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Pat Summitt

For those of you who know me, you know that I am one of the least athletic people you are ever likely to meet.  I don’t have good vision in one eye so I have no depth perception.  I’m not fast or strong.  I’ve long said that my two best sports were bowling and bingo.

However, I have always been a sports fan.  I remember when Bob Gibson pitched for the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series in 1968.  I knew everything there was to know about pro basketball in the early 70s.  I marked a spot on my bedroom wall so I could see how tall Lew Alcindor (soon to be Kareen Abdul Jabbar) really was. I mourned the fact that he left the Milwaukee Bucs and went to the Los Angeles Lakers.

In the 80s I watched tennis every time Martina Navratilova played and though my heart will always belong to Martina, I still get up in time for breakfast at Wimbledon and the French Open. 

In the 90s I screamed at the TV during women’s college basketball finals and would occasionally have to leave the room because I couldn’t bear to watch. A perfect weekend for me even now involves getting in a little TV time  to watch Tiger play golf.  All of this preamble is to give myself some street cred in the sports world even if it is only through a TV screen.

ESPN  is showing nine documentaries about women in sports.  The series is titled Nine for lX and celebrates the 40th anniversary of the landmark Title lX decision, the passage of the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in education. The films are about women and directed by women.  The subjects vary from the woman who was training to make the world’s deepest free dive to 561 feet to the treatment of women reporters in locker rooms. 

Last night I watched the film about Pat Summitt, the coach of the University of Tennessee women’s basketball team The Lady Volunteers.  Pat Summitt ranks second to UCLA’s John Wooden for winning the most NCAA championships.  She holds the record for winning the most games in the NCAA.

Pat’s father, a classic hard working, demanding and stoic man of his generation, moved the family to another county so that Pat could play basketball in high school in the 1960s. She was co-captain of the Olympic women’s basketball team in 1976, the first year the sport was in the Olympics and the team won a silver medal. Eight years later she coached the women’s team to an Olympic gold medal. 

Just to give you an idea of how things were in women’s sports when Pat became the head coach of the Lady Vols in 1974, she washed the uniforms herself (they only had one set, purchased with proceeds from a donut sale the year before), drove the van to out of town games, and  made 250 dollars a month coaching.

When she started, women’s basketball wasn’t part of the NCAA, she pushed for recognition of the sport. She held her players to high standards on and off the court. In her thirty-seven years of coaching, she had a100% college graduation rate among her players. Basketball was important but their education was more important. The basketball court for Pat Summitt represented a level playing field.  You couldn’t bring your disadvantaged or privileged background to the court.      

Not only was she an incredibly successful coach but she appears to have been a great mother.  She raised her son on the basketball court.  She didn’t sacrifice her career or her child’s life.  They were both important and they both had her attention.  There is a great photo of her in the locker room with her baby over her shoulder as she’s drawing out plays on the chalkboard.

The word that comes to mind for me when I think of Pat Summit is uncompromising.  Today that word has bad connotations. You can’t get things done unless you compromise; you have to give a little to be able to get a little. She did not compromise her values. She had lightening clarity about what she wanted to accomplish and what she felt her players could accomplish 

Pat Summitt says she wouldn’t have made it to the top without people.  That simple statement belies the true genius of it.  Of course you can’t coach without people.  Who would you coach?  But there’s a reason that Pat Summitt and John Wooden occupy the rarified atmosphere of coaches with the most wins.  They marshaled their energy toward a single purpose:  to demand the best of themselves and their players, every single day.  Pat recognized people’s talents and helped them step into their own greatness.  She taught people not to back away from success but to move toward it. We could all benefit from her tenacity and sense of purpose.  It’s a cruel twist of fate that this smart, strategic, dedicated woman has early-onset dementia.  But in true Pat Summitt style, she is stepping into this next uncertain phase of her life with grace and conviction.  She started the Pat Summitt Foundation for researching Alzheimers.

This is Terry Kendrick, thanks for listening.

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