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.”