Last week, Pat Summitt, 59, the Tennessee women's basketball coach, announced that she has early-onset Alzheimer's. If you don't follow women's college basketball closely, you may not know who she is, but those who do know she is a legend, inspiration and hero.
I probably knew who Pat Summitt was before I could shoot a layup. Even in elementary school, parents would drive my entire basketball team three hours to Knoxville to watch the Lady Vols play.
We knew every player, and their position, but we got most excited when Pat walked onto the court, arms crossed, a fierce intensity gleaming in her eyes. She commanded the attention of the entire arena. They didn't name the court "the Summitt" for nothing. Even from the nosebleed seats you could read her lips as she screamed, "Rebound! Rebound! Rebound!"
I remember once in middle school my team had courtside seats and Summitt breezed by our group on her way back to the locker room. "We were so close to her!" we shouted with glee, admiring blurry pictures of Summitt's face on our cell phones. Every girl who plays basketball in Tennessee dreams of playing for Pat, and the lucky and talented ones do.
During games against rivals like the University of Connecticut, there's always a packed house at Thompson Boling Arena. Men's basketball doesn't matter as much in Knoxville; the attendance is never as high as it is at the women's games. Since she began coaching at Tennessee in 1974 at 22, Summitt has won eight national titles and more games than any major-college basketball coach, man or woman.
I'm sure many of you have had grandparents or other relatives who you've watched slip away as the result of this incurable disease. It is heartbreaking to watch loved ones forget who you are, but it is not unexpected to have an elder relative diagnosed with Alzheimer's. According to the Alzheimer's Association, Alzheimer's is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. But we do not expect our sports icons to fail or suffer from indomitable forces beyond their control. They are supposed to be unstoppable, which is why it was shocking to hear of Summitt's diagnosis.
It is unfortunate to see the number of coaches and players caught up in scandals recently, but Summitt's spotlight in the news, though disheartening, also reminds us that real sports heroes do exist. Summit was a pioneer during Title IX, she built a basketball empire on a starting salary of $250 and she has inspired decades of young women to become passionate about basketball. But I think she has become even more of a hero to me now than ever before.
When The Washington Post's Sally Jenkins asked Summitt if she considered retiring, Summit matter-of-factly said, "No." Tough as ever, Summitt said she wasn't looking for a pity party. Heroes overcome all obstacles and never give up in the face of adversity. Pat Summitt is one such hero. She will not let any opponent defeat her, and she is prepared to face the challenges Alzheimer's proposes.
I must admit I cried a little watching someone I would consider one of the greatest basketball coaches of all time give an interview with her son. And though I was sad to hear her news, I still smiled because I know that she'll be striding across the court for a little while longer, arms crossed, eyes narrowed, while a group of 12-year-old girls point excitedly as their hero walks past.