The prolonged success of UT as a dominant basketball powerhouse (16 SEC Conference Championships and 18 Final Fours) is based on more than its coach’s ability to assess the effort and attitude of players, and her balanced approach of knowing when to push, back off or build her team up. Summitt’s classic philosophy of “defense and rebounding wins” has also been the backbone of the program. “The area that Coach’s leadership affected my game the most was my defense. It started in that first practice my freshman year and went through my senior year,” says Catchings, the four-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year.
While it’s true that much of the country’s top high school talent has steadily made its way to UT throughout the years, Summitt’s specialty is challenging these already gifted athletes and encouraging them to shine in a whole new capacity.
“I wasn’t rebounding to the standards of Coach Summit,” Holdsclaw recalls, “so every time I failed to meet this standard, it was on the line for me. This punishment started in individuals but was soon carried over to team practice. Every time I didn’t crash the boards, she would make me and the team run. So, after days of running I got the courage to go up to Coach and ask her if I could run alone. She looked me in the eye and said OK. Knowing her now, I understand why she said yes. She was making me personally responsible for my work on the team. I never knew that this moment would have pushed me to lead the team in rebounding for all my years at Tennessee.”
As if the call to duty is not enough for current players (Tennessee has not taken home the title since ’07-08), a greater sense of urgency surrounds the ’11-12 season than any other point in the program’s history due to the emergence of the invisible, and unlikely, foe of early-onset dementia.
While it needs no introduction, Alzheimer’s is still not fully understood. No two cases are identical but basic symptoms affect the brain. Cognitive abilities are slowed and deteriorate over time, in some cases rapidly, in areas of memory, attention, language and problem solving. There are medicines available that temporarily delay symptoms but none that actively reverse effects, and despite its steadfast search of a cure, the medical community is still at a loss to identify the cause of why this terrible disease occurs in the first place.
Stunned by Summitt’s announcement on August 23, the basketball world and nation at large have been asking: Why did it strike her at the age of 59? Why has this happened to such a capable mind? And why is the victim one of our most treasured coaches?
On the other hand, the current roster of Lady Vols is left with more short-term questions, namely: What does this mean for the season?
The answers so far have been favorable, with Summitt vowing to stay on as coach for this season and hopefully the two after that. In the face of media scrutiny and the tremendous outpouring of support, she has also made clear that it will be basketball as usual for the team, adhering to her own rules (“Rule No. 8: Put the team before yourself”). The first day of practice on October 5 kicked off in smooth fashion like any other, with Summitt at the helm of what SLAM’s pre-season rankings listed as the No. 2 team in the country.
Still, the march forward is no longer outlined by the certainty of Summitt’s presence. Forget emerging storylines, like, Will the senior class walk away from UT with the dubious distinction as the only four-year group of girls not to reach a Final Four under Summit? Or if Summitt will survive as head coach for the entire collegiate careers of the newly minted freshmen. No, the real focal point of drama in this sobering reality is that Pat Summitt has entered the winter season of her coaching career, and the enemy she is battling, the deterioration of her mind, plays by its own set of rules.
Who can know the fate of this storied program? Tennessee has been the indisputable champ since the era of NCAA women’s collegiate basketball was established in 1982. But now the future is no longer promised. Summitt and the Lady Vols program are confronted by an inconceivable ending. The burden for this team lies in its race to win all that it can against a disease that is the sixth-leading cause of death in the country.
In light of this revelation, all talk emanating from the program is about the players’ heightened motivation to “cut down the nets” come April.
For a coach who still sends out “Just thinking about you” texts to former players, maybe the Definite Dozen should be expanded to a Baker’s Dozen.
Rule No. 13? Win one for Coach.