I was dismayed to learn last week that Pat Summitt, the head coach of the University of Tennessee women’s basketball team has been diagnosed with early onset dementia of a type similar to Alzheimer’s Disease. She chose to make the announcement herself, with the support of her family, assistant coaches, players, and university administration. She has announced her intention to continue as head coach as long as she is able, doing mental and physical exercises to keep her mind and body as fit as possible for as long as possible, but she will be delegating more responsibilities to her assistants.
Her accomplishments on the basketball court have been almost legendary, and when I say legendary, I mean legendary. She has been the head coach of the Lady Volunteers for 37 seasons, winning eight national championships for Tennessee. She’s the most successful coach in either men’s or women’s college basketball, winning an astonishing 84% of her games overall. In an era when many college and professional coaches seem to be willing to do anything to achieve success, Coach Summitt has achieved hers honestly, and by all accounts is as interested in building the character and integrity of the young women who play for her as she is in producing winning teams. She is the only person to have two basketball courts used by Division I basketball teams (and two streets on two different University of Tennessee campuses) named in her honor. I’d say that’s legendary.
Anyone who reads this blog knows that I am a huge University of South Carolina fan. South Carolina and Tennessee are in the Eastern Division of the Southeastern Conference, so quite often I tend to think of Tennessee as a rival to and a competitor with my beloved Gamecocks. I’d love to see the men’s or women’s basketball programs at USC achieve even a fraction of the success that Coach Summitt and the Lady Vols have achieved. In this instance, however, I’d like to put partisanship aside and wish Coach Summitt, her family, her players, and staff, the very best as she battles this illness. You are in my thoughts and prayers, Coach. This season, This Gamecock will be cheering for Coach Summitt and her family and friends all the way.
I suppose one reason this news disturbs me so much is that Coach Summitt is only about ten years older than I am. If Alzheimer’s Disease can happen to the most successful coach in college basketball at the height of her career, it can happen to anyone. I already have a physical disability and some associated health problems, so I’ve been able to adjust fairly well to the idea of a body that doesn’t always work properly. I’ve always been able to compensate, at least to some extent, with a fairly sharp intellect. If my cognitive and mental functions were to begin declining, however, I’d really be in a mess. It’s the one thing that truly scares me about growing older.
Coach Summitt has said that she began wondering about her mental and intellectual health when tasks that had always been routine, such as planning her daily schedule and the strategy for her team suddenly became noticeably more difficult for her. Her son Tyler has said that he noticed something didn’t seem right when his mother would mislay her car keys three times in one day or forget when she was supposed to go to her office or meet the team for practice. For the most successful coach in college basketball to forget the scheduled time for practice would indeed be a red flag. It’s made me think twice about my own forgetfulness and absentmindedness and wonder what I can do to keep my mind sharp. I would urge anyone reading this who might be wondering about the state of their cognitive abilities to see their doctor, get tested, and find out what they can do to stay mentally alert. In the words of a famous slogan, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”