Remembering Pat Summitt

I can be a bit of a journalistic pack rat. It started when I was a kid and saved every issue of Sports Illustrated I got. By the time it was time to go to college and my mother forced me to throw them out, I probably had every SI from the previous ten years stashed away in a plastic bin. Why? I don't know really. Every once in a while I'd go back and read something, but it was really this feeling that something might become important later. That's why when I threw out the God knows how many magazines, I kept a couple.

LeBron's famous first cover? Got it. Tiger Woods with his hat on sideways, club bent against his foot? Saved. My boy Jay Williams in a goofy safari hat and letterman jacket with a suitcase headed back to Duke instead of the NBA? Let's just say that if I'm ever at my parents house and I know I'm going to see Jay sometime soon after, I'll snag it so I can make him sign it. Not for the keepsake, just for the look on his face when he remembers how goofy it is.

When I started in radio, I did the same thing with audio. On my first laptop, I still have my old shows from MTSU. That computer's screen has been cracked for 4 years and it's only possible to use when plugged in to a TV.

I still have all my college shows from Syracuse. I have all the feature stories I did. I have many of the shows I've done in three different cities as a professional. I have it all under the same premise: I just don't know what's going to become relevant later. Sure enough, every once in a while, a story pops up that makes me think of something we did. Sometimes it's a previous point on an event's timeline. Sometimes it's a related event. Whatever it is, I find it interesting and worthwhile to go back and listen to what we thought at the time. 

Much like the magazines, at some point I realized keeping EVERYTHING was a bit ridiculous. When I started the podcast this time around, I wiped my recorder clean. I needed the space. There were press conferences from games I don't remember and interviews that had no meaning that needed to make way for empty space to create something new.

Today is a day I wish I hadn't wiped the slate completely clean, because somewhere on that recorder is the one day I ever spent with Pat Summitt.

I wasn't really with her, as much as lucky enough to be in her presence. It was November 2009 and Middle Tennessee and Tennessee were about to play in women's basketball for the first time in Murfreesboro (at MTSU) in 30 years. It could not have been a bigger deal. Women's basketball in Tennessee is a gargantuan deal, thanks 99% to Pat Summitt. I'm not even sure what the other 1% is, but I'll leave it out there just in case.

MTSU's coach, Rick Insell, is a Tennessee legend in his own right. He was a ten-time state champion high school coach before moving on to the college ranks. He had taken the Lady Raiders to be an NCAA Tournament caliber team that was ready to test its metal against the nation's best.

As I said, it was a big freaking deal and it was treated as such. The game was hyped immensely and there was also an event planned around game: a breakfast where Insell honored Summitt's contributions to the women's game.

It is here that I learned that simply saying "she's the greatest coach in women's basketball history" is to sell Pat Summitt's legacy monumentally short. She's the most important figure in the history of women's sports, and, with all due respect to the hundreds of brave and important trailblazers that preceded and succeeded her, I can't quickly think of a close second.

The event was the appropriately called the "Breakfast of Champions." Eight-hundred people, including a 19 year old student reporter, sat in a ball room at the Embassy Suites in Murfreesboro as Insell and Summitt told the stories of how they met and how their relationship developed. Summitt was recruiting Insell's players. Their families became close. Summitt had called MTSU athletic director Chris Massaro as soon as Insell got the job to sing his praises. Even then there was more.

Insell and Summitt shared how she had helped lead the fight to change women's basketball at the high school level in Tennessee from a 6-on-6 game where some players weren't allowed to cross half court to, well, actual basketball. She lead the fight to make women's coaching salaries first livable, then respectable. After all when she started she was being paid $3,000 a year to coach, drive the team van, wash the uniforms and anything else that was required to functionally run the program. 

She was a pioneer in every way imaginable in the women's game. She pushed women's basketball into the national spotlight and brought the rest of women's sports with her. I already knew Pat Summitt was a legend, What I learned that day was that she is more. She is a truly important, historical figure in our nation's history.

A record 11,802 people packed the Murphy Center that night to see UT beat MTSU. The atmosphere was absolutely electric. It was, in so many ways, what Pat Summitt had to have dreamed of. The crowd was filled with blue, not orange, meaning the sport meant enough to enough people to come support the home team even though the arena easily could've been filled to the brim with Lady Vols fans. It was the growth of the sport she fought for personified.

"You can look at the crowd that was here and know that the people in this area embrace and support women's basketball," she said after the game. "Rick has done a great job of getting out in the community which a lot of coaches in our game are not passionate about. He has people here because they love basketball, but they also like the style of play and they know Coach Insell is going to continue to win. It is great to have that fan support and it continues grow year in and year out."

Considering I learned much of what I know about basketball from Rick Insell, I guess I owe Pat Summitt more than I ever realized.

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Death sucks. It's finality is stunning. The thought that a person is simply gone with absolutely no recourse, absolutely no options leaves you with a hopeless pit in your heart. However, what I've found is that the memories quickly start to feel that pit. It's something I've experienced on a personal level with the loss of grandparents, and I've been reminded of as the truly incredible run of absolute titans in their respective worlds passing continues here in 2016. Days of death somehow end in smiles.

The stories of Pat Summitt have started to flow in and they are spectacular. Here's one from Princeton coach Courtney Banghart.

Other stories I've read today that I've enjoyed include:

It's not possible to explain Pat Summitt's importance better than Mike DeCourcy of The Sporting News did in his tribute: http://www.sportingnews.com/ncaa-basketball/news/pat-summitt-tennessee-legacy-influence-womens-basketball-coaching-death-career-alzeheimers/32nfwyrmpcna1as4zmn7vzzd8?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter

ESPN's Kara Lawson played for Summitt. Her video tribute is beautiful: http://espn.go.com/video/clip?id=16593630

ESPN's Kate Fagan on being a basketball player growing up trying to impress Pat Summitt, even if she knew she might never play for her: http://espn.go.com/womens-college-basketball/story/_/id/16519567/pat-summitt-inspired-generation-basketball-players

Yahoo's Dan Wentzel says there will never be another Pat Summitt, because there doesn't need to be: http://sports.yahoo.com/news/pat-summitt-s-legacy-will-forever-endure-after-her-death-161057498.html

I don't know how to describe this story by SB Nation's Holly Anderson, but you will enjoy the hell out of reading it. Personal remembrance of a hero she never met: http://www.everydayshouldbesaturday.com/2016/6/28/12051358/an-altered-state

This from CBS's Gary Parrish is a roller coaster. His one time hanging with Summitt and his own personal experience with Alzheimers. My favorite line in the piece is "when you hear her friends in the coming days explain how cool and normal she was despite all the fame and success, I want you to know they're not just saying it because they're her friends. I want you to know they're saying it because it's true." The story: http://www.cbssports.com/college-basketball/news/death-came-too-soon-for-hall-of-fame-coach-pat-summitt-from-a-disease-too-cruel/

The Washington Post's Sally Jenkins wrote this piece about Summitt when she was diagnosed in 2011. Jenkins considers Summitt her best friend: https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/colleges/pat-summitt-tennessee-womens-basketball-coach-diagnosed-with-alzheimers-disease/2011/08/23/gIQADEuDZJ_story.html

Here's what Jenkins wrote today: https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/colleges/widely-beloved-pat-summitt-was-cherished-most-by-those-who-saw-her-complexities/2016/06/28/581a391a-3d2e-11e6-80bc-d06711fd2125_story.html?tid=sm_tw_ps

ESPN's Travis Haney (writing for The Oklahoman at the time in 2011) wrote a letter to Summitt once. She responded within a week in the middle of the season. That anecdote and more in his personal remembrance: http://newsok.com/article/3776823

A former UT men's player remembers when Summitt took over one of their practices because she was so disgusted with what she was watching: http://tennessee.247sports.com/Article/That-time-Lady-Vols-legend-Pat-Summitt-took-over-a-Tennessee-Vol-46014183