Tamika Catchings, SEC support Pat Summitt
Tamika Catchings keeps in pretty close contact with her former coach, Tennessee's Pat Summitt. But when Summitt called Catchings at 11 on a Sunday night, the WNBA star knew something wasn't right.
"I looked at the phone and was like, 'Why is Pat calling me this late?'" Catchings said. "I picked up, and she started talking, telling me she wanted to give me a heads-up. ... She had been seeing a lot of doctors and been diagnosed with dementia."
Summitt, who has led the Lady Vols to 18 Final Fours and eight NCAA titles, has early-onset Alzheimer's. Catchings said her first question was "What can I do to help?"
The SEC asked the same question and will wrap up "We Back Pat" week with 12 basketball games this weekend. Teams are playing in support of Summitt and the foundation she created to support efforts to fight Alzheimer's.
Many schools are wearing "We Back Pat" T-shirts in pregame warmups this week. The same T-shirts are being sold to raise money for The Pat Summitt Foundation. Public service announcements about Alzheimer's are being read and shown on video boards. Coaches are wearing purple ribbons to raise awareness. Mississippi is giving 100 percent of ticket sales from its game against Georgia to Summitt's foundation, and South Carolina has pledged $20,000, which will be raised at an Alzheimer's walk.
"I know a lot of people are trying to help and figure out ways that they can support her," Catchings said. "'We Back Pat' is just one example.
"We want to figure out a cure or figure out a way to slow down the process. That is what we are all kind of focused on right now."
Catchings, who was the WNBA MVP last season with the Indiana Fever, credits Summitt with much of her basketball success. Besides her parents, she said, Summitt is her greatest mentor.
"It's definitely scary when you think about what is happening long term," Catchings said. "I am looking short term. I am focused on the right now, the moment we have right now. I think the biggest thing is that with her, we stay positive."
Catchings, who decided not to go overseas to play during the offseason, recently visited Knoxville and practiced with the No. 9-ranked Lady Vols. She said Summitt's demeanor was the same as always.
"Pat's always been the same, positive and encouraging," Catchings said. "And if she gets pissed off, she gets pissed off. While I was there, I had the chance to visit with her. We had some good conversations."
Catchings said Summitt is doing lots of brain exercises on her iPad and puzzles to stay sharp. And, of course, she is coaching.
"One of the things everyone asks is 'What about coaching?'" Catchings said. "Honestly, I think it helps her a lot too. You know, thinking about the plays, having put things together as far as offense and defense. That kind of stuff keeps her sharp too."
Tennessee has lost four games this season, including a 61-60 defeat to Kentucky just days after Catchings visited campus.
"The one thing I told them was, your focus and your intensity, every single practice, throughout the whole practice, has to be high," Catchings said. "You can't practice hard for 45 minutes, then take a break for 30 minutes, come back hard for the next 20 minutes, it can't be that. It has to be a consistent, hard practice.
"If it's not, it shows in the game. They'll be really hot, and then they will go real cold for a period of time. Then they will get hot again, but it might be too late."
Still, Catchings said the Lady Vols have the potential to make a run come March.
"I think they could be a Final Four team," she said. "They are a little young, but they have the opportunity to be successful if everyone buys into the system, if everybody works on focusing for 40 minutes and focusing in practice."
Catchings points out that she and Semeka Randall were underclassmen when they teamed with Chamique Holdsclaw for two NCAA titles.
"When we played, we were young," Catchings said, "but every single practice was a battleground. People came out with blood everywhere. We had blood every practice. It's just the mentality that you have to have."