Pat Summitt is facing her greatest battle

Pat Summitt has won 1,071 basketball games as coach of the University of Tennessee's women's team. She now faces her toughest foe, diagnosed with an early form of dementia.
Pat Summitt, centre, the University of Tennessee's women's basketball coach, knew something was wrong when, during a time out she had called, she forgot what offensive set she wanted to the team to play.
Pat Summitt, centre, the University of Tennessee's women's basketball coach, knew something was wrong when, during a time out she had called, she forgot what offensive set she wanted to the team to play.

Of course, nobody on the night of Friday, January 10, 1975 had a clue that the night of Friday, January 10, 1975 would constitute some cultural landmark.

People just know by now that somehow, in the US state of Tennessee, in the eastern portion with its greenery and its fog and its mountains called Great Smoky and its 365-day-per-year hankering for American football, some 53 people wandered into a gym in Knoxville and watched something eccentric-at-the-time.

They watched university women play basketball intercollegiately, then a nascent concept, but significantly they watched the 22-year-old coach at the University of Tennessee record her first official win, by 69-32 over Middle Tennessee State.

This Pat Head, later Pat Head Summitt, nowadays Pat Summitt, had become the coach only because they hired her as an assistant whereupon the head coach quit suddenly to pursue a doctorate.

Coach Head's salary: US$250 (Dh918.25) per month.

Coach Summitt's compensation for the upcoming 2011/2012 season, as a national paragon in her 37th season on the University of Tennessee job, with two streets bearing her name: $1.5 million per year, counting extras such as TV and radio shows.

Way back then, the University of Tennessee team wore uniforms purchased from proceeds of a doughnut sale. In those days Head drove the van to away games. One night, she told Time magazine in 2009, her team slept on the opponent's gymnasium floor, on mats and in sleeping bags.

In these days when women's basketball in some countries has barged so far so fast that, for one example, the US college Final Four draws more than 20,000 to coliseums, plus a national TV audience, those prehistoric, primordial days of 1975 sound unusually barren.

You almost get a sense of dusty stands and clunky players, and maybe a few buzzards flying around the ceiling.

In that vein, I sometimes have tried to picture those 53.

Who were they?

Who counted them?

Somehow, somebody came up with the line: "Attendance - 53." Attendance at the 2008 women's finals in Tampa, Florida, at which Summitt won her record eighth national championship in her record 18th Final Four: 21,665, plus a national TV audience.

Wins as of January 11, 1975: 1.

Wins as of August 27, 2011: a record-for-either-gender 1,071.

I bring this up because of hard, startling news that surfaced early last week. It surfaced four months following a season in which Summitt's Tennessee Volunteers posted a 34-3 record, won their conference and reached the final eight of the national tournament before suffering an upset.

It surfaced after Summitt long since became an American mainstay, turning up at the White House to meet presidents with championship teams.

Many know the outline of her biography, how she grew up in a sturdy Tennessee dairy-farming family, how her father did not relish a whole lot of nonsense, how she grew to nearly 6ft (1.8 metres), how her three older brothers helped toughen her, how her family relocated so she could attend a school that had girls' basketball.

Many more know of her rarefied toughness, her demanding energy, her stern countenance, her famous glare that might wither certain forms of vegetation, but also her knack for knowing when to employ compassion and - if you're a reporter - her unfailing assistance, likeability and decency.

That's why it seemed so jarring to learn that last season, among other episodes, she once went into a team huddle and could not think of an offensive scheme.

Having turned only 59 in June, with plenty of hundreds of wins to go, she went for a check-up at the famed Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. She heard news that seems impossible to process; she has early-onset dementia.

We always know these people of such familiarity and stature, people we sort of know but do not know, really.

People of aura, people who change rooms, do have flesh and blood. Here came another reminder, but somehow here came one even more upsetting.

While Summitt thrives now, and intends to coach the upcoming season and maybe more after that, and has forbidden any "pity party," to know such a grim foe has hit someone this dynamic, this tough, this deserving of fondness and this central in an astounding cultural change, well, it does rough up the guts.

cculpepper@thenational.ae


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Published: August 28, 2011 04:00 AM

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