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.