Swish Appeal was given an exclusive excerpt from the new book called, “The Final Season: The Perseverance of Pat Summitt.” The first chapter is reprinted below, with permission from the author, Maria M.Cornelius, to give readers a taste before the book is released on Oct. 1 by University of Tennessee Press. Pre-orders for “The Final Season” can be made at, http://utpress.org/title/the-final-season/
Summitt’s last season coaching the Lady Vols is captured in “The Final Season”, with forewords by Candace Parker and Swish Appeal’s own Mike Robinson.
Vicki Baugh wasn’t a typical college student. She wasn’t typical, period.
The player called “grandma” by her teammates was raised in Sacramento,
California, by her grandparents, Barbara and Calvin Baugh, and she oozed an old soul personality. The fifth-year player didn’t have social media accounts while in college, so she didn’t know big news was breaking that day. “I’ve always been called the grandma of the team,” Baugh said. “I got Facebook super late. I am not into Twitter. I finally got an Instagram. I am not big on social media, so I actually had no idea.”
It was a sun-splashed August day in East Tennessee. Fall semester classes were barely underway and full-scale court workouts were several weeks away, so the players were scattered across campus and the surrounding area. A group text message reached most of them that morning about a mandatory team meeting early in the afternoon. “We knew it was something serious. We don’t usually have meetings before the season like that,” said Glory Johnson, a senior and native Knoxvillian.
Summitt and her chief of media relations, Debby Jennings, had prepared a video the day before of the head coach announcing that she had early onset dementia. It was to be posted to the Lady Vols website and disseminated to the media as soon as the team meeting ended August, 23, 2011. But the news leaked on the Internet about two hours before the meeting, and while some players weren’t yet aware of it, others were already getting calls asking what was wrong with Summitt.
“I went straight to the basketball office, and they were furious because it had leaked out,” Jenny Moshak said. “What they were upset about is that Pat really wanted to tell the team herself. The team was receiving texts and tweets before they got to the office.”
Moshak, the longtime chief of sports medicine for Summitt, became aware of the diagnosis the day before when she got a call from the basketball office. Moshak, who can explain a player’s injury from a decade ago with total recall, struggles to remember the exact details of how she learned about Summitt.
Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood had the same reaction when asked about the day he found out. Details remain fuzzy, an indication of how traumatic the news was for the staff, as the brain scrambles to protect the heart.
“Somebody called me from the basketball office and said they wanted me to hear it from them and then they asked me to get ahold of Heather, because they couldn’t get ahold of Heather,” Moshak said. Heather Mason served as the team’s strength and conditioning coach and had been handselected by Summitt, who called her the toughest coach on campus.
“I called, and Heather was driving her car, and I told her,” said Moshak, who first directed Mason to pull over. “That is when we both broke down. It hit us both very, very hard. When the basketball office called—and for the life of me I can’t remember who it was—I went into information mode. You get bad or crisis news and then you’ve got to disseminate the information to the proper people. After I did that, that is when I broke down. Then it was about what it was about. That was rough. Heather and I talked a long time on the phone.”
On the day of the announcement, Moshak was in another meeting when she got the text about the team gathering. She left immediately and headed to the basketball office. Nearly everyone was there except Alicia Manning, who was tracked down and arrived a few minutes later. Summitt’s son, Tyler Summitt, was present, as was Joan Cronan, the acting UT athletics director and the longtime women’s athletics director before the men’s and women’s athletics departments were combined.
It was an off day for the team, and the upperclassmen had received a text message instructing them to make sure the younger players got there, as the meeting was mandatory. The players knew something was amiss based on the faces of the staff. The fact the news was spreading across the Internet only added to the anxiety.
“Pat wasn’t as upset as the other coaches,” Moshak said. “Pat was Pat. When I walked in the door, several of the coaches were pacing. They weren’t real happy. The players were hearing about it, and they were trying to get the players there as fast as they could. I was standing there and the national Alzheimer’s office called the main office. You could see it come over the caller ID, and they did not pick it up. All they wanted to focus on was telling the team.”
“That was a day you can’t forget,” Taber Spani said. “They called an impromptu team meeting after people got out of classes. They held it in the film room of the office. Everyone was kind of on pins and needles because you didn’t really know exactly what was going on and what was going to be said.”
From Lee’s Summit, Missouri, sharpshooter Taber Spani was in orange for one reason: she wanted to play for who she considered to be the greatest basketball coach of all time. Spani respected Summitt, but she also adored her as a coach, person, and mother. She is very close to her parents, Gary and Stacey Spani—they also favored Tennessee because of Summitt, especially after their recruiting tour allowed them one-on-one access to head coaches—but Summitt was basically a second mother to Spani.
“It was right about 1:15. I had just gotten out of class,” Meighan Simmons remembers. “I knew there was something going on because it wasn’t the same. The coaches’ office, everybody just seemed so reserved. There wasn’t much conversation. Normally in the coaches’ office everybody is jolly and communicating with one another. We were scared because we didn’t know what the meeting was about. But we didn’t think it had anything to do with Pat.”
Simmons idolized Summitt and still does. The slender scorer from Cibolo, Texas, was another player who wore orange simply because of Summitt. She was surprised by the text message, because the first week of class was usually pretty quiet as far as basketball duties were concerned. Meanwhile, Glory Johnson and fellow senior Shekinna Stricklen had just returned from China the previous evening after winning the gold medal at the World University Games as members of USA Women’s Basketball.
Summitt, who met the pair at the airport, had been awaiting their return to tell the entire team together. Cierra Burdick was in the Thornton Center studying when she learned of the team meeting. She had spent most of the summer training and playing with the U19 team for USA Basketball at the 2011 World Championships in Puerto Montt, Chile, so she had officially been a Lady Vol for just a few days.
The freshman caught a ride to the arena on one of the golf carts used by the Athletics Department to scoot personnel and players across campus.
“We had our struggles, so I am thinking this is another meeting about how we pull together,” Baugh said. Baugh was on the national championship team in 2008. The Lady Vols had reached the Elite Eight in 2011 but had fallen short of the Final Four. In Knoxville, the season is deemed unsuccessful if Tennessee isn’t one of the last four teams standing.
In 2011, the season ended with a particularly desultory performance against Notre Dame—an underappreciated team at that time that was on its way to being a Final Four fixture. As Baugh walked across campus, she thought Summitt wanted to set the tone early for the 2011–12 season. “And then I noticed the demeanor of the coaches,”
Baugh continued. “It was something that was different, something seriously wrong. I knew the news was very important that was coming. And then when she laid it on us. . . .”
Summitt didn’t waste any time getting to the point. “I remember when Pat said the words,” Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said. “She was very open, very direct and honest. She said, ‘I want you to hear this from me. I have been diagnosed with dementia.’ There was this stunned silence for several seconds. Every eye was on Pat and then slowly, 15 to 20 seconds, people start to look down, tear up, some looked away. Some put their head down in their hands. It was a very, very somber meeting.”
Some of the players had family experience with Alzheimer’s. Others were unclear as to what exactly Summitt had just said. “I remember being really confused because at the time I didn’t even know what dementia was,” Burdick said. “Everybody was making a really big deal out of it, and I didn’t understand why. I didn’t understand the significance of it. The biggest thing I remember from that meeting is Pat saying, ‘We’re going to be alright.’”
“When I heard that, all I could think of was bad,” Simmons said. “I didn’t completely know what it was. I just knew there was something wrong. It was so shocking that you didn’t know what to say. All you can do is sit there.” Some of the players had already heard the news because of its earlier release on the Internet, which moved rapidly across social media. “I don’t know if they necessarily believed it until they heard it from Pat,” Moshak said. “Their parents were hearing it, and they were starting to contact them.”
“I remember being in that room and Pat, in typical Pat style, just went right to the point and said what she was dealing with and how tough it had been and how she had come to grips with it,” Spani said. “Right away she went to how she was going to battle it and how she would always be there for her team.
I remember her making a joke: ‘No, I haven’t forgotten any of your names.’ Pat broke the ice a little bit with that.” The fifth-year player who had endured two major knee surgeries was the one who finally broke the silence of the players. “It was Vicki Baugh who spoke first,” Lockwood said. “She said, ‘Pat, we’ve got your back and whatever you need from us.’” Her words became a battle cry and touched off a “We Back Pat” campaign that continues to this day.
“I just let her know immediately she had been there for me through everything–personal family issues and on the court and dealing with my injuries—so the first thing that came to my mind was you have my back and we have yours,” Baugh said. The rallying cry reached Summitt’s heart immediately. “It really touched me. I was all but having tears,” Summitt said. “I love her. What a great leader.”
Summitt did all that she could to ease the players’ minds and emphasize that the focus was on their well-being. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the room except for hers,” Burdick said. “She kept saying, ‘We’re going to stay strong,’ and ‘We’re going to get through this.’ She was the one going through all of it, but she was also the strongest one in the room.”
The news was staggering, especially to Spani, who would repeatedly break down crying in the days afterwards. “I remember walking out of that meeting very emotional. I basically came to Tennessee to play for Coach Summitt, and playing two years under her, I developed this amazing relationship with her and just like that things changed,” Spani said.
“I remember her saying, ‘I am here for you guys. And we’re going to take this and I don’t want anything to be about me.’ It was incredible how selfless she was in the whole thing. The entire Lady Vol nation and really the whole sports nation for those first few days, everyone was glued on this announcement, and she was turning it into a call for us to rise up and fight for each other. It ended up being something that brought us closer.
We wanted to give everything we had, not only for the program, but for her. She was so selfless and didn’t make it about her. You can’t forget something like that.” The impact of Summitt had long been known, but it was underscored the day she told the team she had Alzheimer’s disease. The topic dominated local and national news and was accompanied by an outpouring of support.
And while Summitt’s news seemed to envelop the sport, the Lady Vols became a very insular team as they prepared to embark on a season that came without a how-to manual. “A lot of tears. A lot of rallying. A lot of motivation. A lot of support. A lot of hugs,” Lockwood said. “Tried to keep a sense of normalcy, as well.”
That would become a season-long theme.”
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