I am a Pat Summitt fan from way back. I know that doesn’t make me unique. It is always interesting to hear someone claim to be the “#1 Fan” of someone like Summitt. I understand why someone might say that; it’s a fan’s way of saying, “No, I really, REALLY love her.” But the fact is that a lot of people love her. I’m satisfied just being among that group.
Today is “Wear Orange for Pat” day. Just a few days ago, Summitt announced that she had been diagnosed with early-onset dementia at the age of 59. Like several other people I’ve talked to, I remember watching a few games last year and thinking, “Pat doesn’t look good.” There was something in her eyes that seemed different. But, those subtle hints didn’t make this announcement any less shocking.
Pat Summitt began her career in a dead-end profession: women’s basketball. She began coaching the University of Tennessee Lady Vols when she was still a graduate student and Title IX was in its infancy. It is hard to find a comparison for what she accomplished in almost single-handedly creating women’s basketball as we know it today. Perhaps Henry Ford comes closest. In our celebrity-driven culture, Pat Summitt is one of those rare celebrities who earned every ounce of her renown and paid for every magazine cover and sports article with sweat and determination.
This blog post started out to be a discussion of how people are diagnosed with early-onset dementia every day. And where is their parade of orange? It started out to explore the rather morose obsession we have with whatever illness a celebrity has. Thousands of people suffer anonymously until a famous name makes an announcement of a recent diagnosis and suddenly it becomes the illness-of-the-week. Honestly, how long do you think it will take for the Pat Summitt Dementia Care and Research Unit to become a part of the UT Medical Center? Must we have a celebrity connected in order to care about (and fund) disease research?
That was SUPPOSED to be my blog post today, a minor rant on our nation’s Celebrity Obsession Syndrome. But, . . . this is Pat we’re talking about.
I stood in line at Davis-Kidd years ago to get her signature on my newly purchased copy of her book. Me, and about a thousand other people. I watched every televised game of the three seasons which brought back-to-back championships in ’96, ’97, and ’98 (the Lady Vols have won a total of eight national titles, all coached by Summitt). I shook my head in amazement over the years as she broke record after record. Now, even the fact that she is the all-time winningest coach in NCAA Division I basketball (men or women) has become somewhat old news. Most importantly, I admired the way she found to win consistently while never losing sight of the importance of education for her student-athletes. One of the most honored moments in a Lady Vol’s life is when she gets to sign the pole in the locker room, and she only gets to sign the pole when she graduates from college; it has nothing to do with basketball.
I’m not so much a women’s basketball fan as I am an admirer of anyone who practices and perfects the specific purpose of her life. The mode of Summitt’s accomplishment is completely secondary; the accomplishment itself places her on a par with some of the greatest names in history. Excellence that pure is incredibly rare, and Pat has it.
I wanted to kibitz and quibble about the sudden awareness of early-onset dementia now that a famous person has it and put forth at least a soft indictment of our obsession with celebrity.
But this is Pat we’re talking about. This is Pat.