Photo: Chris Crisman
For 38 years, she coached college hoops—the legendary University of Tennessee Lady Vols—capturing eight national championships and setting the all-time record for wins. Before that she was a formidable "slasher" and cocaptain of the first U.S. women's Olympic basketball team. Diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 2011, the indomitable Pat Summitt now faces the fight of her life.
I remember a Tennessee field with hay as far as I could see and a tall man standing in it, staring at me with pale blue eyes. My father had eyes that gave me the feeling he could order up any kind of weather he wanted, just by looking at the sky. If the tobacco crop needed rain, he'd glare upward, until I swore it got cloudy. I gestured at the acres of hay I was supposed to rake into bales and said, "Daddy, how long do I have to stay out here?" He said, "You'll be finished when it's done right."
I remember a leaning gray barn with an iron basketball rim mounted in the hayloft. At night—after the chores were done right—my three older brothers and I climbed to the loft for ball games in which they offered no quarter. Just elbows and fists, and the advice, "Don't you cry, girl. I better not see you cry." I remember learning to hit back—hard enough to send them through the gallery door into a ten-foot drop to the bales below.
I remember the supper table crammed with bodies, children with clattering forks fighting over the last piece of chicken, and my mild, selfless mother, filling the glasses and plates with a close-lipped smile and a voice soft as a housedress, and then I remember watching her muscle a two-ton truck into gear and roaring off to pick up farm supplies.
I remember the searing smell of the ammonia that my college coach waved under my nose, and heavy polyester uniforms with crooked numerals, and the dark hotbox auxiliary gyms with no air-conditioning where they stuck women, one leaking light from holes in the roof, through which birds flapped and splattered their droppings on the floor.
I remember being young and wild with energy, pulling into joints that sold 20-cent beer.
"What's your brand?"
I remember standing on a medal podium at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, imbued with a sense that if you won enough basketball games, there was no such thing as poor, backward, country, female, or inferior.
I remember every player—every single one—who wore the Tennessee orange, a bold, aggravating color usually found on a roadside crew, or in a correctional institution. To us, the color is a flag of pride, identifying us as Lady Vols and therefore as women of an unmistakable type. Fighters. I remember how many of them fought for a better life. I just met them halfway.
I remember the faces of the young women who ran suicide drills, flame-lunged and set-jawed, while I drove them on with a stare that burned up the ground. I remember the sound of my own voice shouting, "Sprint through the line." Urgent, determined. "Don't ever let other people tell you who you are!" Exasperated, mocking, baiting. "Get out of the drill. Just get out. Put someone in who can throw a pass."
I remember being able to almost read their thoughts. That lady is crazy; why is she torturing us? (They embellish.) I can't satisfy her; what does she want from me? (Only everything.) Man, I'm getting a bus ticket back to New York. Or Indiana. Or Oregon. Or coal-country Kentucky.
"Yeah, I would recommend playing for Pat Summitt," Abby Conklin, a former player, liked to say, "if a year of counseling comes with it."
Bless their hearts.
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