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 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.
Next: I remember the night my son was born
I remember being so possessed by the job that I coached in my sleep. I'd toss and kick until I woke myself up hollering, "Git down the floor!"
I remember standing on the sideline and stamping my high heels on the hardwood so furiously it sounded like gunshots, and whacking my hands on the scorer's table until I flattened the gold championship rings on my fingers.
I remember jabbing a finger into an official's face and backing him from midcourt to the baseline.
I remember my own certainty, lifted over the roar of 20,000 people and two rivalrous marching bands in a sold-out arena at the NCAA Final Four, as I told our players that though they trailed by 11 points with seven minutes to go, the game was ours. "We're not leaving here without a championship!" I shouted hoarsely. "So y'all just go on out there and get it!"
I remember the laughter that was always equal to the shouting, great geysers of it that went with victory Champagne. Peals of stress-relieving hilarity behind closed doors with assistant coaches who have been more close friends than colleagues, Mickie DeMoss, Holly Warlick, Nikki Caldwell.
I remember their constant teasing about my hair, and my clothes—the outrageous colors, hemlines, and shoulder pads. Once, Holly scanned my light blue suit up and down and said, "No damn Easter egg is going to tell me what to do!"
I remember a tiny saloon in the Tennessee hills where the bartender squirted bourbon shots into the customers' mouths. I remember later, when I was older, rambling across a vineyard in France with Mickie and Nikki, and deciding to open the Bordeaux we'd just bought, but not having any glasses. "Well, we'll just have to take it to the head," Nikki said. So we sipped the wine straight from the bottle.
I remember teaching a clinic to other coaches, and a guy raised his hand and asked if I had any advice when it came to coaching women. I leveled him with a death-ray stare, and said, "Go home and coach basketball."
I remember my wedding day back in Henrietta, Tennessee, to R.B. Summitt, a handsome, deep-chested young banker from Sevierville, Tennessee. My parents against their better judgment ordered a Champagne fountain for the reception, and the next morning my mother said softly, "Trisha, I think your guests got too full."
I remember the night my son was born. The doctor placed him on my chest and I said, "Hey, Tyler, I've been waitin' on you." He rolled directly toward the sound of my voice and locked eyes with me and R.B., who was by my shoulder. Holly and Mickie were in the delivery room, and Mickie blurted, "He's got kind of a cone head." And Holly said, "Mickie, don't say that!" and they started bickering, and it was true that he did have a little bit of a cone head, but he grew into a fine young baby, and a fine young man, and my greatest achievement.
Next: The moments I'm driving, and I have to ask, "Do I go left, or right?"
Sometimes, when I wake up, I don't know where I am. For a moment I'm disoriented and uneasy, and I have to lie there until it comes to me.
Occasionally when I'm asked a question, I begin to answer, but then I forget the subject. I struggle to remember directions. There are moments when I'm driving, and I have to ask, "Do I go left, or right?"
I tend not to remember what hotel room I'm in. I don't remember what time my appointments are for.
I don't remember records, final scores, and statistics. Numbers have a strange slipperiness; they suggest nothing. If you ask me how many games we won in 1998, or what happened in the 2008 NCAA national championship game, I struggle to remember which one it was.
But if you tell me who was on that team, or show me an old team photo, I'll remember: "That's Linda Ray—she didn't play much but she was a great teammate, and smart. Biochemistry major."
Memories are made up of episodes and engagements with the people you love. The things I struggle with—times, dates, schedules—are things you could as easily read on a digital watch or a calendar. But the facts don't begin to sum up the events stamped most deeply on me. Nor do the numbers that are so often used to describe my career: Thirty-eight years as the head coach at Tennessee. Eight national championships. An all-time record of 1,098 victories, and a 100 percent graduation rate—the real point of all that winning. Twenty-seven successful years of marriage, followed by one shattering divorce. Six crushing miscarriages compensated for by one matchless, peerless son, for whom I'm grateful to God. Two devastating and incurable medical diagnoses.
Six years ago, I was all but immobilized with crippling pain, which turned out to be an aggressive case of rheumatoid arthritis. The meds allowed me to keep working, but it wasn't exactly a delightful cocktail.
Then, in the late spring of 2011, I was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease. From what I'm told, an unnatural buildup of proteins formed a gluelike plaque between my nerve cells and synapses, interfering with my ability to remember and to reason. There is no cure—it's irreversible. An estimated five million–plus Americans suffer from Alzheimer's disease, and another 15 million caregivers, spouses, and children are affected by it.
Next: Some days are better than others
In my case, symptoms began to appear when I was only 57. In fact, the doctors believe early-onset Alzheimer's has a strong genetic predictor, and that it may have been progressing for some years before I was diagnosed. I'd been walking around with a slow-ticking bomb in my brain, and it only became apparent when it began to seriously interfere with my work.
It's hard to pinpoint the day I first noticed something wrong. Over the course of a year, from 2010 to 2011, I began to experience a troubling series of lapses. I had to ask people to remind me of the same things, over and over. I'd ask three times in the space of an hour, "What time is my meeting again?"—and then be late. In the fall of 2010, one of my college teammates and oldest friends was supposed to come up for a Tennessee football game. I must have called her four times and said, "Now when are y'all coming?"
I had always struggled to keep track of my car keys and cell phone, but now I lost them three times a day. At first I thought it was funny, and totally in keeping with my character. I'd always been so hyperfocused on coaching that I didn't even know the weather outside. I'd wear short sleeves in an ice storm. I was a working mother who juggled too many responsibilities and obligations, and it was natural to have moments when I got overwhelmed. I'd never known the date, or the name of my hotel—there have been so many of them, and they all look the same. Reporters would ask me, "Pat, who's going to win the Super Bowl?" I'd say, "Fellas, who's playing?"
That winter, on the eve of a big game, I pulled up to Tennessee's Thompson-Boling Arena and jumped out to hurry inside to the locker room. Before tip-off, a security guard came in to tell me that my beautiful Mercedes-Benz was idling like a getaway car, exhaust pouring from the tailpipe.
I laughed. It was a case of having too much on my mind; the car had one of those fancy new keyless ignitions, and I had just been in too big of a rush, I thought.
But then I grew confused in the heat of a game. Normally, I would reflexively hold up a hand signal and shout an offensive set to our team, "Horns!" Or a defensive shift, "Charlotte!" But now there were empty moments when I couldn't call up the right term.
I would stare at the court unable to track it all. I'd spent four decades teaching myself to see ten players at once, the whole 94 feet of hardwood. I was accustomed to analyzing patterns and almost instantaneously ordering up attacks and counters; only now I saw an indistinguishable blur, flashes and bursts.
I grew uncertain, and then a little frightened. I began staying in bed until late in the morning. I'd always been a bolter, the first person up, and I'd always gone to work earlier than anyone on my staff. But I began to dread going into the office.
I was late to practice, slipping into the arena while it was already under way. I became increasingly hesitant and withdrawn, to the point that I avoided meeting one-on-one with our players, afraid I might say something wrong.
Finally Mickie DeMoss confronted me. "Pat, what is going on with you?" she demanded.
"I don't know," I said. "I don't know."
"You need to be here," she said. "You need to figure it out, so you can be here for this team."
I thought it must be a reaction to the arthritis medication. I went to see my primary care physician, who suggested that I visit the famed Mayo Clinic in Minnesota for a thorough evaluation. But I decided to wait until after the season was over, because altering any medications might mean the excruciating pain would return.
Spring arrived—and with it a disheartening NCAA tournament loss. We were among the favorites to contend for a national championship with a 34–3 record, but by then I was having trouble concentrating and communicating to our players in the huddles. I had lost my confidence.
A powerful Notre Dame team upset us in the Elite Eight in Dayton, Ohio, 73–59. Our sideline looked like a fire drill with all our assistants jumping in and out giving instructions, trying to stop the bleeding. When the final buzzer sounded, I stood on the sideline for a long moment, wondering if I had coached my last game.
Next: When the full blow finally fell, it was heavy.
After studying the results of my MRI, the neurologist looked grave. He said I was suffering from a form of dementia, probably of the Alzheimer's type, and that I should prepare to retire.
Soon after, specialists at the Mayo Clinic confirmed the diagnosis. I left Mayo in a state of profound denial. "Well, it isn't cancer," I kept saying to Tyler.
I refused to accept it, or any of the advice that went with it. Part of the problem was that I was so highly functional. All my life I'd found that the best way to deal with problems, especially physical ones, was to keep moving. Plunge ahead. "I'm fine," I told Tyler. Once we got home to Knoxville, I would barely discuss it with him. I wouldn't even say the word Alzheimer's. I decided to just go on about my normal business, and for the next several weeks that's what I did.
When the full blow finally fell, it was heavy. I had an appointment with a psychopharmacologist to check my reactions to various medications. Most of my conversations with doctors up to this point had been disturbing. But this one was downright traumatic. He told me that he felt I could no longer work. I should step down immediately, because in his opinion the dementia would progress rapidly. I needed to get myself out of the public eye quickly, he said, or I would "embarrass" myself and ruin my legacy.
As he spoke, I felt my fist clench. It was all I could do not to lunge across the desk and drop him with one punch. Who did he think he was? Even if I had an irreversible brain disease—even if I did—what right did he have to tell me how to cope with it?
"Do you have any idea who you're dealing with?" I said. "You don't know me, and you don't know what I'm capable of."
I emerged from his office in tears. I cried all the way home in the car. As soon as I walked in the door, I climbed into bed. I didn't get up for hours.
I was the resident superhero. Friends, family, and former players had always come to me for comfort and strong advice on how to push through problems.
"You can't say 'can't' to me," I told our players. "Don't ever say that word; I won't accept it."
I was more than the test results on four corners of a piece of paper, I told myself. The brain has an amazing ability to compensate—to transfer tasks. A spinal tap didn't test for leadership, or relationships, or the capacity of my heart.
My "legacy" was not just an image—a cardboard cutout. I was a person of uncompromising substance based on 38 years of unbroken triumph, as personified in 161 players who won whole fistfuls of banners and trophies. Mister Al Alzheimer was about to meet Miss Pat.
Quit? Quit? I was supposed to walk away from a team that was everything I'd ever worked for, that was inseparable from...myself? I might as well walk out of my own body or peel off my own shadow. I'd been named head coach of women's basketball at the University of Tennessee when I was 22 years old. I'd hand-built every aspect of the program and handpicked every person in it. It wasn't just a job; it was my home, my family, and, aside from my son, the deepest love of my life. It wasn't for nothing that my nickname among our players was "Mama Pat." Or, when they were feeling especially flip, just "Your Mama." As in, "How'd Your Mama know where we went last night?"
Quit? Quit? Coaching isn't social work, but it's more than just a game—it's a heartfelt vocation, in which you are powerfully bonded to students. Often, they need you more than they know they need you. It's a job in which you grab kids by the arm and pull them out of their emotional fires, and show them what real self-worth looks like.
You don't walk away from such a calling just to take care of yourself.
Quit? Quit? We keep score in life because it matters. It counts. Too many people opt out and never discover their own abilities, because they fear failure. They don't understand commitment. When you learn to keep fighting in the face of potential failure, it gives you a larger skill set to do what you want in life. It gives you vision. But you can't acquire it if you're afraid.
Next: It suddenly hit me that...
This was a different kind of pain, however. And I didn't know how to deal with it. Neither did Tyler, who was then 20 years old and a junior at the University of Tennessee. Early one morning, he came in my room and woke me up. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust in the flat, dim light. But when I made out his face, I saw he was weeping. "You're all I've got," he said. He begged me to address the disease with him. I needed to accept it, and help him accept it, too.
I shot upright in bed. "I am right here for you, son," I said. "Let's take care of this right now." It suddenly hit me that in trying to cope with the disease in my own way—denial—I had actually left my son alone in dealing with it.
Tyler crawled onto the bed, and I put my arms around him. We held each other and had a long talk. The only way to deal with trouble of this magnitude was to face it—and to admit that I would need a lot of help.
It wasn't easy to reverse the role of caretaker. All my life, I had preached "taking ownership" to athletes. I insisted they commit to their talent and to themselves, not just by working at the things they were good at, but by admitting the things they weren't good at. It was a difficult, counterintuitive thing to teach—no one feels strong when she examines her own weakness. But in facing weakness, you learn how much there is in you, and you find real strength. Don't look away from the difficult things, I urged our athletes. "Take ownership!"
Possess it, live it, act on it.
It was time to take ownership of my disease. The question was, how? What was the best way to confront it? Was it better to retire and concentrate on fighting the Alzheimer's, or was that too much of a concession? In order to decide, I had to review everything I thought I was about.
I had to remember.
Pat Summitt is the head coach emeritus of the Lady Vols at the University
of Tennessee, where, health permitting, she still attends practice, recruits
players, and advises students. Her memoir, Sum It Up (Crown Archetype),
written with Sally Jenkins, and from which this excerpt is adapted, came out