KNOXVILLE, TENN. — Pat Summitt sat in her office signing basketballs with what surely must be the cheapest autograph in history, given how generously she has doled it out over 38 years as Tennessee’s head coach.
“That thing can’t be worth more than two cents anymore,” I said. She just shook her head and smiled. “I know,” she said, and signed another one, which will end up more valuable considering the date, April 18, 2012, the day she officially stepped aside. Note that I say aside, not down.
Leave it to Pat to make something good out of Alzheimer’s Disease, graceful, even. Which was pretty hard to do, with everybody staring at her for almost a year, wondering when she was going to crack or show telltale traces of illness. She has been under pressure from critics and friends alike to buckle under to the diagnosis and retire, to protect her so-called “dignity” and “legacy” by disappearing from public view. As usual, she has come up with an elegant solution to a difficult problem, and produced another victory.
She is handing the head job over to her longtime assistant and friend Holly Warlick — only to start a new job as “head coach emeritus” with an active, ongoing role with the team. I tell her it sounds like a good idea. She says, cracking wise, “Sometimes I have a spark.”
“Working is a good thing,” she says. “I mean, I’m not going to sit here in my house and rot away. I have to keep doing things. I need to work out, I love to go in the office. That’s how I live my life.”
Let me make something clear: Pat Summitt’s dignity is unassailable. And thus far, so is her basic good health and fundamental acuity. It’s fair to say that the stigma of the diagnosis has been harder on Summitt than the actual effects of the disease. Ask her if she feels sick, and she says sharply, “No.” What’s more difficult is being treated as if she is sick, as if she can no longer have a valuable purpose, as if it’s necessary to talk around her instead of to her, as if she doesn’t know her own mind.
“Everybody wants to know how I’m doing,” she says, “but they forget to ask me.”
It’s difficult to find a single word to describe my good friend and co-author, but she might accurately be called the most remarkable person in NCAA basketball history, with her 1,098 wins and eight national championships and uplifting of entire generations of women. The word courageous will also do. It will do just fine.
As she prepared to go into a meeting room to tell her team of her decision, I asked her if it’s hard to surrender the job she has loved with such reckless intensity for so long. She said, “I don’t think it is. I knew this would be something I’d have to make a decision on. I’m happy about it.”
She insisted it was her call — though we all know the disease made it necessary. Asked if she struggles with that part of it, she said, emphatically, no. “The diagnosis is what it is, and you have to live with it.”
This is what she lives with: a disturbing sense of disorientation when she wakes in strange, dark hotel rooms on the road. Difficulty drawing, which means she can’t diagram plays anymore. A weird mental slipperiness when it comes to retaining numbers, especially room numbers in hallways that all look the same. An unmistakable loss of her old ferocity. An occasional pause in her brain function that means sometimes she has to be more patient in answering questions — and that friends have to be more probing of her thoughts, and patient in listening to her — which is all the more puzzling because she can still be so lightning quick.
That’s it. Those are her worst symptoms.
But here is the thing no one talks about: Pat still has many more abilities than disabilities. While she can’t wield a clipboard and make decisions at warp speed anymore, the irony is that her son Tyler would tell you she’s actually better than she was last spring, thanks to treatment. Although she will be restricted in duties by NCAA rules, and by her symptoms, she will continue to attend and observe practice, motivate, discipline and advise players and other coaches.
There is nothing in her condition to prevent her from still doing what she does best, which is to teach kids how to do things the right way — “how to commit,” she says — and show them how much more they have in them than they realize. The rest she will make up as she goes along.
“I’m going to play all this by ear, I’m not going to predetermine what I’m going to say and do,” she said. “One thing is, I just don’t want everybody worrying over me. I can’t control that. But being active and being around and participating and dealing with the players, that’s number one for me, that they know I’m going to be there.”
The Pat of 2012 is not the intense creature she once was, but I like the qualities that have replaced all that fire. It’s as if the disease has stripped away her reserve and unveiled who she is at her core, a person of surpassing generosity and sweetness. Evidence of which was her encounter with her bitter arch rival, U-Conn. Coach Geno Auriemma, at the Final Four; they met each other with a warm hug that left both of them in tears.
“We don’t need any more fighting in the world,” she says grinning. Here’s a shocker: she rooted for him in the tournament.
All of which is to say this is not a formal retirement, nor should it be. She has too much left to give — and receive. “The players,” she says, “are my best medicine.”
Pat is still here. Tomorrow she will rise, read her morning paper and drink coffee, field phone calls, and finalize the details of her formal announcement. She will stand up on the dais and all the cameras will point and everyone will speculate again how sick she is. “It doesn’t bother me,” she says. “Everybody knows the diagnosis. People know.”
“It gives me a chance,” she adds, “to show people you can get up every day and go to work and live your life.”
For previous columns by Sally Jenkins, see washingtonpost.com/