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VOL. 40 | NO. 26 | Friday, June 24, 2016

David Climer: Summitt's public battle, foundation will help find a cure

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We know about all the national championships, all the victories and even the exceptional graduation rate.

But because of Pat Summitt, we also know more about Alzheimer’s disease. And that is an important part of her extraordinary legacy. It was her courageous choice to become the face of the disease, accepting the role as an advocate.

Because of the way she dealt with Alzheimer’s prior to her death in the early morning hours of Tuesday at the age of 64, we have a greater understanding of the disease and its devastating impact. She fought it with all her heart and soul, often in public view.

Now it’s our turn to pick up the fight. It should be noted that the family requests those who want to honor her memory to visit www.patsummitt.org/donate. There, you can make donations to help fund continued research toward a cure for Alzheimer’s.

I’m in. After watching the dignity, grace and zeal with which she handled things over the last four-plus years, I can’t think of a better way to honor Pat Summitt.

You know the story. At age 59, she was diagnosed with early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type. She kept the secret for a couple of weeks before telling her assistant coaches and ultimately going public with the diagnosis prior to the 2011-12 season.

We were still trying to wrap our minds around what was happening when Summittt made the decision to attend an SEC function in Birmingham in October of 2011. There, with trusted assistant coach Holly Warlick at her side, she answered questions from reporters about her diagnosis, her condition and her challenges.

On that day, it was clear that the disease was having an effect. Summitt spoke in short sentences, often leaving Warlick to fill in the blanks. But the fact that she was willing to go in front of cameras and tape recorders despite her condition spoke volumes about her courage and commitment.

This is a cruel, heartless disease. Once stricken, there is no cure. It deteriorates cognitive skills. For loved ones, it is horrible to watch.

In January, Summitt was moved from her home outside Knoxville to Sherrill Hill Senior Living Center. At the time, her son Tyler said it was due to renovations being made at the house. However, it was apparent to many friends that Summitt’s conditioned had worsened.

A number of UT athletics department figures attended a fundraising event at a Nashville golf course last month, and several spoke about Summitt’s deteriorating mental state. Some indicated that she no longer recognized faces and couldn’t remember names. There was also talk that her physical condition had taken a bad turn.

In addition to Alzheimer’s, Summitt suffered from rheumatoid arthritis. In fact, she once confided that she initially thought her first instances of memory loss were due to the heavy dosage of medication she was taking to treat the arthritic condition.

It was because of her stature in the sports world that so many became aware of her fight against Alzeheimer’s. She didn’t invent the game, but she made women’s basketball. On her watch, the Lady Vols became a national brand. Even Geno Auriemma, coach of powerhouse UConn, recognizes that it was Summitt who set the bar.

“We wouldn’t be the program we are and I wouldn’t be the coach I am if it weren’t for Pat,” Auriemma once told me. “Before her, women’s college basketball was just an afterthought. People didn’t take it seriously. She changed everything.”

Indeed, her 38-year coaching career redefined how women competed. Certainly, the increased opportunities afforded by Title IX helped but it was Summitt who led the charge.

She was a leader on and off the court. Remember, a number of states still played 6-on-6 in girls’ high school basketball in the ’70s. Tennessee was one of those states. It was Summitt who went to the state legislature and campaigned for change.

Jim Norvelle was a senior at UT and a reporter for the Daily Beacon for Summitt’s first season as coach of the Lady Vols in 1974-75. He remembers that season as a humble beginning to what would become a legendary career.

“You would be laughed at to call the few who watched the games at Alumni Gym a crowd,” Norvelle said. “Women’s basketball was a novelty at first.”

Even then, at age 22, Summitt got the most out of the available talent, pushing her players on every possession.

“Even her first team reflected her intensity,” Norvelle said.

Novelle also watched Summitt play pickup games with men, where she more than held her own.

“She was all arms with sharp elbows and legs with bent knees to keep you from driving to the rim,” he said. “The glare was also present – at 22. She was a basketball player with whom not to mess.”

Her first team went 16-8. Her final team, in 2012, went 27-9, won the SEC tournament and made it to the Elite Eight.

That final season was tough to watch. Often, Summitt sat on the bench with a vacant stare while Warlick, a one-time Lady Vols player and long-time assistant, handled the bulk of the head coaching duties. It was difficult on everybody – players, assistant coaches and especially Pat Summitt.

When I was sports columnist for The Tennessean, I took considerable flak for writing in 2012 that Summitt should step aside at the end of the season. “One season of dealing with the diagnosis of early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, under a microscope was courageous,” I wrote. “Another season would be a tragedy.”

One reader even posted what amounted to a death threat in the comments section below the column.

But something had to be done. There was one game that season when Summitt had to be steered down the sidelines by an assistant coach to shake hands with the opposing coach, something she had done more than 1,300 times in her career. We were watching a proud, accomplished woman in a fight she could not possibly win, all of it being played out under the microscope of public scrutiny.

Ultimately, of course, she did the right thing and retired as head coach, moving into an advisory role. Warlick succeeded her and remains Lady Vols head coach today.

By making what may have been the toughest call of her life, Summitt stepped aside, giving up the job she loved. In the process, she did what was best for her program and her school. That’s how she handled things throughout her career.

In the face of it all, Pat Summitt fought the good fight. Now it’s our turn.

Reach David Climer at dclimer1018@yahoo.com and on Twitter @DavidClimer.

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