Commentary

Summitt again fighting uphill battle

Originally Published: August 23, 2011
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

A doctor friend has some patients who are, to say the least, rather annoying hypochondriacs. One in particular, after some routine tests, said to her, "Tell me the truth: Am I dying?"

She replied, "Yes … eventually. So am I. So is everybody ever born. But you're not anywhere near dying now."

I cackled upon hearing that.

"Really?" I asked. "You said that?"

Indeed she had. "It was what he needed," she said. "He had to stop feeling sorry for himself and start living."

There are some people like that: Those who are so obsessed with what might happen, they never seem to experience what is happening. Those who turn every headache into a potential brain tumor, every cough into lung cancer, every setback into the end of the world.

Then there are the majority of us. We worry, but we overcome it. We slump into self-pity, but we gradually pull ourselves out. We are afraid, but we comfort ourselves by thinking of who we can count on.

And there are those in a relatively small group who basically put everybody to shame: The harder things get, the tougher they become. The bigger the obstacle, the more determined they are to scale it. The greater the fear, the braver they grow. Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt is one of those people. In fact, she's pretty much their ringleader.

[+] EnlargePat Summitt
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

From elevating an entire sport to juggling motherhood and a career, Pat Summitt has a knack for overcoming adversity.

Summitt has now revealed publicly the diagnosis that she has had a little time to come to terms with: early-onset dementia. Most of the rest of the world is finding out about it today, and many are struggling with it. They're feeling sick to their stomachs; their eyes are watering; they are in disbelief.

And those are just the UConn fans. You don't even want to know how hard the people in Rocky Top are taking this.

Yes, it's OK to chuckle a bit at that. There has never been a celebrated women's sports rivalry that has grown as fiercely hostile as that between Tennessee and UConn in basketball, and yet today the Orangebloods and the Bluebloods are in the same foxhole.

What does that say about a person's stature? When your absolute rivals -- people who've been madder than hell at you -- are not just sending good wishes so as not to appear gauche, but truly are stricken and want you to know they care.

Summitt is going to fight this monstrous illness with humor, with an iron will, with everything she can symbolically get her hands on to throw at it. When she says she's not going to allow there to be a pity party for her, you better believe it. What she means is, "I'll kick your &$$ if you try to feel sorry for me."

Far-reaching, long-lasting impact

Some of the greatest players in women's basketball have worn Tennessee orange and played for Summitt. That includes one of the current contenders for MVP of this WNBA season: Indiana's Tamika Catchings. The most spectacular Lady Vols career was that of Chamique Holdsclaw. The biggest news of the past week in the WNBA was the return from injury of Candace Parker, who led Tennessee to back-to-back NCAA titles in 2007-08. Two current Tennessee players, Shekinna Stricklen and Glory Johnson, were on the U.S. team that just won the World University Games gold medal in China.

And when you consider coaches who either played for or worked with Summitt, you're not looking at a coaching "tree." You're talking about a coaching forest.

She has touched so many lives, shaped so many careers, mentored so many to be better than they ever thought they would be.

You could pick up the phone today and start calling people who've been impacted by Summitt. You could do it 12 hours a day, every day. A year from now, you'd still be calling, with no end in sight.

But it just hit me, when I heard the news about Summitt's condition, that I wanted to talk to Abby Conklin. She finished her Tennessee career in 1997, when Tennessee won one of its more improbable titles -- if you could say that about any of the championships a great coach wins.

Conklin was one of those players who just always cracked me up. A 6-foot-3 forward from Charlestown, Ind., she has this no-nonsense way of putting things that made her seem like she could have been the wisecracking country girl in a Robert Altman movie.

[+] EnlargePat Summitt
Matthew Emmons/US PresswirePat Summitt has touched so many lives, shaped so many careers, mentored so many to be better than they ever thought they would be.

Tennessee was the defending national champion, but lost 10 games in 1996-97 and dealt with a crisis in confidence. The Lady Vols finished fifth in the Southeastern Conference. After one very tough loss in January 1997, in a tearful locker room, the undaunted Summitt told her players: If you keep giving this kind of effort, I promise you it will pay off.

The scene in a very different locker room after Tennessee's NCAA title victory over Old Dominion in Cincinnati on March 30, 1997, was not one of wild celebration. It was serene. Pashen Thompson, happy but worn out, munched on pizza. Fellow senior starter Conklin, just as tired and just as happy, was reflective.

"There's something about that woman," Conklin said of Summitt. "She gets things out of you that you never knew were in you."

Conklin has subsequently coached, too. Now she's in San Francisco, going to school for graphic design. Like other former players, she is reeling after finding out about Summitt's condition. I asked her about her memory of what she'd said on her last night as a Lady Vols player 14 years ago.

"Yes, she totally pushed me beyond where I would have pushed myself," Conklin said. "I was a good player in high school, one of the best in my state. But you don't understand what it's like to play at the next level at that age. I worked harder playing in her program than I ever had in my life."

I asked Conklin if there were any particular moments since her days in Knoxville during which the strength she built from playing for Summitt had been of great help to her.

Conklin began to cry. Then she said, "Hang on a second. I'll get it together, I promise."

She did, and then explained what 2011 has been like for her family. In January, Conklin's father, Harlo, collapsed at home. He was, at one point, clinically dead. He underwent quadruple-bypass surgery and is still recovering. Then this summer, Conklin's mother, Frances, fell ill.

"She's been diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer," Conklin said. "It's terminal."

Conklin recently went home to Indiana to spend time with her parents. The moment she walked in, a nurse was there changing her mother's colostomy bag. Very late the next night, the bag began to leak and needed to be changed again.

"My mom was freaking out, my dad was upset," Conklin said. "These are things I'd never dealt with before. Heck, I'd never even changed a baby's diaper."

But in her head, immediately, Conklin could hear what Summitt might be saying.

Abby! Abby Conklin! What on earth are you doing? Your mother needs you! You're going to let a little bag of crap scare you? Take care of this! Now! You can do it!

"And I got my dad calmed down," Conklin said. "I said, 'It's going to be OK.' I'd seen part of the process. I called one of my family members who'd gotten instructions on doing it, and she explained the rest to me. And my mom said, 'I knew you would figure it out.'

"I remember thinking, 'Yeah, I can do this,' because I played for Pat. I can be my mom's rock. I can face this, because that's what you have to do as a Lady Vol. You rise to the occasion."

A master at making it work

This is the part of playing sports that athletes in their mostly carefree teens and 20s don't realize will still be with them later. When the people whom they always leaned upon might suddenly need them to be truly strong.

[+] EnlargeAbby Conklin
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images Former Tennessee player Abby Conklin says coach Pat Summitt "gets things out of you that you never knew were in you."

Eventually, everyone faces those moments when life can be messy and sad and demand things of us that we don't think we can handle. The luckiest among us will have someone like Pat Summitt in our past whose words echo in our brains.

Summitt has won more than a thousand games. She has eight NCAA titles. She has done a remarkable job of keeping up with every player who has been a part of that mammoth success over a nearly four-decade span.

But Summitt can't possibly know all the times when a woman was confronted with a sick child, or a crumbling relationship, or a frail parent, or a job loss, or a frightening X-ray … then remembered being a girl who cursed under her breath after an exhausting workout in Knoxville. And thought, "I got through that. I'll get through this. Pat wouldn't expect anything less of me."

Summitt is a great storyteller. When she won her last championship, in 2008, she recalled the day when she was about 12, and her father took her to a hayfield to do work she'd never done before. It was an all-hands-on-deck existence for the family. Richard Head would barely coddle a newborn, much less a strong girl he knew could think for herself.

He gave her no encouragement. Just an order: "When I come back to get you at the end of the day, this work better be done."

Of course, she figured it out. Just as she would later figure out how to coach when there were so few female role models. How to overcome multiple knee surgeries. How to build a national-championship program. How to elevate an entire sport. How to juggle motherhood with an all-consuming career.

Summitt is now facing a challenge that no one has really figured out. It seems so grossly unfair, so cruel, so wrong. Yet hasn't she been running uphill her entire life?

And isn't the ability to stand up when you most feel like falling down the lesson she has been teaching all along?

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.