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Pat Summitt: A Champion of Courage

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Pat Summitt. Her name is synonomous with women’s college basketball. She is women’s college basketball. And she is suffering from early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type.

We tend to place our sports heroes up on a shelf. A really, really high one. And, though we expect some of them to do incredibly stupid things like beat up their girlfriends or drive drunk wearing a Telly Tubbies costume, one thing we don’t expect is for them to get sick. It’s just too human. And our sports heroes are, well, something other than human. Read more…

Pat Summitt Reveals Alzheimer’s Diagnosis

Pat Summitt, like all legendary athletic coaches, is a fierce competitor who has led her team to many victories. She is well-regarded in her field and in her community, and is by all accounts beloved by her colleagues and her current and former players.

So it’s no surprise that the Tennessee Lady Vols basketball coach is as determined and forthright off the court, announcing her diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease at the start of the new school year — and only telling her players as soon as she knew the remaining two were off the court in China and back in Knoxville.

Summitt, 59, learned that she had Alzheimer’s disease after many tests at the Mayo Clinic in May. She said that troubling issues with her memory last season that caused her to lose her confidence and concerned her enough that she wouldn’t meet with players individually, motivated her to seek answers. The tests that can clinically diagnose Alzheimer’s disease and its related dementia indicated that Summitt had the “mild, early-onset” variety of the disease.

Denial ruled the summer, Summitt said, but as it wore on, she realized that she needed to talk to her players and her Tennessee administration. More importantly for her, she says that she came to a certain kind of terms with her condition that allowed her to move forward with her life.

The upshot out of Tennessee this week: Summitt will continue to work. She will remain at the helm of the Lady Vols, with the tactical and personal support of a team of assistants who have been at her side for decades. She will remain the coach of the University of Tennessee Lady Vols basketball team, and she will take care of herself as best as she can.

Summitt’s close friend Sally Jenkins wrote a lovely, understated, and quietly sad piece about her in the Washington Post, that left me thinking that as much as I don’t think I’d have the strength to write such a story about my best friend, at the same time I’d like to be the only one to do it, and I can only hope I’d find the strength and the grace at the appointed time. Jenkins said that talking about the situation had been a good, if painful thing, for everyone involved:

Over the last few days, with the clarity of her diagnosis and decision to go public, Summitt has recovered her confidence. More often than not, it is she who comforts others, as usual. Her staff have grief-stretched looks around their eyes, and seem quietly destroyed under their skins. Every so often you find one of them has ducked into her laundry room to weep. It’s Summitt who puts her arms around them and talks quietly into their ear. “I don’t want you worrying about me,” she says. Strong has always been her natural, preferred state.

Alzheimer’s disease is a demon. It’s a brain plaque from hell that erodes valleys in the cerebral cortex, kills neurons, disrupts synapses, and therefore robs individuals of their intellectual capacity. It steals likewise from families and friends, causing the person they love to change before their eyes (sometimes slowly, sometimes not.) I worked with people with dementia and their families for six years, when I was a very young, very green counselor, right out of graduate school. I went into their homes, heard their stories, absorbed their fears and profound need for answers, and in return I gave them the best advice I had about how to navigate this often-terrifying period in their lives. I immersed myself in Alzheimer’s, learned all that I could, knowing even then that I’d never have enough information, no matter how many research studies I memorized (and I memorized a lot.)

I also spent countless hours with people with Alzheimer’s, of all stages.They told me their fears, they told me I was full of shit and that it was really 1946, so shut the hell up. They revolted against the artificial schedule of long-term care, and wondered after their (sometimes dead) parents, siblings, and much-younger spouses. During this time I worked with a relative handful of early-onset patients, as obscure as Summitt as prominent, and their spouses, kids, and even sometimes parents. They were the roughest cases. These were people usually in the prime of their lives, ready to transition to golden years after decades of working and raising families, when their brains revolted and got them lost coming home from work or unable to complete a crossword puzzle. One of my clients was an elementary school teacher who, like Summitt, did brain puzzles and complicated step aerobic routines during the day while her husband was at work, to work her brain and try to stave off the deterioration the doctors said was imminent.

I told her she was working too hard. I told her that it wasn’t her fault, not any of this, and she did it anyway. She was a brilliant badass, and I always, inappropriately, unprofessionally, wanted to hold her in my arms. I can say the same about Pat Summitt.

What I’m taking away from this more than a decade after my own experience, and knowing what I know about the continuing stigma against Alzheimer’s, the fear and confusion that it causes, is Pat Summitt’s utter courage in speaking this aloud, not just with her loved ones or with her employers, but in the public sphere. She, quite frankly, could have worked a deal. Early stage Alzheimer’s (as best as it can be understood in terms of timeframe) can last for years — frequently not as long in early-onset, where it has seemed in my very limited experience to take hold and move more quicky, but still, years. She could have shown up courtside for at least another season and not disclosed this very personal information. She chose to be open, to approach this differently. And this sports writer thinks that’s pretty cool.

The Lady Vols don’t open until November 1. I’m marking it on my calendar now. Best of luck for a great year, Coach Summitt.

Irish Beat UConn Women

The UConn Huskies’ three-season dominance of women’s basketball ended tonight, as Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish knocked them off in the Final Four.

The story is really best told by my friend Alana, a daughter of ND alums, partially raised in Indiana:

UConn star Maya Moore could not overcome Notre Dame, led by guard Skylar Diggins, who scored 28 points tonight and had the look of a woman who was not finished winning games in this particular series. March was lucky indeed for the Irish, who had already knocked off a Tennessee team they hadn’t bested in 20 games.

The Huskies pulled back within six a little more than three minutes from the final buzzer, with a series of buckets from Moore pulling them closer than the 10 deficit they faced at the half, but it wasn’t to be. Statistics aside, shots of UConn coach Geno Auriemma courtside after the two-minute warning told the tale. Or at least I thought you could see it on his face:

He just did. He looked like a guy who knew his girls were done, that they were going to lose this game. And I have to say that of all of the displays of basketball coaching I’ve witnessed from many men and women over the past few weeks, I think that Geno Auriemma handled this situation in the best possible way for the situation he was facing for his players and himself.

And I don’t even like UConn, so you can take that to the bank.

“They played great basketball all year,” he said in the post-game presser, which UConn also handled with aplomb across the board, of Notre Dame.

“It’s their turn.”

Moore was a model of poise and mature disappointment in her post-game interview, speaking of her UConn family as the best thing she’d gotten from her competitive experience.

And to anyone who says that women’s basketball isn’t exciting or athletically viable? I say you missed a hell of a game, and a fine example of collegiate athletes working hard to represent themselves and their teams on and off the court. I don’t give a damn where the net is or how exciting anyone thinks  games are or should be. I know basketball, and this was good, competitive basketball, gender aside. All of the women on that court tonight should be proud.

The Irish will meet the Aggies Tuesday in the NCAA women’s championship.

Swoopes Signs with Shock

Whoa. Say that 5 times fast.

Sheryl Swoopes, a WNBA pioneer, has rejoined the league, signing with the Tulsa Shock for the 2011 season. She turned 40 this week.

Swoopes retired after the 2008 season after two seasons of back problems. She has played in Greece for the last 2 years and says that “I can honestly say physically my body feels better than it’s probably felt in the last two or three years I played in the WNBA.”

The Shock is hoping that her all-career averages of 15.8 points, 5.0 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.2 steals will help the team after a dismal 6-28 season last year.

Swoopes has a storied career in basketball including playing on three gold-winning Olympic teams.

[Image courtesy of Lucas Swoopes Basketball]

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Stanford Women Beat UConn, Hell Briefly Freezes Over

I admit it, when UConn set the NCAA record for games won with an 89th straight win over Florida State last week, I wondered if they’d ever lose.

But then again, I’m prone to extreme, magical thinking. I wondered if Geno Auriemma could just keep stacking his roster with awesome, unstoppable players who could beat anyone on any NCAA women’s team. I wondered why any superstar high school basketball player would consider another school. Also I wondered if there was a conspiracy, but that’s another story.

None of that was true. After winning their 90th straight game at Pacific last week, the Huskies lost to the Stanford Cardinal tonight, and not by a basket or a few. The last team to beat them — in the playoffs on April 6, 2008 — did it again, 71-59, in their 52nd straight home win.

“I’m just happy for our team,” said Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer. “The streak is something that they did. We’re about Stanford and what we want to do.”

Stanford is a big team and UConn star Maya Moore was held pointless until almost 17 minutes into the game. Stanford senior guard Jeanette Pohlen scored a career-high 31 points, while Moore eked out 15. The Huskies never led, which is amazing, really, considering that, well, they’ve won 90 games, which assumes they’ve lead at least once in all of them, if I understand numbers correctly.

Auriemma took a lot of heat between wins 88 and 89 for calling out the media and fans for underestimating women’s basketball.

“Because we’re breaking a men’s record, we’ve got a lot of people paying attention,” Auriemma said. “If we were breaking a women’s record, everybody would go, ‘Aren’t those girls nice, let’s give them two paragraphs in USA Today, you know, give them one line on the bottom of ESPN and then let’s send them back where they belong, in the kitchen.'”

Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer

Tonight he seemed shocked by the loss, which I guess is pretty normal if you haven’t lost at something for two-and-a-half years and then all of a sudden you do. I guess you’d feel like you pretty much had the winning thing down by then.

“At some point reality had to set in, and today reality set in. I’m not destroyed about it…Winning that many games in a row, it’s unheard of. I thought we let it get away from us. I think the atmosphere and what was going on and when Maya couldn’t get going early. I think it affected the rest of our guys. We just didn’t play like ourselves. Give credit to Stanford. I think they played an unbelievably good game.”

Yes, they did. Congratulations to Stanford for a big win, and to UConn for a record-setting streak that had to end — as they do — sometime.

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