KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - The roped-off area for the media and the orange carpet were clear signs that the midweek screening at a local theater wasn't showing standard moviegoer fare. The film "Pat XO" debuted in an exclusive showing a short distance from where Pat Summitt cemented her career at the University of Tennessee.
The movie will debut across the country on July 9 at 8 p.m. Eastern on ESPN as part of the Nine for IX series - movies directed by women that focus on women's athletics.
Pat Summitt, who coached the Lady Vols basketball team for 38 years before retiring after the 2011-12 season, was a natural choice for a series that wanted to showcase watershed events in women's sports.
"You've got to do Pat Summitt," said John Dahl, ESPN's executive producer for the series.
Summitt tributes are a crowded market right now since the iconic sports figure announced she had early onset dementia, coached one more season, stepped down in April of 2012 with 1,098 wins and then started a foundation to combat Alzheimer's disease. The honors for Summitt - she recently was inducted into the FIBA Hall of Fame in Switzerland - haven't slowed down and producing a documentary about her career from a fresh perspective would be a challenge.
So, film directors Lisa Lax and Nancy Stern Winters decided to send small cameras to those who knew Summitt well. Those people turned the cameras on themselves and told stories about Summitt. The result was "Pat XO" - the directors said it obviously referred to the Xs and Os of coaching but the fact that some would read it as a kiss and a hug was OK, too.
"If this film had been done in a conventional way, I don't know that it would feel as revealing, as personal, as fresh as it does," Dahl said. "Lisa and Nancy make it work in a way that the mood varies. You get laughter. You get tears."
Winters noted, "We sent out dozens of cameras and we waited."
The challenge for the pair came in the editing process as they discovered a treasure trove of material in the returned cameras with anecdotes from such well-known stars as pro quarterback Peyton Manning and country music singer Kenny Chesney.
Some of the others who participated were former players Candace Parker, Michelle Marciniak, Shelley Sexton Collier, Tamika Catchings and Chamique Holdsclaw; current Tennessee head coach Holly Warlick and assistant Dean Lockwood; Summitt's USA coach Billie Moore; author Sally Jenkins, coaches Van Chancellor and Geno Auriemma; and Summitt's college teammate Esther Hubbard.
Parker and Summitt talk about Parker being held out of the first half of her homecoming game in Chicago because she missed curfew on New Year's Eve. She was with her fiancé and now-husband Shelden Williams, who picked up the phone, saw 50 missed calls and answered when it rang yet again. Summitt was on the other end and all Parker heard was apologies from Williams. Summitt later told Parker that she had to earn back her trust, something Parker vowed to do every single day.
Marciniak, her parents and longtime assistant Mickie DeMoss relate in hilarious fashion how Summitt went into labor with Tyler on the recruiting visit to Macungie, Pa., with Marciniak's mother telling the coaches they could all just chat later.
Tyler Summitt narrates the film, which is interspersed with the videos, game footage, still photos and Pat Summitt's own words and memories.
Summitt is in tears at the end of the film when she talks about her retirement - "I didn't want to, but I felt like I needed to step down," she said - and so were many of the attendees at the exclusive Knoxville screening, which drew more than 200 invited guests and media.
Lockwood had to pause while talking about Summitt's retirement.
"It was a moment of incredible impact," he said.
The film shows Summitt addressing her team for the final time as the head coach after the loss to Baylor in the 2012 regional final in Des Moines, Iowa.
"To be honest with you, losing just flat out sucks," said Summitt, a coach to the end.
Among those in attendance Wednesday at the Knoxville screening were North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell, who left 600 campers in Chapel Hill and was flying right back afterwards with more campers due to arrive Thursday. Hatchell landed at a small airport just across the Tennessee River from downtown Knoxville and made it to the theater with a few minutes to spare.
"I wanted to come see this," Hatchell said. "Pat has done so much for me. I wouldn't be where I am doing what I'm doing and getting ready to go in the Naismith Hall of Fame if it wasn't for Pat."
Athletics Director Dave Hart also chatted with the media before entering the screening room.
"I think it's a very fitting tribute to a terrific person, first and foremost, and an outstanding leader and coach," Hart said. "I think ESPN has done a great job depicting the life of the greatest basketball coach to ever coach the game. Her history is so intriguing."
Summitt was accompanied by Danielle Donehew, the co-founder of the Pat Summitt Foundation.
"On behalf of the foundation we are so thankful for ESPN and for Regal to step up and support Pat in this way and to help tell her story," Donehew said. "I think it's told in a beautiful way from a lot of different perspectives."
Summitt received a standing ovation at the conclusion of the film and was hugged by well-wishers as they departed the theater. "Pat XO" resonated well in Knoxville and will do so in the state of Tennessee. The reverberations should be felt across the country once it is shown nationwide.
"I think it's going to resonate tremendously," Dahl said. "Because I think throughout women's basketball people are going to see why Pat Summitt won nearly 1,100 games.
"It's not just about Xs and Os. It's about how to connect with her players, with her assistant coaches, her values, what she stands for. It's all part of the package. If you watch this film, you'll understand why she's achieved what she's achieved in life."