Note: I have never told this story outside of my family. It seems appropriate, given that Coach Summitt received the Arthur Ashe award for Courage at this past weeks’ ESPY awards. It’s also appropriate because this year is the 40th anniversary of Title IX, something I will be discussing in another post.
When I was eleven years old, Pat Summitt called me.
I don’t mean she called my house looking for Dad, or called home by mistake in search of an office phone. No. This was a deliberate phone call, by Pat Summitt, looking for me. “Hello, Alysa, this is Pat Summitt from Tennessee.” Verbatim.
I was eleven. We had just started our rivalry with Tennessee. To say I was terrified of Pat Summitt is understating the point. She is an icon of the sport. She’s naturally terrifying because of her intensity, her drive, her winning history…it’s PAT SUMMITT. I mean, cripes!
And I say this as a kid who had spent the past four years on a bus with Rebecca Lobo, so I tend to be unfazed by athlete superstars. This was a whole different kettle of fish.
This is also coming from a girl who spent the ENTIRE very first UConn/Tennessee game on January 16th, 1995, in the Gampel student lounge playing SuperMunchers on a Compaq computer. So if this nerd was freaked out by Pat Summitt, it was a very, very, very big deal.
She had heard, I’m assuming from my father, that I had been saying to people that The University of Tennessee looked like a really good place to go to school. I knew this information from two sources – the games I had seen on TV of the Lady Vols playing, and the media guides I had stolen from press rooms when I snuck back there during games to hunt for food or Diet Coke.*
*some kids collect stamps, I collected media guides of women’s basketball programs and and tried to memorize the school mascots of every single Division 1 program. It became a huge game with the team to see if they could stump me. I could not be defeated.
I had watched our game tape of the 1995 National Championship about 29347 times. I thought Michelle Marciniak was terrifying. I thought Dana Johnson could rip me in half. And I was particularly drawn in to the replay of Laurie Milligan’s turnaround jumper at the foul line near the close of the first half. I will not lie: I spent hours on my basketball court attempting to perfect that jumper. “Milligan fakes, spins, gonna put it up from the free-throw line – good! Milligan hits! Connecticut brings it up and they’re not gonna get a shot off, Laurie Milligan with the clock rolling down, to bring Tennessee into the locker room, leading 38-32.”*
*That is VERBATIM what the announcer said on the highlights video I have in my Mom’s basement. And yet I wondered why I didn’t get a real boyfriend until I was 23.
When I heard that famous drawl on the answering machine, I started screaming and could not stop. My Mom, listening in the next room, howled with laughter. I was paralyzed with fright; not because of Pat, but because of the implications.
I thought Dad would garrotte me. I felt guilty that she called me. I mean, this was Pat Summitt! Tennessee! The supposed antithesis of everything we were at the University of Connecticut, our ‘mortal enemy’, was on my answering machine, addressing me by name, saying in a quite cheerful voice, “I hear you like orange!”
Benedict Arnold didn’t have anything on me. I began picturing my funeral.
Thankfully, my Dad thought the entire situation was absolutely hilarious and kind of cool. I figured that was the end of it. I’m positive I was so freaked out I never returned her call.
A few weeks later during the 1997 Dayton Regionals I ended up meeting Coach Summitt. I’m not sure if it’s inappropriate to call her “Pat” so I’ll stick with “Coach Summitt” out of respect. I don’t remember how this meeting came about, but I think we were due to play them in a few days for the NCAA tournament.
I was shaking the entire time. Being that I was very young but very aware of Coach Summitt’s history and her legacy, I made sure I was polite and didn’t say anything too ridiculous. In fact, I don’t think I really said much of anything. I think I gaped. She was gracious, and welcoming. I can’t recall what we talked about but she definitely shook my hand and looked me dead in the eye, which made me feel important. I’m positive this meeting wasn’t because she saw me as a potential recruit considering I was, well, the biggest little dork on the face of God’s green earth. I was wearing a gigantic Nike shirt that probably could have doubled as a nightgown with a Nancy Drew book tucked under my arm, blinking behind oversized metallic purple rimmed glasses my sister had stepped on once during a game of one-on-one in the Seton Hall gym, so one lens stuck out and the other pushed into my cheek. My hair was probably unbrushed and I had a unibrow that looked like a caterpillar took a vacation on my face.
I actually spent most of that afternoon hanging around the gym with my brother and Coach Summit’s son Tyler, who I recall as being an outgoing and energetic kid. I didn’t meet her then-husband RB, but he was around I’m sure. We lost to Tennessee that year in the Dayton Regional Final – the year we lost Shea to that horrific ACL tear, the sad first of many sad firsts and ends in her career – and flew home, and that was that. I haven’t seen or spoken to her since. But I will never forget that.
Let me just clear this up right away. Pat Summitt is a titan of women’s basketball. She practically IS women’s basketball.
I know. I’m the daughter of Geno Auriemma. I’ve met Barack Obama twice. I’ve been in the Hall of Fame to watch my father inducted alongside Charles Barkley and Dominique Wilkins. Tennessee is the grits and gravy-soaked Evil Empire and we’re the cool Yankee rivals with good posture and Katharine Hepburn houses on our coastline. I should be stoned for even suggesting a compliment towards Pat Summitt.
I would be the worlds’ most ungrateful, insipid, spoiled, solipsistic idiot if I didn’t recognize the importance of this woman in the women’s rights movement and the game of basketball as a whole. Women’s basketball as an institution would be NOTHING without that woman, and I don’t think hyperboles exist in this situation.
Everything my father has done in the world of womens’ basketball, Pat Summitt did it first. It’s like that episode of South Park “Simpsons Already Did It”. Pat Summitt is The Simpsons in this corollary. (Sentences I never thought I’d say.) She got a 39-0 season before UConn did, she got a Championship 3Peat before UConn did, she got the best recruits before UConn did. And she did it with grace and a sense of dignity that you cannot argue. I won’t try to argue it. I am General Disarray, to keep up the South Park comparison. Pat Summitt Already Did It.
Pat Summitt has a gold medal, and more championship trophies, and 1,000+ wins. Whether you like it or not, she is the number one reason my father was even able to do half of what he’s done. And if I can give her those kinds of props, you can too. She is the standard to which we should all aspire for in terms of grit, clout, proficiency, success, and determination. And she did it without dropping nearly as many f-bombs as my Dad does. So…she’s probably a little classier, but Southern people just tend to sound classier than Philadelphia people do in general. I think it’s the accent.
When I read of her diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s last spring, I was heartbroken for her and her family. Watching the games was too upsetting, because she wasn’t the same coach I remember from all of those years seeing her patrol the sidelines like a lioness.
When I read of her retirement this May I was saddened but not surprised, and wished her Godspeed.
When I read the reaction of the CT newspapers, read everyone’s references to the UConn/Tennessee rivalry and the ‘disappointment’ that Pat and Dad didn’t ‘settle their differences or have another UConn/Tennessee showdown before Pat stepped down’…I was enraged.
How dare you, newspeople and sportscasters and the whole lot of you, make this about an isolated incident that is merely a footnote in the epic, a stone in the glass slipper, a crack in the Yellow Brick Road? Or the Orange Brick Road, if we want to be adorable about it (and I NEVER pass up a chance to attempt adorable).
Why can’t you celebrate the stuff that happened before my Dad even got into the picture? Hell, before Gampel Pavilion even existed? The gold medal, the national championships, the grand tradition, the countless record-breaking crowds? Pat was winning championships before Dad even coached one game of women’s basketball. I’m not knocking anything my Dad has done. If you’ve watched a championship game on TV, chances are you’ve seen me blubbering like a fool at the end of it at one point or another. I know my Dad’s legacy. I’m just saying Pat was there first.
If I can get over that moment in time, you can too. I mean, you can still wallow if you want, but it’ll probably be easier to choose to move past it. Be happy or be miserable. The work involved is pretty much the same for both.
This has nothing to do with Geno Auriemma or the University of Connecticut. Yes, I realize I could just say “Dad” in this instance, but really the parent/child relationship has nothing to do with this either. I’m just speaking as a UConn alum and current UConn graduate student who is seriously annoyed with the childish behaviors of specific journalists regarding this issue. The attention should be focused squarely on Pat Summitt, her legacy, and the new road the Lady Vols will now go down with Summitt’s adjusted role as head coach emeritus. A lot of support and well-wishes, by the way, should be accorded to the new head coach Holly Warlick. She served as Pat’s first AC for a long time and played under Pat as well, and will have no problem adjusting to this new role. The transition should be pretty seamless and I hope they do well.
And all of these stories about how it’s ‘such a shame’ that Dad and Pat didn’t ‘kiss and make up’ are forgetting one piece of the puzzle. They had a great conversation and hug in Denver, during Dad’s open practice at the Final Four. When I read the recap by Mike DiMauro in the New London Day, I had to walk off to a private area because it was raining on my face. Not because I missed my Dad and thought it was a lovely example of his class, something I really don’t think he displays enough (and more people should be aware of the kind of person he is that has nothing to do with snarky comments or side jabs). Nor did I cry because of “Oh, look at that, the conflict is over! Maybe we’ll play them next year!? I’LL BE ON THE TEEVEE BOXES AND EVERYTHING IS ABOUT MEEEEEEE.”
I cried because of a monument to the women’s game who is currently battling a major, major disease that I would be far too weak to deal with. I cried because that disease, that horrible, memory-leeching illness, could have easily been one of my parents, and I would not have the guts to endure that. I don’t know if I could have nearly the strength that Tyler has to watch his mother fight this battle every day. To lose your memory is to lose a very deep part of yourself. Memories constitute most of your identity. They are a major signifier of self and person-hood. To lose your memories can be conflated with losing yourself.
I cried because some things are just much bigger, and more important, than stones in your shoes. You can take your shoe off and let those stones go now, journalists of CT newspapers. And you know who you are, and you know what you do to piss me off every single time I read your articles or blogs.
They’re just pebbles. They’ll go right back to the ground. Let go, for the love of God. And I’m what, 26? And actually LIVED this experience? And I am telling you enough is enough? That’s probably a cue for you to focus on what really matters here.
Pat Summitt’s identity splashes over every part of the University of Tennessee, the city of Knoxville, women’s basketball, and the triumph of women in sports in general.
I will treasure all of those memories that she has given our state as well, preserved forever on tape and DVD in the state of those epic matches in the tournament and regular season.
But I will mostly remember that this mutliple championship winning coach, on her way to another championship in 1997, called me on the phone, remembered my name, and looked me in the eye as an eleven-year-old with gnarled hair with a gaze that said, “You are on my level.”
But no one is on her level.
She’s at the Rocky Top.
PS. Stay tuned for my thoughts on Title IX’s 40th Anniversary and other blog topics I’ve been kicking around. This month was bonkers but I’m a bit more settled down, now.
PPS. I have a few plans for posts during the Olympics. I’ll probably be taking polls on twitter to get that sorted out as to how exactly I plan to post during that time. Will let you know.