It’s impossible to overstate how much of a giant and pioneer Pat Summitt, who died Tuesday, was in women’s basketball and women’s sports in general.
I knew it was coming, we all did, but the news of Pat Summitt’s death Tuesday morning felt no less heartbreaking and devastating. I found out soon after waking up to get ready for an early-morning vacation flight. The frantic preparation ground to a halt as I took a moment to reflect and grieve.
It’s impossible to overstate how much of a giant and pioneer Summitt was in women’s basketball and women’s sports in general. She started coaching at Tennessee at age 22 in 1974, two years after Title IX was implemented. There were the 1,098 victories, the eight national titles, the 18 Final Four appearances, the 100 percent graduation rate.
But the numbers, of course, only begin to tell the story. Summitt was an inspiration not only to the players and coaches who were alongside her for the 38 years she coached the Lady Vols, but to others outside the sport, myself included.
I’ve previously written in this space about my passion for women’s basketball. My first year following the sport up close was the 1996-97 season covering the Stanford women’s basketball team for the school paper. That season, the Cardinal played the Lady Vols in Knoxville over winter break. My friend and co-beat writer Robin Davidson was on hand, and she watched Stanford roll to an 82-65 victory.
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It was not a quintessential Tennessee performance, but she still got to experience quintessential Pat Summitt after the game.
In the postgame news conference, Summitt expressed the utmost respect for Stanford, and she committed to putting in the hard work to get better and instilling that same commitment in her team.
“And you knew she meant it,” Robin wrote this morning on her Facebook page in retelling this story.
And sure enough, three months later, Tennessee was there in the Final Four in Cincinnati, and Robin and I got to see Summitt win her fifth national title in person.
Summitt’s sense of commitment has always resonated with me — the way she carried herself throughout her career, her patience and skill in effecting change, all the while empowering those around her. It’s an inspiration to me, and really should inspire anyone who aspires to be a leader and cares about diversity in their workplace. For that example, I am eternally grateful.
In her last memoir, “Sum It Up,” published soon after she revealed she was found to have early-onset Alzheimer’s, she wrote:
“We keep score in life because it matters. It counts. It matters. Too many people opt out and never discover their own abilities, because they fear failure. They don’t understand commitment. When you learn to keep fighting in the face of potential failure, it gives you a larger skill set to do what you want to do in life. It gives you vision. But you can’t acquire it if you’re afraid of keeping score.”
Summitt will rightly be celebrated today for the tremendous impact she had on her sport. But the lessons she leaves behind are universal, to the point even a son of Mexican immigrants can absorb and apply them in his own workplace.
If we achieve even a fragment of success she achieved, it will be a lesson well learned.