BY AMORAK HUEY
Pat Summitt (1952 - 2016)
True greatness is terrifying. You were terrifying.
The squared-shoulder, fist-pumping, finger-pointing, suffer-no-nonsense approach to the world. The blazers, the heels, the stare, the yelling. You were the physical embodiment of a standard most of us could never meet.
Everything about you was a reminder that we could do better. Should do better. Do more. Work harder. Care more intensely.
Even your name was too perfect. The top of the mountain. The top of all the mountains. Nowhere higher, no air thinner, no standard loftier. Who could live up to you?
Your first name, too. A loving touch. A caress. That Sports Illustrated writer opened you up for us. We all read the story, hoping to understand something about greatness. We were left with confirmation that we’d never fully understand anything. The writer showed us the coach who loved her players and also made them run until they puked, showed us the coach who wanted to be called Pat, the woman who went into labor in a recruit’s living room. He took us back to the first mountain, that small Tennessee farm worked by your impossible-to-please daddy, and how much of the world’s history has been made because we’re trying to win the approval of our parents?
That first game you ever coached at Tennessee, you were 22 years old. Title IX was an infant. College women’s basketball was not far removed from a six-on-six intramural activity. The game was played before a crowd charitably measured in the dozens. Your team wore uniforms purchased with the proceeds from a bake sale.
Oh, how far you took us.
At the end, you disclosed your diagnosis and slipped out of the public eye. Alzheimer’s is a cruel way for a life to end, eating away at our memories, our sense of self. You demanded that we show no pity, but how could we help but grieve? We never were as tough as you.
Your legacy is staggering. More wins when you left than any college basketball coach to stomp the sidelines: 1,098. But it’s not just the wins. You carried women’s basketball on your shoulders, helped carry all of women’s athletics to a more prominent place in our culture. Opened so many doors for so many women. The American sports landscape is a different place—a better place—for your presence in it. You crusaded for nothing, complained about nothing, asked for nothing. You simply demanded that we do better. We did not dare refuse.
Amorak Huey, a former newspaper editor and reporter, is author of the poetry collection Ha Ha Ha Thump (Sundress, 2015) and the chapbooks The Insomniac Circus (Hyacinth Girl, 2014) and A Map of the Farm Three Miles from the End of Happy Hollow Road (Porkbelly, 2016). A 2017 NEA Fellow, he teaches writing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan.