There’s a lot of talk about Pat Summitt right now: talk of dementia, talk of Alzheimer’s disease, talk of the frailty of the human condition, talk of the ills that will befall the women’s basketball program at the University of Tennessee if she is unable to continue coaching. All of those things are important, no doubt, but when I think of Pat Summitt, I don’t necessarily think about basketball. I think about a brief moment in time twenty years ago.
It was November 25, 1991, to be exact, and in the grand scheme of things, it was certainly unremarkable. But I remember it like it was yesterday…
Please understand that I’ve never been one to be easily star struck. I’m not a groupie by any stretch of the imagination, I don’t follow celebrities, and I don’t worship athletes. But Pat Summitt is one of those people you just don’t forget. I’m not sure if it was the subtle force of her personality, the brilliance of her blue eyes, the graceful way in which she carried herself, or the simple fact that I found her to be a genuinely decent human being that left such a strong impression on me. Whatever it was, after our encounter I regarded her as much more than a successful basketball coach.
The occasion, ironically, was a men’s basketball game. The University of Tennessee was hosting East Tennessee State University. At the time, ETSU was loaded with talent. Alan LeForce was coaching players like Greg Dennis, Rodney English, Jerry Pelphrey and Marty Story. Tennessee’s best player, and the only one I remember, was Allan Houston. My wife owned and operated a dancing school, (she still does) and they had been invited to travel to Knoxville and perform for the crowd at halftime. It was great. I got in free, I got a pass, and I got to watch the game from the floor.
My son, Dylan, was two years old at the time, and I was carrying him around in a backpack, as I often did. It had a metal frame and a canvas “sling,” for lack of a better term, that he fit into perfectly. He faced the same direction I was facing, and his head was right at the same level as mine, which meant that his mouth was about six inches from my ear. He babbled a lot back then… still does.
Anyway, I was walking through one of the hallways at Thompson-Boling before the game started when I saw Coach Summitt coming toward me. She was alone, and as we approached each other, she smiled and said, “That is one fine looking young ‘un on your back.”
I said, “Thanks,” fully expecting her to walk past me. But she didn’t. She stopped.
“What’s his name?”
“Where’d he get that beautiful red hair?”
“From his mother.”
I was struck initially by how pretty she was, up close and in person. She had this healthy, balanced, confident look about her, the look of someone who is comfortable in her own skin. She introduced herself, we shook hands, and we chatted for a while, not about basketball or the weather, but about what it was like to be a parent. At the time, she was a new mother –she’d given birth to her son Tyler only fourteen months earlier. After we’d talked, she looked me in the eye, put her hand on my left shoulder, and said, “I can tell you’re a good daddy. That boy’s gonna do you proud.”
She made me feel… what’s the word… special, I guess. In that brief encounter, Pat Summitt made me – someone she’d never before laid eyes on – feel special. I’m sure she’s done the same for thousands of others during her life. I walked away thinking not what a great basketball coach she was, but what a wonderful person. People like her – people who can make others feel good about themselves – are a rare and wonderful thing. I wish there were more of them. I wish I was one of them.
Pat Summitt went on to become one of the greatest coaches in the history of college basketball, male or female. I went on to become… well, I like to think I became a good daddy.
And she was right; the little boy in the backpack has done me proud, just as Tyler has done her proud. Dylan is a Division I college baseball player. Tyler is a Division I college basketball player. I watched Dylan compete in the NCAA College Home Run Derby on CBS back in July. I watched Tyler hit a three-pointer on EPSN back in the winter. How cool is that?
I hope she beats the disease. I hope she’s on the sideline at UT for another twenty years, doing what she loves. And I hope she continues to make people she doesn’t even know — people like me — feel special… even if it’s only for a moment.