A personal connection to Pat Summitt and dealing with dementia

Pat Summitt, legendary Tennessee women's basketball head coach, announced she has early-stage dementia on Tuesday.
Pat Summitt, legendary Tennessee women's basketball head coach, announced she has early-stage dementia on Tuesday. (MATT BARTON / Lexington Herald-Leader)
Posted: August 28, 2011

On Tuesday afternoon, I refreshed the Twitter stream on my iPhone.

I scrolled through the usual flurry of tweets: updates on the Eagles' battle at center, Cole Hamels' move to the DL, Evan Turner's announcement he was "getting his lift on." And then a few words whirled past, the combination of which separated them from the usual chatter.

I pressed my finger to the screen, freezing the chosen message.

"An awful diagnosis for anyone - this will wear on Pat Summitt's players as well. Vols' site to leave your thoughts: www.govolsextra.com.";

The news of an "awful diagnosis" - the specific details of which I did not yet know - struck me as implausible, like someone saying he'd cut through steel with a butter knife. Nothing overpowered Summitt. As I pressed the link, I thought of my own brief encounter with one of sports' greatest leaders.

She was wearing an orange warm-up suit, her footsteps echoing inside the concrete tunnel of her home arena. I had hustled off the team bus and grabbed my Sony Discman - yes, my Discman; it was 2003 - which I had forgotten on the visitors' bench. My team, the University of Colorado, had just finished its morning shoot-around, and Summitt's Tennessee Volunteers had just started.

Four teams were playing that weekend in the Mideast Regional of the 2003 NCAA women's basketball tournament at Tennessee's Thompson-Boling Arena: Colorado, Tennessee, Penn State, and Villanova.

I recognized Summitt immediately, nearly 35 yards away, and fought the urge to stare down at my sneakers or simply pretend that something in the opposite direction held my attention. We were the only two in the tunnel. I kept my eyes up, which, considering the great esteem I had for this woman, felt a lot like staring into the sun.

She caught my eye and nodded once as she passed. I walked one or two more steps and then stopped and turned around as she continued toward the court. I was shy, but not foolish. In the presence of greatness, I wanted to absorb a little.

Those few seconds hardly make me a Summitt historian. But I do know that some people possess a palpable energy - a fierce dedication, firm resolve, and unbending will - that you simply can't fake.

On Tuesday, as I waited for the Twitter link to load, I thought back to that moment in Knoxville: her blue eyes and her purposeful walk. I prepared myself for the "awful diagnosis" - the thought of pancreatic cancer flashed through my mind - and then I saw the headline: "Pat Summitt diagnosed with early-onset dementia." I'd been bracing for a jab to the gut and instead got clocked cold with a vicious uppercut.

I don't know Summitt, but, like millions of Americans, I know her disease. I read the article, swallowing hard, and then went about my day feeling heavy and unsettled.

On Wednesday, my dad called to talk. He'd started writing an essay - words can be therapy, after all - but stopped midway. Instead of continuing, he sent his words to me. The idea for this essay was his.

"I have never met Coach Summitt, though her face and eyes are burned into my mind's eye," he wrote. "She is a fiery competitor who could coach men, women, or a starting five of wild wolverines. Her eyes burn bright; her jaw juts as she exhorts the most out of her beloved Lady Vols - and they invariably give their all. . . . My mom, too, had blue eyes that radiated passion and a love for life . . . my sincerest wish is that I could always remember those blue eyes just as they were: full of life, passion, and the future."

Our family knows all too well the cruel fate of Alzheimer's and dementia: The real tragedy lies not in the brain's malfunctioning neurons but in the pain of gradual loss, of losing a loved one who's still alive - an erosion immeasurable except at beginning and end.

My grandmother suffered a small stroke while attending the opening round of the 2004 NCAA tournament in which I was playing. That stroke triggered a slide that continues to this day.

Did I feel guilty? Yes. Looking back, I think we, as a family, believe that this was an oncoming train, one we couldn't have avoided in any circumstance. As the years progressed, guilt shifted into remorse: knowing that this woman I adored began losing the most valuable part of herself on my watch, and, in some ways, while doing best by me.

Maybe that's why the news about Coach Summitt is lodged in my throat. Not because she is battling something millions already have, not because my family has seen the rockiness of the valley into which she is descending, but because I'm shaken by the absolute injustice of the diagnosis. The thought of Summitt's eyes dimming, of her pinpoint instructions becoming more vague, of her push for excellence losing steam far too soon makes me want to put my head down, cry, and hope every day that she fends off this disease long enough for doctors to develop a cure.

For long stretches, Summitt carried the sport of women's basketball. She won eight NCAA championships in 38 years as Tennessee's coach, with an overall record of 1,071-199 (a winning percentage of .843). She also demanded greatness from her players long before most sports fans believed female athletes were capable of such a thing.

Far more than with most of us, the spirit of Summitt supersedes her physical presence.

And, as with my grandma, I wish her spirit would be the final thing taken from her, not the first.

Contact staff writer Kate Fagan at kfagan@phillynews.com. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/DeepSixer3, and read her blog, Deep Sixer, on Philly.com.


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