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To 'Sum It Up': A Legendary Basketball Coach Braves Alzheimer's

Mar 5, 2013
Originally published on March 5, 2013 10:21 am

The image of Pat Summitt for many fans is that of a madwoman, decked out in orange, yelling to her players from the sideline. In 38 years as the head coach of the University of Tennessee Lady Vols basketball team, Summitt shouted her team to more victories than any other coach in the history of college basketball — men's or women's.

Now the famously fierce coach is facing an opponent unlike any other: In 2011, she was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease.

"When I first was diagnosed, I was in disbelief," Summitt tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer. "But after that, I knew what I was facing, and I wanted to get it out there. And that's exactly what I did."

She went public with her diagnosis, and it's the first story she tells in her new memoir, Sum It Up. Co-authored with sports writer Sally Jenkins, Summitt's memoir captures her life story even as her memories fade. Summitt and Jenkins join Wertheimer to talk about Summitt's youth on a farm, the transformative power of Title IX, and her life post-diagnosis.

Summitt grew up as Trisha Head, in the tiny town of Henrietta, Tenn., in a family she describes as "hardscrabble." "Growing up on a dairy farm, we had cows — we had to milk 'em 5 a.m. and 5 p.m.," she says. "My parents, they just really made all of us aware of what we had to do every day when we went to work. And so, you know, I think it was a good thing for me."

The hard work on the farm was followed with equally hard play: drag racing on country roads and basketball games in the hayloft of the barn. Shooting hoops with her brothers, Summitt first saw equality on the court; they didn't care that she was a girl, and they didn't let her off easy. "Let's just say we were in the hayloft and we just started battling," Summitt says. "It was something that we loved to do ... yeah, we fought a little bit."

Jenkins, Summitt's co-author, has been writing with and about Summitt for more than a decade, and she highlights Summitt's competitiveness as a trademark of both her coaching career and her battle with Alzheimer's. "What she does better than anybody in the world is fight," Jenkins says. "Her brothers would tell you that. Her players would tell you that. And her opponents would certainly tell you that."

That competitive spirit led to a highly successful career, one Summitt describes in her book as "a straight determined march forward." She was head coach of women's basketball at the University of Tennessee at the age of 22, and in 1976 she played in the first Olympics that recognized women's basketball. She credits her father with helping her achieve such goals: "My dad is the one who said that's what I needed to do," she recalls. "I was like, 'I don't know if I could be an Olympian ... ' But my dad really influenced me to stay and be in the Olympics."

Although Summitt's father didn't talk much or express much love, he was a vital presence in her life. "He treated me like one of the boys, and I kind of liked it that way. Because being on the farm, you know, everybody had to go to work every day, and he knew that I was going to go to work like the guys did."

That egalitarian spirit shaped Summitt's life, and eventually a similar attitude in Congress transformed her career. While Summitt was still a college student, Congress passed the Equal Opportunity in Education Act, which included Title IX. Over time, just as the young coach was beginning her career, this led to an enormous expansion of college sports programs for women.

"It just opened the doors for a lot of players that wanted to play basketball," Summitt remembers. "We didn't have to go play with the guys. We just did what we wanted to do ... I thought it was important. That was the best time of my life as far as coaching."

Jenkins, looking at the role Summitt has played in redefining women's athletics, says she'd describe Summitt as "subversive."

"We had a conversation years ago," Jenkins says. "I asked Pat if she was a feminist. And she said, 'No, I'm not a sign carrier.' And I said, 'Well, I know what you are — you're a subversive.' And she said, 'That's exactly right.' I think Pat took the concept of athletics that was used to define confidence and excellence for men, and stole it and gave it to women."

For Wertheimer, it's Summitt's toughness that stands out above all — the coach is renowned for how hard she could be on her players. But Summitt doesn't believe she was ever too rough on the athletes she coached. "I think you can challenge people, but you don't want to break people down. But you've gotta, sometimes, just pull them aside and say, you know, 'You're OK, but you could be better.' "

With high expectations and tough love, Summitt coached the Lady Vols to eight national championships, taking a team with no uniforms, no dressing rooms and no attention, and transforming it into the superstar team of women's basketball. Her book is full of happy memories from that illustrious career, but now Summitt cannot always call them up. Some of her memories — even of key moments in important games — just aren't clear.

In her memoir, Summitt was asked if she would trade her trophies for her health. She hesitated and finally said, "I'd give up all my trophies to still be coaching."

"I love the game," she tells Wertheimer. "I miss it now — not coaching, but I am moving on in that regard ... I go to practice every day. I love being around the student-athletes. That's something that I'll always like."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Pat Summitt was head coach of the University of Tennessee Lady Vols basketball team for 38 years. She won more games than any other coach in college basketball, men's or women's. Now the ferocious coach is facing her toughest opponent: Alzheimer's disease. Even as her memories fade, Summitt has captured her story in a new memoir out today called "Sum It Up."

Pat Summitt and her co-author Sally Jenkins spoke with NPR's Linda Wertheimer.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, BYLINE: The image of Pat Summitt for many fans is that of a madwoman, decked out in orange, yelling to her players from the sideline. But then, in 2011, she was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease.

PAT SUMMITT: When I first was diagnosed, I was in disbelief. But after that, I knew what I was facing, and I wanted to get it out there. And that's exactly what I did.

WERTHEIMER: She went public with the diagnosis, and it's the first story she tells in the new book. After the end of the 2012 season, Summitt retired. Pat Summitt grew up Trisha Head, in the tiny town of Henrietta, Tennessee.

You say we were hardscrabble, self-made people. Talk about that.

SUMMITT: Well, growing up on a dairy farm, we had cows. We had to milk them 5:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. My parents, they just really made all of us aware of what we had to do every day when we went to work. And so, you know, I think it was a good thing for me.

WERTHEIMER: Hard work followed by hard play: drag racing on country roads, basketball games in the hayloft of their barn, where Pat first saw equality on the court. She says it didn't much matter to here older brothers that she was a girl.

It sounds like you were taking your life in your hands to be in that game.

(LAUGHTER)

SUMMITT: Well, let's just say we were in the hayloft, and we just started battling. It was something that we loved to do.

SALLY JENKINS: Fight.

SUMMITT: Yeah, we fought a little bit.

WERTHEIMER: You just heard Sally Jenkins, who co-wrote the book, and has been writing with and about Pat Summitt for more than a decade. She says Pat was a competitor throughout her career and in this current battle.

JENKINS: What she does better than anybody in the world is fight. Her brothers would tell you that. Her players would tell you that. And her opponents would certainly tell you that.

WERTHEIMER: Pat Summitt says in the book that, looking back, her career path was a straight, determined march forward. She was head coach of women's basketball at Tennessee at 22. In 1976, she played in the first Olympics that recognized women's basketball.

You were a very tall, skinny girl from a little, tiny place in Tennessee, and somehow, you decided that you wanted to play basketball in the Olympics. I wonder what made you raise your eyes to high.

SUMMITT: My dad is the one who said that's what I needed to do. And I was, like, I don't know if I could be an Olympian. I don't know what being an Olympian was what. But my dad really influenced me to stay and be in the Olympics.

WERTHEIMER: Your father was a man who didn't talk much and didn't tell you that he loved you a lot, although you felt that he did. Somehow he gave you what you needed to be who you are. Do you think that's right?

SUMMITT: Yes, I do.

WERTHEIMER: Why? How did he do it?

SUMMITT: Well, I think he treated me like one of the boys, and I kind of liked it that way, because being on the farm, you know, everybody had to go to work every day. And he knew that I was going to go to work, just like the guys did.

WERTHEIMER: Everything changed for Pat Summitt after Congress passed the Equal Opportunity in Education Act, which included Title IX. That eventually meant equal opportunity for women in college sports.

SUMMITT: It just opened the doors for a lot of players that wanted to play basketball. We didn't have to go play with the guys. We just did what we wanted to do. You know, I thought it was important. That was the best time in my life, as far as coaching.

WERTHEIMER: Sally, what is the word that you would use to describe Pat Summitt?

JENKINS: Subversive.

(LAUGHTER)

JENKINS: We had a conversation years ago. I asked Pat if she was a feminist. And she said, no. I'm not a sign carrier. And I said, well, I know what you are. You're a subversive. And she said, that's exactly right. I think Pat took the concept of athletics that was used to define confidence and excellence for men, and stole it and gave it to women.

WERTHEIMER: Well, now, as a person who's watched you at the sidelines on TV, I would have said tough - way past tough. And in your book, you talk about how you had to be very tough on your players, especially some of the big stars. Did you ever think you were too tough?

SUMMITT: Not really.

(LAUGHTER)

SUMMITT: You know, I think you can challenge people, but you don't want to break people down. But you've got to sometimes just pull them aside and say, you know, you're okay. But you could be better.

WERTHEIMER: You have to know when to push and when to stop.

SUMMITT: Yes.

JENKINS: And just 'cause someone cried, you didn't stop, right?

SUMMITT: Right.

(LAUGHTER)

SUMMITT: That was my father in me.

WERTHEIMER: Pat Summit coached the Lady Vols to eight national championships, from no uniforms, no dressing rooms, no attention to the superstar team in women's basketball. This book is full of wonderful memories, but now Pat Summitt cannot always call them up. Here's one. In 2008, in the Final Four with seven seconds to go, she sent her best shooter, Candice Parker, down the court with orders to pass.

ESPN called that play.

(SOUNDBITE OF ESPN BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Parker, nice dish inside. Tipped - the follow is good. Horbuckle with the follow. Two-tenths of a second to go! Are you kidding?

WERTHEIMER: When I ask you about a critical moment in an all-important game, can you remember that event?

SUMMITT: Not for sure. Not for sure.

WERTHEIMER: So some of this stuff is clear, and some of this stuff isn't clear.

SUMMITT: Exactly.

WERTHEIMER: In her book, Pat Summitt was asked if she would trade her trophies for her health. She hesitated and finally said, I'd give up all my trophies to still be coaching.

So Pat Summitt, do you still feel that way?

SUMMITT: I do.

WERTHEIMER: What is it about coaching that makes you feel like that?

SUMMITT: I love the game. I miss it now, not coaching, but I'm moving on in that regard.

WERTHEIMER: Do you still watch the young players coming up and take a look and see if you still see the big talent?

SUMMITT: Oh, yes. And I go to practice, you know, every day. I love being around the student-athletes. That's something that I'll always like.

WERTHEIMER: So do you talk to them and try to help every once in a while?

SUMMITT: Oh, yes. I stick my nose out frequently.

(LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: Linda Wertheimer, speaking with Pat Summitt and Sally Jenkins. Their new book is "Sum It Up."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.