KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — For more than two decades, I’ve been asked what Pat Summitt is really like, and failed to answer the question, for the simple reason that most words aren’t large enough to capture her. Paltry one-dimensional terms can’t describe the roiling, sparkling ocean of a person that Pat was. I know of just a few words that really summarize her, and it turns out they are deceptively simple, and they are her own. They follow below.
Pat’s loved ones, friends, colleagues, players, family members stood vigil in recent days as she fought on against Alzheimer’s disease, and they passed the time telling innumerable stories, punctuated alternately by wracking breakdowns and explosive shouts of laughter, attempting to parse just what it was about her that inspired such devotion. As loved as Pat was by the public, she was even more so privately. Her nearest ones will swear that her reputation hardly does justice to her — partly because Pat didn’t rest easy on the pedestal. She was a lot more interesting than that.
Behind all that statuesque eminence was a woman of high mischief and a love of cocktails, who once agreed that the best word to describe her was “subversive.” Pat married so many contradictory qualities in one slenderized figure. She had majesty and humility. Baffling naivete and genius. She was demanding and gentle. She never stayed still, and as a basketball coach was the single most discontented creature after a win that you ever saw. Winning wasn’t good enough: As soon as things were going well, Pat had to change it all up, create a new edge. Her former player Kara Lawson said, “She’s a kaleidoscope. She changes everything. If not for her, you’d still be looking at the same damn boring old picture.”
You will pardon me if I allow Pat to take over the rest of this space. I’ve prized her friendship for 20 years and co-written three books with her, but never managed to explain her as well as she explains herself below. It’s a simple document: a letter to a young University of Tennessee freshman named Shelia Collins, on the occasion of starting her first game. It illustrates exactly why more than 50 of her players, young and old, rushed to her bedside, drove all night, flew across the country, slept on floors, and sat in the hallways of a retirement home, where they passed the time playing bean bag games with seniors, just to see her and whisper a few words in her ear.
This is the impact Pat had on the life of a young woman: a letter saved for 34 years. Long, long after playing days are over, taken from a drawer and reread whenever there is trouble. It’s impossible to peruse it without finally understanding Pat, the soul-stretching generosity at the heart of her, and the degree to which she tried to live out her values. It’s dated Nov. 22, 1982:
Shelia, This is your first game. I hope you win for your sake, not mine. Because winning’s nice. It’s a good feeling. Like the whole world is yours. But it passes, this feeling. And what lasts is what you’ve learned. And what you’ve learned about is — life. That’s what sport is all about — life!
The whole thing is played out in an afternoon. The happiness of life, the miseries, the joys, the heartbreaks. There’s no telling what will turn up. There’s no telling how you’ll do. You might be a hero. Or you might be absolutely nothing.
There’s just no telling. Too much depends on chance, on how the ball bounces.
I’m not talking about the game. I’m talking about life. But it’s life that the game is all about. Just as I said, every game is life, and life is a game. A serious one. Dead serious. But here’s what you do with serious things. You do your best. You take what comes.
You take what comes and you run with it.
Winning is fun . . . Sure.
But winning is not the point.
Wanting to win is the point.
Not giving up is the point.
Never letting up is the point.
Never being satisfied with what you’ve done is the point.
The game is never over. No matter what the scoreboard reads, or what the referee says, it doesn’t end when you come off the court.
The secret of the game is in doing your best. To persist and endure, “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
I’m proud to be your Coach,
Pat Head Summitt