Disease shows Pat Summitt's human side

Disease shows Pat Summitt's human side

Published Aug. 24, 2011 1:00 a.m. ET

When Pat Summitt stalked the sideline with a scowl, snarled at her players or the referees, or sneered at a coach at the other end of the court — hello, Geno Auriemma — you knew one thing about her: She was in charge.

So, as Summitt, the iconic University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach, bravely revealed Tuesday that she has been diagnosed with the early stages of dementia, the video announcement presented an image of her — cool and fearless — that was completely in character.

Her decision to stay on as coach — even with an increased role for her three assistants — only encouraged the notion Summitt would narrow her eyes, cock her head and sneer, scowl, snarl or shout until the disease went whimpering back from whence it came.

Or, at least, she would do as she always forcefully demanded of her players over the years — never, ever give in.


And then there is reality.

Many of the qualities that, outwardly at least, appear to define Summitt — determination, pride and leadership — are the first ones that dementia will sap. They will be replaced by fear, loneliness and vulnerability.

How quickly this happens is the great unknown, but the road ahead is a one-way street. Dementia is not about getting better, it is about good days and bad days, of relishing the sharp, clear, coherent moments and managing the others.

I witnessed this with my mother-in-law in the latter years of her life. A fiercely independent single mother, who raised three kids from adolescence through college while earning her master’s degree and becoming a parent-child education professor, her decline was devastating.

Her family would laugh about her senior moments — losing the car keys, forgetting names or dates or calling her children at 5:30 in the morning because, well, she was up so why wouldn’t they be?

She would laugh along with everyone else because none of this was exactly out of character. But then she would get in the car and drive to her hairdresser’s parlor — at 3 o’clock in the morning. Or be flummoxed by an ATM, needing help to punch in the correct codes.

Even at the point when she needed help — no more driving, cooking or living alone — and welcomed it, she expressed regret in the clear moments that she had become a burden and disappointment that at an age where she could be enjoying her retirement and her grandchildren, she felt so diminished.

It seems admirable, if hard to fathom, that Summitt will go through this in a public sphere, at least the initial stages.

There will be an outpouring of support, and she will surely serve as an inspiration to her staff and her players, who will have no problem in the season ahead summoning motivation, as well as to those whose fight to maintain their dignity will be conducted more privately. From that she will draw strength.

But she will also be aware that all eyes will be carefully watching, from her assistants and players to fans, admirers and the media, picking up on a slip here or a hesitation there, wondering what sort of meaning to attach to it.

Courage? Sadness? Inevitability?

Whatever, it will provide another dimension to Summitt, who, for her standing as an icon of women’s sports, has come across as a caricature — she did, after all, keep an appointment with a recruit while in labor with her son.

Now, though, she will no longer be viewed as simply a driven, demanding winner, a sort of Bob Knight with (some) social graces. Sadly, it has taken a disease for her to be viewed as something more — someone who, as her iron grip slowly dissolves, is yet more human.