Pat Summitt faces down Alzheimer’s by fighting and laughing

Sally Jenkins
Columnist December 17, 2011

Pat Summitt and the Tennessee Lady Vols travel with an uninvited guest. Alzheimer’s crouches in a corner of the locker room, and sits at the end of the bench. Everyone wants to know, How is she doing with it? I’ll tell you: She refuses to be a good hostess. She’s ignoring the guest.

Pat is still Pat. She gets tired more easily than she used to, but frankly, as a friend who talks with her almost daily, I can report that what really wears her out is all the premature sympathy. She’s still here, and still coaching, and when you ask her why she doesn’t take a day off from work, here’s what she says: “I don’t want to be a sissy.”

Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

On the court, she’s enjoying one of her fightingest teams in some time. Last week, the No.6 Lady Vols beat two ranked opponents away from home in the space of four days: No. 20 DePaul at Madison Square Garden by double digits, followed by a bruising comeback victory at No.11 Rutgers. In the same exhausting week she also power-shopped at Macy’s, ran up a couple of impressive tabs at Manhattan restaurants, and accepted Sports Illustrated’s Sportswoman of the Year award.

The last was a lovely honor, but it was not the most solemn occasion of her life. Her staff begged her to give the following acceptance speech: “When I got the call that Sports Illustrated wanted to photograph me, I was so excited and so honored to think that I finally made the swimsuit issue.”

Pat giggled at the idea, but was too well-mannered to say it. So Tennessee’s director of basketball operations, Kathy Harston, doctored a copy of the magazine by superimposing a swimsuit model reclining in a thong, and pasted Pat’s head on it. She showed it to the entire squad on the team plane. There was a momentary shocked silence: Harston’s artwork was so good they thought it was real. Then came the shrieks and squeals and stamping feet. “We busted out,” guard Shekinna Stricklen says. Summitt threw back her head and laughed helplessly as a schoolgirl.

Assistant Holly Warlick said, “You need to get that framed, Summitt.”

Pat replied: “I think I will. I never looked so good in a bathing suit.”

Not every day is a comedy, of course. There are undeniable difficulties, and obvious changes, times when their hearts feel like anvils. Back in August when Pat first accepted the diagnosis, she realized she needed to redistribute her in-game coaching duties. She struggles to follow rapid shifts in schemes, and her perceptions are a beat slower.

“She doesn’t multitask like she used to,” Warlick says.

In practices, Warlick handles the defense, while Pat and her assistant of 28 years, Mickie DeMoss, handle the offense, and third assistant Dean Lockwood manages the post players. During games they consult in timeouts, and Warlick delivers the instructions to players with the clipboard. It’s an experiment that could work only on a staff made up of the closest friends, and it’s not without problems and glitches. But for the most part, it’s operating well enough.

“The only thing that’s different is the messenger,” Warlick says. “The message hasn’t changed.”

Just because Pat doesn’t hold the clipboard, it would be a mistake to suppose that she is not an acute presence. “She still has a huge imprint on this team,” junior forward Taber Spani says. But it’s in a different way. In certain respects, she is as perceptive on the floor as ever. In the pressured final minutes against Rutgers she was intensely aware, not without amusement, that Warlick was sweating so hard it soaked her blond hair dark. Pat watched the droplets trickle down her neck.

Pat, by contrast, was uncharacteristically cool. When sophomore guard Meighan Simmons nailed consecutive three-pointers to finally put the Lady Vols ahead, Pat merely leaned over and said with a sardonic mildness to her staff, “That helps.”

The demeanor, partly a result of the need to manage stress for her health, is a startling role reversal. It used to be that Pat was the most intense member of the bench and her assistants softened her blows. Now it’s Pat who is the softer presence. “More motherly,” Spani says. “Obviously she still gives us the stare when we need it, but she’s had a very calming effect.”

It was Pat, the Lady Vols say, who restored the confidence of Simmons, a frenetic young guard who was in the grip of a bad slump. In the days before the Rutgers game, Pat corrected her shooting motion in individual teaching sessions and kept a consistently comforting arm around her — while refusing to tolerate any pouting. The result was a timely, explosive performance.

“Pat had a lot to do with those shots,” Spani says. The light went on for Simmons just in time. “Hallelujah,” Pat says.

Yet, these Lady Vols are one of Pat’s most characteristic teams in the way they battle, too. After they overcame a five-point deficit in the final minutes in front of a roaringly hostile crowd, Rutgers Coach C. Vivian Stringer remarked ruefully, “They’re playing in her image.”

It was a gratifying comment. Pat has worked for four years to instill her brand of fight in the senior class, a group led by Stricklen that has failed to reach a Final Four, and in the past exhibited a lazybones quality, but no more. Pat used to tease Stricken about her lack of intensity and complained she would rather sit by a pond with a fishing pole back in Arkansas. But against Rutgers, Stricklen went 40 minutes without a blow, led the team in scoring, provided lockdown defense grabbing three steals, and played so hard her calves cramped in the final minute.

“I love who they’ve become,” Pat says. “We were on our toes instead of our heels. Aggressive. I haven’t always seen that from them.”

The uninvited guest that is Pat’s diagnosis isn’t going away, and the Lady Vols know that.

“It’s become a part of our lives,” sports information director Debby Jennings says. But they can try to chase the intruder into a corner with winning, and laughter. Spani says, “She’s not making light of it. But she’s making it something positive.”

Pat’s way of going about this will disconcert some. It’s not comfortable. There are those who wish she was frozen in time, 20 years younger, her eyes flashing bright as her diamond championship rings, her high heels clattering on the hard wood like machine guns, her mouth open and shouting fire. But Pat is 59, and she’s been doing this for 38 years, and with or without Alzheimer’s, she was going to experience some diminishment. We all do. It’s our fate.

“She’s fighting, and she stands strong,” Stricklen says. “And the best thing we can do for her is go out there and play hard like that, play the way she wants us to.”

Pat is always tearing down with one hand and building up with another. She has always torn down conventions, ideas of appropriate conduct for women, and built up a different version with her other hand.

Now she’s tearing down the stereotype of what it is to have Alzheimer’s and building up a new version and the new version is that you don’t crawl into a hole. You don’t disappear from public view. You don’t be afraid of somehow looking less than totally in command. You don’t retire and go to bed and act sick. You live and you work and you fight. And you laugh.

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