“Are you having trouble with your memory?” friends began asking, puzzled.
“Sometimes I draw blanks,” Summitt finally admitted.
Her first clue that something was badly wrong came last season, when she drew a blank on what offensive set to call in the heat of a game.
“I just felt something was different,” she says. “And at the time I didn’t know what I was dealing with. Until I went to Mayo, I couldn’t know for sure. But I can remember trying to coach and trying to figure out schemes and whatever and it just wasn’t coming to me, like, I would typically say, ‘We’re gonna do this, and run that.’ And it probably caused me to second-guess.”
Summitt believed her symptoms were the side effects of a powerful medication she was taking for rheumatoid arthritis, an excruciating condition that she has quietly suffered with since 2006. Instead, when Summitt received her test results from the Mayo Clinic at the end of May, they confirmed a shocking worst-case scenario: She showed “mild” but distinct signs of “early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type,” the irreversible brain disease that destroys recall and cognitive abilities over time, and that afflicts an estimated 5 million Americans.
Denial was followed by anger. For the first few weeks, Summitt would barely even discuss the subject. She told her doctors, “You don’t know me. You don’t know what I’m capable of.” Finally, Summitt realized she would have to accept the diagnosis. “I can’t change it,” she says. After a pause, she adds, “But I can try to do something about it.”
Last week Washington D.C. attorney Robert B. Barnett flew to Knoxville to meet with his longtime friend and client, half expecting her to step down after 38 years as Tennessee’s coach. But Summitt told Barnett that she did not believe her symptoms were severe enough yet to warrant retirement, and that she would like to coach at least three more years, if possible. She also decided against a formal statement. Instead, she sat down for an interview with this writer, who co-authored her 1999 autobiography, and the Knoxville News-Sentinel to discuss her illness publicly for the first time.
Full disclosure: It is the measure of Summitt’s large-heartedness that she could call any of a half-dozen people her closest friend. This writer has only one: her. “I would rather drive stakes through my own hands than write this story,” I said.