Commentary

Fear and Pat Summitt's announcement

Updated: August 26, 2011, 1:49 PM ET
By Jemele Hill | ESPN.com

Late in her life, I saw my grandmother transform from a crossword-puzzle-loving, "Law-and-Order"-watching, active woman to someone who couldn't take care of herself. And in the final months of her life, she was unable to speak and could only show that she recognized me by reaching helplessly for my hand.

It is devastating to see someone you love wither. My grandmother survived one stroke, but she suffered a second one in February 2010 and died a few months later.

[+] EnlargePat Summitt
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyWith Pat Summitt's diagnosis of early-onset dementia comes fear and admiration for her perseverance.

I immediately thought of my grandmother's struggles when Tennessee coach Pat Summitt revealed Tuesday that she is suffering from early-onset dementia, a prelude to Alzheimer's disease. It's unfathomable, and a cruel sentence for one of the sharpest basketball minds in history.

I have covered Summitt's Tennessee Lady Vols a few times in the NCAA tournament. And I've personally interacted with Summitt on a couple of occasions, including a few years ago when she and I were stuck at the Los Angeles airport. We passed the time drinking beer and arguing over who her greatest player was. She won.

I have tremendous respect for the way Summitt has single-handedly grown the sport of women's basketball and championed women's athletics. She is one of the greatest coaches ever in any sport and of either gender.

But I am scared for her.

As much as I am inspired by her courage and willingness to go public with this struggle, I'm fearful that we may see a legend decline right in front of us, and in a way that isn't dignified.

There might be more moments when Summitt's condition will interfere with her ability to lead Tennessee. I say "more" because, according to the 59-year-old Summitt, there were times last season -- before she knew what was wrong with her -- that it did.

She disclosed to Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins -- a close friend who co-authored her 1999 autobiography "Reach for the Summitt" -- that there was a game last season where she failed to remember an offensive set. Summitt also disclosed privately to friends that "sometimes I draw blanks."

This is heartbreaking, but also troubling. In fairness, the Vols were 34-3 last season, won the SEC regular-season title and tournament and made it to the NCAA regional final. There are coaches without Summitt's health issues who will never do that. It also isn't clear how fast this disease will progress.

[+] EnlargeJoe Paterno
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarBecause of recent injuries, Penn State coach Joe Paterno addressed the media from a golf cart.

But by allowing Summitt to continue to coach, the Tennessee administration also is jeopardizing Summitt's iconic reputation. Summitt said she will rely more heavily on her longtime assistants, Holly Warlick and Mickie DeMoss -- which will include giving them some in-game play-calling duties -- but if there is ever a questionable late-game strategy, or if the Vols don't seem ready to play, Summitt's health will be raised as a factor.

This is a delicate issue, but a similar conversation has been had about 84-year-old Joe Paterno. The Penn State football coach's pelvis and right shoulder were injured earlier this month when he was blindsided by a player running a practice drill. Five years ago, two different sideline collisions resulted in Paterno breaking three ribs and his leg. For a time he was forced to coach from the press box.

Paterno is entering his 46th season at Penn State, and while you could argue he's earned the right to determine when he will quit coaching, does anyone really believe he has a clear concept of when that should be? Or that the uncertainty about his tenure doesn't affect Penn State's program? Each time he's been injured, I've had the daunting thought that one day Paterno is going to suffer an injury that won't be so easy to recover from.

The specifics of Paterno's case, of course, are drastically different from Summitt's. I'm not suggesting that Summitt shouldn't coach, and I understand why Tennessee's administration didn't force her to retire. But realize what is at stake as Summitt resumes coaching.

[+] EnlargePresident Reagan
AP Photo/J. Scott ApplewhiteLike President Ronald Reagan, Pat Summitt will provide a public face to a disease that affects many people.

I do believe Summitt has the best intentions and that returning to Tennessee wasn't an act of selfishness. She and the school obviously believe she can still do the job. And by making the decision to go public with her diagnosis, from the pedestal she's created with years of hard work, she will draw considerable attention to a disease that has brought pain to millions of families.

Still, here's a final cautionary comparison: Five years after finishing his second term as president, Ronald Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. And in January, his son Ron admitted that he saw signs that his father had the disease when he was still in office, a claim other members of the Reagan family deny.

We'll never know what, if any, impact Reagan's disease had on his presidency. One can speculate, though.

Now that we understand what Summitt is facing, the next stage of her coaching career will have a different tone.

It's not in the job description to root for the people we cover, but I'm hoping that Summitt's trademark icy glare can melt this disease like it does the majority of her competition. I'm hoping the impact of her health on her program never is an issue, and that her brave struggle remains as unnoticeable as it was last season.

It's just too frightening to think about the ramifications if it doesn't.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.

MORE COMMENTARY »

Jemele Hill | email

ESPN.com, ESPN The Magazine