“Juliet?” said the voice on the other end of the line, in an unmistakable Tennessee accent. “This is Coach Pat Summitt.”
I nearly dropped the phone.
Back then, in January 1997, I was a journalism school student, and I had called Summitt’s office at the University of Tennessee to request an interview. It was one of a dozen calls I made to top college coaches for my master’s project, which focused on the American Basketball League, a new women’s professional league.
The only coach to return my call was Pat Summitt.
Summitt wasn’t just any coach: She and her Lady Vols had just won their fourth national championship and were on their way to winning a fifth. We spoke for more than an hour. When I thanked her for calling, she said that she always had time for young women trying to make their way in sports.
Summitt died Tuesday at 64 after years of struggling with Alzheimer’s-typedementia. In her 38 years as a head college coach, she won 1,098 games, more than any other Division I coach, man or woman, and led Tennessee to eight national championships.
You can talk about her toughness: She once dislocated her shoulder while chasing an aggressive raccoon off her porch, in an attempt to protect her Labrador retriever, and spent two hours trying to pop her shoulder back into place before calling for medical help. And you can talk about what a leader she was, for her players and for women’s sports. When she was offered a job coaching the men at Tennessee, she said, “Why is that considered a step up?”
But it’s also important to remember how Summitt dealt with dementia, and what a perfect reflection it was of her personality.
Like Muhammad Ali, in his long fight with Parkinson’s disease, Summitt faced a progressive malady for which there is no known cure — a disease that works to steal a person’s dignity and tempts those with it to retreat from the public eye.
Everyone chooses to deal with those diseases in a different way, no one effort more courageous than another. Summitt and Ali’s way was to use their fame and bring the world along on their journey, as they became the public faces of diseases that were once taboo to even acknowledge.
Their efforts to shed light on their vulnerabilities just added to their legacies, but in a totally different — and, arguably, more important — way.
When Summitt learned she had dementia, in 2011, she was only 59. “There’s not going to be any pity party, and I’ll make sure of that,” she told The Knoxville News Sentinel.
She told ABC, “What I want to do is to get people to understand that if you have dementia, don’t be afraid of it.”
If you know anything about dementia or Parkinson’s, you know that in fact, there is plenty to be afraid of.
Dementia slowly robs you of your cognitive abilities, eats away at your brain. Parkinson’s is another cruel thief: It steals facial expressions, voices, movement, the ability to swallow and, eventually, to breathe. It can also cause dementia.
When Ali was told he had Parkinson’s, it must have been a blow that stung him harder than any in his life. He cherished the sound of his own voice and loved the way his body moved. And, of course, he always talked about how pretty he looked.
Yet he didn’t disappear from sight. He showed up — body stiff, face frozen and left hand shaking out of control — to light the caldron at the 1996 Atlanta Games. The once invincible man wasn’t shy about showing that he wasn’t invincible after all.
I know how hard that must have been for him because my father, Zbigniew, was entering the final stage of Parkinson’s when he died in November.
I always considered my father the toughest man I knew, but never more than when I saw him — razor blade in one hand, one Parkinson’s pill in another — as he sliced the pill into wafer-thin segments. My dad knew that over time, his body wouldn’t respond to the medicine, especially as the doses increased. So he had tried to take control of what was happening by limiting himself to what would barely get him through his rough days, even though it would make his current days much rougher. He never stopped fighting.
For Summitt, having dementia could be embarrassing, especially for a woman whose sharp thinking helped her win games. But that didn’t seem to matter to her. She still looked for the spotlight, unafraid to describe what dementia had done to her and how she was coping with the changes.
Summitt was in a battle she could never win, but she still could make a difference for others by educating them about the disease. She spoke about her dementia in interviews, and also in her 2013 book, “Sum It Up,” in which she also talked about another issue that is often taboo to speak about — the six miscarriages she had before giving birth to her son, Tyler. She accepted the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2012 ESPYs, where she gave a short speech, saying, “It’s time to fight.”
Soon after her diagnosis, she started the Pat Summitt Foundation, and its mission was to find a cure for Alzheimer’s.
At the end of our telephone conversation nearly 20 years ago, Summitt spoke about the importance of women in sports. She told me she was glad I was training to be a sports reporter because there needed to be more women writing about sports.
I wondered why she had taken the time for me.
Now I know.
Summitt wanted to make a difference in this world, both on and off the basketball court. That’s exactly what she did.