life isn't fair. You watch your father die of cancer. You watch planes crash into buildings on Sept 11. You watch devastating earthquake footage from Haiti.

You know it, yet you still get jolted with reminders, and Tuesday we got another one. Pat Summitt has Alzheimer's disease. How stunning to think that let alone write the sentence.

Sally Jenkins wrote an intimately personal story about Summitt's revelation in The Washington Post. In it, she called Summitt the best friend she has. I am not best friends with Summitt, but I have a deep appreciation for what she means to the world of basketball and frankly, to the world. I am lucky because I have spoken to her several times over the years, though one time stands out above the others. Actually it stands out among any of the other highlights of my writing career.

When you write sports, you lose much of the star quality of athletics. I confess I have it for Summitt. A few years back I was in Knoxville for the annual game between Old Dominion and Tennessee. I was writing the cover story for the Final Four program, and I had some questions for Summitt. Could I get Coach the day before the game at practice? I asked sports information director Debby Jennings. Could I get talk to her the day after the game for a few minutes?

Debby promised she would make it work. When I walked into Thompson-Boling Arena that night, she greeted me and told me Pat wouldn't be coming into the office the following morning. My heart sank.

"She wondered if you wouldn't mind stopping by her home?"

Pat Summitt's home? Me? Really? I hope I didn't stutter. Sure, I said, trying to act nonchalant.

The next morning I pulled up to the cul-de-sac and knocked at the door. No one answered. I knocked again. Still no answer. I realized I was standing at the guest house and walked past it, noting the UT hoop in the swimming pool. I rang the doorbell of the larger home, and a barefoot Summitt welcomed me. She showed me into a living room -- me sitting in one plush chair, her in another and her yellow Lab, Sally Sue, in a third.

Summitt talked with me for over an hour. She had probably answered many of my questions about her Final Four memories before. If so, it wasn't obvious. She was funny and genuine and witty and seemed to enjoy every bit of the conversation. Gathering my stuff to leave, I felt funny asking, but you're only in Pat Summitt's house once if you're me.

"Could I see the rest of the house?"

"Sure," she said good-naturedly. "I'll give you a tour."

Opening the doors to Tyler's room revealed a gorgeous mural and a memorable wooded view. I remember her saying most folks think the whole house probably resembles the UT bookstore, but that wasn't the case. It was tastefully decorated with a downstairs rec room dedicated to the Lady Vols and the Tennessee orange. Sally Sue followed us everywhere.

Summitt does a million interviews a year. I doubt she remembers that morning. I'll never forget it. Nor will I forget her calling me at 8:45 in the morning after her Lady Vols lost a heart breaker at Rutgers to talk about her next opponent: the Lady Monarchs. Last fall when the Lady Vols were in Norfolk, she spoke to me again at the Constant Center. She was, as usual, generous with her time and happy to introduce herself to my son.

I hold those memories dear. Like many, I hold Summitt dear. I have an affection reserved for Summitt that, like her, is in its own league. Like many I am in awe of her accomplishments, but more so I have deep respect and admiration for the way she conducts herself both professionally and personally.

Life isn't fair. If it was, Alzheimer's would have never happened to Pat Summitt.

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