Remembering Coach Summitt
By Sheryl McAlister, a writer based in SC.
When Pat Summitt was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease five years ago, I remember feeling incredibly emotional about it. She was so young, and the disease is so devastating. When I heard the news that she died earlier this week, it felt like a sucker punch.
I have been a Pat fan since the beginning. If not for Coach Summitt and other pioneers like her, the rest of us who were born before Title IX was law would never have had a chance. Whether we were any good or not, she gave us permission to play hard, to be aggressive and to compete on a whole different level. I was not good enough to play Division 1 ball. My younger sister was though. She was heavily recruited by Summitt and the University of Tennessee before making the decision to play for the University of South Carolina.
My sister, Marsi, said she remembered speaking with Summitt on the phone her senior year in high school. “Coach asked me why I wanted to play at USC, and I told her then that while I would love to play for her, I wanted to stay closer to home,” Marsi said. “Thinking back, I wish I had decided to play at UT.”
The USC women’s basketball program went through turbulent times in the early ‘80s. And, as a freshman, Marsi remembered that after one close game against Tennessee Summitt came into the USC locker room to show her support for the Gamecocks. The USC team had been reduced to just six players but still managed to play on a national stage. Summitt, Marsi said, came in to offer encouragement. “She looked straight at me like she wanted me to change my mind and play for her,” Marsi said. “She didn’t say anything. She couldn’t, of course. But the look said it all.”
It goes without saying; Coach Summitt was a class act. Her basketball legacy intact and her leadership legacy long ago established as among the best ever, Summitt’s additional legacy will be as a vibrant, beautiful, otherwise healthy face of Alzheimer’s. Her unselfish, public battle with the disease will, no doubt, help drive awareness and research toward a cure.
Alzheimer’s is a dreadful disease. I don’t believe in comparative pain. I never have. One person’s trials and tribulations don’t trump someone else’s. But if you’ve ever experienced Alzheimer’s and witnessed a loved one’s slow slide into its vicious grip, you understand this disease might just be the worst. It’s cruel and destructive, both for the person who has it and everyone who loves her. The victim of this disease, in essence, dies twice. The first time occurs when the person’s actual self is transformed into another nearly unrecognizable one, with little or no memory of their former self. Your loved one could very well die in your arms without ever remembering who you were to them.
To be diagnosed at 59 – at the pinnacle of a life and a career that weren’t close to being over – was unjust. For someone who did so much for so many for so long, Summitt’s battle with Alzheimer’s was unfair. And although we are left saddened and angry by what the disease did to her, as long as we remember her, it won’t have the last word.
Thank you for everything, Coach. Rest in peace.
Copyright ©2016 Sheryl McAlister.
Other posts about Alzheimer’s: Grandmama, Alfie & the Promise of Spring