Back in the olden days of girls’ sports, we played a very different game of basketball. At first, we had six players, and only two from each team could cross the center line. The girls could only dribble the ball twice, then they had to pass it off to another player. Then it was expanded to three dribbles. Finally, when I was in college, we had “unlimited dribbles,” but most girls didn’t know how to handle the ball. We still had six players and a “roving forward” and a “roving guard” on each team–not a center, two forwards and two guards, all of whom were in the game all the time. That was in 1967, which was the last year I actually played.
I kept my eyes on women’s basketball, though, and one of the main reasons I did was a woman who passed away today–the remarkable Pat Summitt. I spent a year at the University of Tennessee (1967-68), and, although Pat didn’t arrive on the UT campus until a few years later, she changed UT basketball–and ALL basketball, women’s and men’s–by winning more games in Division I than any other coach, women or men.
If you ever watched her coach a game, you know that she was in a class by herself. She was the very definition of what the word “coach” means–to encourage, to demonstrate, to explain, to celebrate, to understand when the game doesn’t go your way.
Sure, she got frustrated some times. But she was all team, and her Lady Vols knew it. They were all Pat Summitt, all the time, because she believed in them every minute of every day. She once told National Public Radio that she was there for her “weakest” player as well as for her stars. (Note: I don’t remember many “weak” players on her teams–she was that good at recruiting the best.)
About five years ago, she publicly revealed that she had early-onset dementia (perhaps Alzheimer’s disease). I wrote her a fan letter, in which I gushed (no other verb is appropriate, I admit) about how I felt about her and what she had done for women’s sports in general and women’s basketball in particular. She didn’t know me; she had never met me, nor would having met me meant anything. But here’s the thing: This amazing woman who had umpteen things to do actually sat down and wrote me a note, thanking me for my concern, and telling me that the disease was the toughest opponent she’d ever faced. Words cannot express how I felt when I opened that note and saw that it was actually from THE Pat Summitt.
Today, women play REAL basketball, with five constantly-involved players–a center, two guards and two forwards–and a 24-second clock. It’s not the namby-pamby game we played 50 years ago. One of the reasons it’s a real game is because of a pioneer named Pat Summitt.
So, she passed away at the age of 64. She did more in her 64 years than most people can even imagine in their lifetimes. Her death hit me hard, but I want to celebrate what she did for every woman who ever wanted to pick up a ball and dribble it down the court, or a bat and glove or a tennis racket. We can play sports. We can be athletes. We can compete. It’s because we walk in the footsteps of the Pat Summitts of the world who paved the way.
She was one of a kind. Let’s remember her that way.