(Eds: With AP Photos. AP Video.)By JIM LITKEAP Sports Columnist
When she sat on the bench angrily stamping her feet, or locked in on one of those orange Tennessee jerseys like she was trying to melt the player inside, Pat Summitt looked like one of the toughest coaches you ever laid eyes on. The world seemed to be running on her schedule instead of the other way around.
We learned otherwise Tuesday, when the 59-year-old Hall of Fame coach surprised almost everyone by saying she has been diagnosed with early onset dementia – the Alzheimer’s type.
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What didn’t surprise is that Summitt released the news on her terms. She was diagnosed after a series of tests at the Mayo Clinic three months ago, leaving the rest of us to wonder how long she anguished over the decision that she delivered to her team in person, but sounded so matter of fact in a statement released by the university.
”I plan to continue to be your coach,” Summitt said. ”Obviously, I realize I may have some limitations with this condition since there will be some good days and some bad days.”
In 1994, some five years after leaving the White House, the late Ronald Reagan disclosed that he was battling the same disease, a neurological disorder that destroys brain cells and for which there is still no cure.
As it progressed, public appearances became increasingly rare. By continuing to work – ”Throughout my career, I have always made it a point that my life and my basketball were an open book,” Summitt began her statement – she signaled just the opposite.
”It takes great, great courage to fight health issues; it takes even greater courage to fight them in front of the world,” Oklahoma women’s coach Sherri Coale said. ”Pat’s willingness to share this private battle speaks volumes about her strength and her character”
Summitt’s legacy, after all, hardly needs burnishing. Entering her 38th season at Tennessee, she has won eight national championships and more games than any coach in the college game, men’s or women’s.
Summitt started coaching when the women’s game was an afterthought, but she demanded that her players prepare and play it with the same seriousness the men did.
Her players lifted weights, ran sprints and scrimmaged against men. They heard about it – but good – if they tried to cut corners. The Lady Vols’ domination practically dared a handful of programs such as Connecticut and Stanford to come and get them.
Summitt welcomed that challenge, too. It’s one more measure of her success that today, we take that competitiveness for granted; before Summitt insisted on it, that wasn’t always so.
”It always seemed she had no vulnerability. She’s the solid rock everyone looked up to,” said former Texas coach Jody Conradt, another one-time rival. ”I’m very happy she’s not going to walk off the court at this point. When you have made it your life, there needs to be transition.”
How long that will be remains anyone’s guess. Summitt has three assistants to lean on with nearly nine decades of combined experience.
Medical experts say that depending on the progression of the disease, she could work for a few more seasons. Several added that simply by continuing to show up, Summitt would demonstrate what is possible, changing attitudes about an illness that afflicts more than five million of her countrymen – including 200,000 who, like Summitt, are diagnosed before age 65. Not unlike what she did for women’s basketball.
”She’s our John Wooden. … I played for the woman. She’s as tough as nails. People think I’m tough,” said Baylor coach Kim Mulkey, who won a gold medal at the 1984 Olympics playing for Summitt. ”I’m a pussycat compared to Pat Summitt … Pat Summitt will fight. Pat Summitt will be on a crusade to help people with dementia. Pat said it best,” she added. ”It won’t be a pity party.”
It won’t be pretty at times, either. Nearly every sports fan remembers how valiantly former North Carolina coach Jim Valvano battled cancer. A speech he gave late in that fight – punctuated by the line, ”Don’t give up, don’t ever give up!” – became a clarion call for cancer research funding. The Jimmy V Foundation continues that mission today.
Those who know Summitt have no doubt she will find a way to make her mark, beyond the milestones she already set down in the women’s game.
”There is no doubt in my mind that Pat will take on this challenge as she has all others during her Hall of Fame career – head on,” Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said, speaking for many of his colleagues.” I wish her all the best.”
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org. Follow him at http://twitter.com/JimLitke.