Tennessee’s Summitt has early onset dementia

Pat Summitt struggled for several months with how to tell the

women’s basketball players at Tennessee, recruits and fans that she

was having memory loss problems.

Finally, her son Tyler helped convince her to open up.

The 59-year-old Hall of Fame coach surprised the sports world

Tuesday by saying she had been diagnosed with early onset dementia

– the Alzheimer’s type.

Step down after 37 seasons? Not a chance.

”I plan to continue to be your coach,” she said in a statement

released by the university. ”Obviously, I realize I may have some

limitations with this condition since there will be some good days

and some bad days.”

Tennessee athletics director Joan Cronan said Summitt initially

chalked up her memory problems to side effects from medicine she

was taking to treat rheumatoid arthritis. The coach first consulted

local doctors, who recommended she undergo a more extensive

evaluation. In May, she traveled to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester,

Minn., where doctors performed a spinal tap and other tests that

eventually produced the diagnosis.

Summitt’s first reaction was anger, but that soon gave way to

determination.

”She’s ready to fight this and move on,” Cronan said. ”She

had to come to grips with how she wanted to face it.”

Talking about it was a big step and her son was instrumental in

making that happen.

”Tyler has been so courageous in this,” Summitt’s longtime

associate head coach Holly Warlick said. ”He encouraged her to

come forward.”

Tyler has been supporting his mother throughout this process; he

went to the Mayo Clinic with her in May. And though he has been a

great sounding board, the 20-year-old said his mom’s revelation is

a life lesson for everyone.

”It seems like she teaches me something new every day, and she

is currently giving me one of the best life lessons of all: to have

the courage to be open, honest, and face the truth,” he said.

”This will be a new chapter for my mom and I, and we will continue

to work as a team like we always have done.”

Summitt’s family and closest confidants have known about her

condition since she first learned of it, but the Hall of Fame coach

first revealed the news publically to the Washington Post and

Knoxville News Sentinel. She informed the Lady Vols about her

diagnosis in a team meeting on Tuesday afternoon.

Junior guard Taber Spani said the meeting was business-like,

with Summitt calmly telling the Lady Vols nothing would get in the

way for their quest of a ninth national title this season.

”More than anything she just emphasized that she’s our coach

and that she wanted us to have complete confidence in her, and we

do,” Spani said.

Warlick said the players told Summitt that they were committed

to her and the Tennessee family and would not let her down. Warlick

said for Summitt, the support was ”like a weight was off her

shoulders.”

”I watched how our team reacted to us today,” Warlick said.

”They said, `Pat we love you. We’re a family. We’re going to get

this done. You’re going to get through this.”’

Warlick said Summitt also wanted to crush any speculation about

her health after the announcement.

”We got on the phone immediately and called kids and

commitments and had nothing but a huge amount of support,” Warlick

said. ”I think it’s one thing to see it on the (TV news) ticker.

It’s another thing to hear from Pat Summitt that we’re here, we’re

going to be here and nothing is going to change about Tennessee

basketball.”

Baylor coach Kim Mulkey wouldn’t expect anything to change. She

who won a gold medal playing for Summitt in the 1984 Olympics and

expects Summitt to face dementia with the same toughness she

approaches basketball.

”She’s our John Wooden. If you are a Tennessee fan or not,

there’s no denying her place in women’s basketball,” Mulkey said.

”I played for the woman. She’s as tough as nails. People think I’m

tough. I’m a pussycat compared to Pat Summitt …. Pat Summitt will

fight. Pat Summitt will be on a crusade to help people with

dementia.”

Cronan and UT-Knoxville Chancellor Jimmy Cheek have pledged

their confidence in Summitt as well, maintaining that Summitt will

be allowed to coach as long as she feels capable of doing so, which

was a relief to Summitt, Warlick said.

”Pat Summitt is our head coach and she will continue to be,”

Cronan said. ”She is an icon not only for women’s basketball but

for all of women’s athletics. For Pat to stand-up and share her

health news is just a continuing example of her courage. Life is an

unknown and none of us have a crystal ball. But I do have a record

of knowing what Pat Summitt stands for; excellence, strength,

honesty and courage.”

Warlick, who with fellow Lady Vols assistants Dean Lockwood and

Mickie DeMoss, will assume extra responsibilities as needed to help

Summitt.

As college basketball’s winningest coach, Summitt has spent 37

seasons at Tennessee and has 1,071 career victories and eight

national championships. She is not the alone in her fight. Retired

men’s basketball coach Dean Smith – the 80-year-old former North

Carolina coach, who has 879 victories, reached 11 Final Fours and

won two national championships – is suffering from a progressive

neurocognitive disorder that affects his memory.

That doesn’t surprise any of Summitt’s former players or

rivals.

”I’m definitely shocked to hear the news, but knowing Pat she

will get through this, and we will all stand by her side through

this,” Indiana Fever forward Tamika Catchings said. ”She’ll face

yet another obstacle with determination and will power to live life

to the fullest.”

LSU coach and former Lady Vol Nikki Caldwell agreed.

”I’ve known Coach Summitt for 23 years and there has never been

a fight that she’s backed down from,” Caldwell said. ”All of us

who have played or coached under her leadership, we know she will

take this fight on like she does with every task. She will do it

with dignity, toughness, courage and an unwavering

commitment.”

Los Angeles Sparks forward Candace Parker said she’s excited

Summitt is going to continue coaching and doing what she loves.

”I’m so proud of her for coming forward with it. I think a lot

of people would have hid it,” she said.

Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma summed up most of the reaction

to Summitt’s diagnosis.

”You don’t necessarily associate dementia with people our age

so this announcement really put things in perspective,” Auriemma

said in a statement. ”Pat has great support from her family,

friends and staff and I know they will help her immensely. 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. I wish her all

the best.”

AP Sports Writers Doug Feinberg and Jim Vertuno contributed to

this story.