In 1974, women's basketball was in its infancy. And by infancy, I mean pre-NCAA sanction. There was no money in the sport. No recognition. No legitimacy. It was a mere brick to the powerhouse that women's basketball has become today.
Pat Summitt somehow saw potential in the women's game that year when she accepted a position as a grad assistant for the University of Tennessee. After the head coach abruptly resigned, the 22-year old Summitt was handed the keys to the program. Her salary was $250 a month, and she drove the players around in a van. It didn't matter. She went full speed ahead and never looked back.
I could go on and on about Summitt's legendary coaching career, her 1,098 wins and eight national titles over 38 years. Her numbers are incomparable. She was a Hall of Fame coach, and a damn good one. That's undeniable. But Summitt, who died on Tuesday at the age of 64, leaves behind a legacy that goes far beyond the basketball court. What she did for women's sports in general is everlasting.
Summitt knew what it was like to be an athlete who faced discrimination because of her gender. Before Title IX, her brothers received scholarships while she played basketball at the University of Tennessee at Martin without one. Summitt took over the UT women's basketball program just a few years after Title IX was enacted. Women's sports were only beginning to take shape. Look at where they are now.
We have more options for female athletes than ever before, at every level. We have a professional soccer league, a hockey league, and the WNBA. Pat Summitt was the water and the sunlight that helped them grow. She brought recognition to women's sports and forced people to pay attention. Her basketball program became more popular than the men's at UT, and the Tennessee fan base was as wild and fanatic about women's basketball as they were about the football team. Any time a UT game was on, it was must-see television. That's incredible, when you think about it. Women's sports weren't supposed to be equal or better than. They were supposed to be secondary. But Summitt never did buy into that, did she?
The knock on women was always that they weren't athletic enough to play competitive sports. As an athlete myself, I experienced this time and time again growing up. I played football in a grassy field with my brothers and their friends. I could hold my own and then some, but every time someone new came to play with us he'd look at me across the way and think, "What's she doing here?" It didn't take long for me to turn that arrogant smirk into a look of sheer embarrassment with a hard tackle. It was the same on the soccer field and the basketball court. I felt I had to play harder, be stronger and more aggressive just to prove I could play sports.
That is the theme of Summitt's legacy. Yes, women can play hard. Women can be tough. Women can be strong. And if the doubters aren't going to believe it, well damn—let's show them. Summit's basketball teams were not only physical and athletic; they were also mentally tough. She knew how to get the most out of her players. She knew how to get them to dig in and ignite that fire—the same fire that burned within her.
I was never going to play a second of basketball at UT, but that doesn't mean I didn't dream about it. That doesn't mean I didn't imagine myself in an orange and white jersey while shooting hoops in my driveway. I remember watching a game with my father once. Summitt was striding up and down the sideline, and the point guard committed a turnover. Then came that patented Summitt look: the steely eyes, the hard stare.
"Do you think you could play for her?" my father asked. "She's tough."
I wasn't sure what to say at first. Summitt's intensity frightened and inspired me at the same time. It was a strange juxtaposition, a mixture of scolding and support. The girl who made the turnover came back the next play and stole the ball for an uncontested layup. She was more confident after her broken play. Had I made that turnover, I would have sulked. I would have dwelled. But under Summitt, that wouldn't fly. You don't sulk. You don't dwell. You shake it off and play. You play hard, and smart, and tough. And you play till the buzzer.
"I'd love to play for her," I answered finally. "I think anyone would."
There are a lot of women's basketball coaches now that run successful programs. Geno Auriemma, Tara Vanderveer, Kim Mulkey, and Muffet McGraw come to mind. I would have loved to play for any of them as well. But without Summitt, I might not have had the choice. Women's basketball begins with her. That's where it starts. And because of her, that's not where it will end. Her legacy will live on every time a young girl picks up a ball and dreams big.
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