There is a point in everyone’s life when it becomes clear that the most important people ever are dying all at once. It’s a trick of the calendar, of course, because the older you get, the more often the giants of your generation pass. It's just how this dodge works.
So it is that Pat Summitt, the defining figure in the history of women’s college basketball – and in many ways, women’s sports in general – is now gone. A casualty of the “long goodbye,” early onset Alzheimer’s Disease, she died Tuesday at 64 surrounded by her family and other loved ones. Which, if death must be done, is still the best way to go.
Summitt’s oft-told history – as a player at UT Martin and coach at Tennessee – is an almost unremitting tower of obstacles confronted and overcome. She was not the first great women’s coach by any means (history is written, after all, by those who control the technology), but she was the first great women’s coach to make her team’s and sport’s achievements a matter of national interest. Without her, there might not be a Geno Auriemma, or Tara Van Derveer, or Muffet McGraw, or Kim Mulkey or dozens of other standout coaches, or hundreds of great women’s players, or a WNBA, or perhaps some day the first female head coach in the NBA, Becky Hammon.
She was, in sum, the six-lane bridge from the largely undernoticed AIAW days to today.
But she was also a powerful spokesman for the disease that seized her, simply by standing up and saying with her usual combination of dignity and defiance, “Yeah, it’s got me. Now let’s get to work.” She passed a bit more than five years to the month that she was diagnosed, which is relatively short given the longevity formulas usually applied to the disease, but by all accounts she made the time matter.
Nevertheless, that she died in the same month as Muhammad Ali and Gordie Howe (just to limit the obituary search to June) forces us to see our own mortality as well. The young take history as something they don’t have to worry about, and even though Summitt was the eponymous figure in her sport for two decades, many of them now think of women’s basketball as belonging to Auriemma and Connecticut.
Which is probably as it should be. The young are about the contemporary because their forebears are in charge of what came before they were around.
But Pat Summitt mattered, first because she built the enduring program of its time, next because she made her sport nationally relevant, and finally because she told the world why she had to step away from all of it, plainly and forthrightly. If she must be remembered for only one thing, let it be for her forbearance in the face of an implacable enemy that too many of us will come to know in the fullness of time.
As for her death in the wake of so many others in this largely terrible year, well, I suppose she keeps good company in a lousy category. But it isn’t her death that defines her, but the fact that her loss was felt by anyone who pays attention. She was not Ali, the face of an era, or Howe, the face of a nation, but she surely was the face of a state, and she well earned her place as part of the answer to the question, “How many iconic sports figures of this time and magnitude must we lose at once?”
The answer to that is obviously, "As many as need be." But more importantly, her status amid that group is indisputable.