Pat Summitt’s new game? Extending legacy of inspiration

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Pat Summitt’s never been the shy, retiring type. She’s driven, detailed and demanding. Maybe that’s why the Tennessee women’s basketball coach has won more games than any other person in college, men or women. Maybe that’s why the Vols have won eight NCAA tournaments.

Maybe that’s why she’s one of the rare individuals who transcends their sport.

And maybe that’s why when she says she’ll attack her early onset dementia with the same fervor with which she coaches, you’re scared for the dementia.

Is it ready for that singular glare? Is anything?

Summitt, 59, dealt the sports world a shock with her health announcement Wednesday. Coaches couldn’t believe it, writers heaped praises in tributes and fans tried to cope with the thought of what’s next. (This story of how Summitt found out about the diagnosis is particularly good.)

But really, all of that isn’t necessary. Not yet. Summitt isn’t dying. She isn’t retiring. Hell, she’s still thinking of winning national titles. And why not? She’ll manage her condition, stay active and delegate to her assistant coaches as needed. She’ll do what’s needed, just like always.

That’s what Summitt’s always done. Why would this be any different?

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“She’s our John Wooden. If you are a Tennessee fan or not, there’s no denying her place in women’s basketball,” said Baylor coach Kim 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.”

That I don’t doubt. Summitt’s done more than just win games. She’s a giant in her sport and helped elevate it from niche offering to a major event. From Graham Hays at ESPN.com:

Without Title IX, there would be no Pat Summitt. But on almost any given day of any given month in Knoxville, the sights and sounds of sport suggest Title IX would not be what it is without Summitt. There were others. Many others. But what she built on a basketball court radiated out to soccer, softball and volleyball fields and courts throughout Tennessee and beyond, stopping only when it bumped up against the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

That Summitt has not gone unappreciated proves only that we do not always fail to recognize genius in our own time. Much as each and every tribute must make her face flush with the discomfort of someone raised to shun such things, she thankfully has experienced the love and respect universally directed her way.

That respect popped up everywhere on Wednesday, whether it was those talking about her indomitable presence or the personal touches that emerged when they were least expected. The woman’s a legend. Simple as that.

She’s not perfect. Her ongoing feud with UConn coach Geno Auriemma has robbed women’s hoops of its version of Duke-Carolina or Yankees-Red Sox, but who knows? This development could change things.

Yet even if her Vols never played the Huskies again, it wouldn’t matter. Summitt’s legacy is secure. She’ll spend the next few years building it even higher and doing more than she’s ever done before. Summitt will keep winning.

But I’m guessing the next few years will serve an even more crucial purpose – ongoing inspiration. From ESPN.com’s Mechelle Voepel:

Summitt has won more than a thousand games. She has eight NCAA titles. She has done a remarkable job of keeping up with every player who has been a part of that mammoth success over a nearly four-decade span.

But Summitt can’t possibly know all the times when a woman was confronted with a sick child, or a crumbling relationship, or a frail parent, or a job loss, or a frightening X-ray … then remembered being a girl who cursed under her breath after an exhausting workout in Knoxville. And thought, “I got through that. I’ll get through this. Pat wouldn’t expect anything less of me.”

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