I was drinking after work at a bar in Manhattan, near our SoHo offices where I spend something like a quarter of my life now, when I heard we’d lost Ralph Stanley. Flying home to Los Angeles the next day, I stared out the window in what I could best figure was the general direction of Appalachia, and thought about the edges of the world, the psychic features of the landscape getting machined off by twin implacable marches of time and indifference.
And then I thought about how the good doctor didn’t work all that time, didn’t toil upon this plane for 89 years just to be mourned in rest as though that work couldn’t survive him.
Pat Summitt and I never met, not properly. From the time my neck could support my head I was held up to behold her majesty at games, and there were occasional brush passes at fundraisers in which my vision would swim, but our families didn’t know one another, we never had chance encounters on campus, nothing like that. And we never met professionally; they sent me up home to cover her retirement announcement for Sports Illustrated, but I never wanted to write about women’s basketball. I had zero desire to consume the sport as anything but a fan or to focus on any team but mine or to even put up the vaguest pretense of being objective about it.
This is why I get along with Bama bros, I think, by the way — the inborn notion that the occasion of not making a Sweet Sixteen is to be met with genuine bewilderment, that it’s a "who are they playing in the SEC finals" and "how much did they win by" conversation until the Elite 8 because the rest of it’s just habit, and years in which our girls are not a 1-seed are to be met with indignation and an utter disregard for whether the team strictly deserved one, mathematically speaking. All my life, the women in orange and white and baby blue have labored under the highest expectations in their field, within a set of parameters that was put in place by one woman’s work.
I don’t have a Pat Summitt story. What I have is a landscape that was altered for me before I even drew breath on this earth.
She’d already notched her first SEC title, first SEC tournament title, and first Final Four appearance (in the first ever women’s tournament) by the time I was born. That legendary work of doing the laundry and driving the van for Tennessee’s earliest squads had already borne sterling fruit. You’ve probably heard, it’s circulated for years, the story of her suffering a half-dozen miscarriages before becoming pregnant with son Tyler, going into labor, getting on a plane to Pennsylvania to recruit Michelle Marciniak anyway, getting back on the plane to go home in excruciating pain, and on the way refusing an emergency landing in Virginia because UVA had knocked the Vols out of the tournament the year before. Pat wanted Tyler born in Tennessee, so Tyler would be born in Tennessee, and no further considerations would be entertained.
If you haven’t read her autobiography, you may not have heard this part of that story:
I explained to our pilots, Dave Curry and Steve Rogers, that I was in labor, and I asked if they had any wine on board; I had read in one of my pregnancy books that a glass of red wine could slow contractions."No," Dave said, "but there is a bottle of bourbon on board.""Well, give me that," I said.
Such was the bearing of a woman who’d won Olympic medals in Montreal as a player and Los Angeles as coach of Team USA, whose teams had won two national titles at Tennessee and would go on to claim six more, who once dislocated her shoulder expressing to a nearby raccoon that she did not care for its presence on her property and no I’m not equating this last example with her medals or her titles or her Presidential Medal of Freedom or her 100% graduation rate but mother of God do I love that story.
Such was the comportment of a woman who, faced with the cruelest possible diagnosis to the mind of a tactician, responded to the impossibility of continuing to throw her teams against the rest of the best the country had to offer by offering up her fame in defense of the future minds of people she'd never meet. "Do you have any idea who you’re dealing with?" she legendarily asked an unfortunate neurologist who suggested she retire following her Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
Not ever content that the universe would provide, knowing that is not how things work, Pat spent decades manifesting her will upon her surroundings, with a record that’s so much greater than 1,098-208 can even begin to cover. We who remember her are left only to assume that she has departed this life secure in the knowledge that if we haven’t picked up on what she tried to teach us by this point, we’re not about to start. And she didn’t go through all that for us to up and decide we’re worse off now.
I never knew her. Not really. But what a marvelous birthright she gave to me and to other girls of Rocky Top, a gift so vast that we couldn’t see the edges of it, and so never knew we were growing up someplace and sometime special. A setting in which excellence was expected with the calm assurance of the next sunrise. Where women’s games were social events and men’s occasional curiosities. Where it was accepted as a matter of course that the best armor to don when setting out to conquer a dumb man’s world is flinty, acid perfection. She was more than equal to the task.