published Wednesday, July 10th, 2013

Wiedmer: 'Pat XO' is a wonderful love letter

Tennessee women's basketball coach emeritus Pat Summitt said she enjoyed a documentary about her career, "Pat XO,"  at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.
Tennessee women's basketball coach emeritus Pat Summitt said she enjoyed a documentary about her career, "Pat XO," at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Not even Pat Summitt can beat Alzheimer's. That's what you tell yourself, however much that reality hurts.

You watched the vacant stares throughout the 2011-12 women's college basketball season, her last as head coach of the Tennessee Lady Vols. You heard the sad stories of her forgetfulness, stories whispered with great regret, as if no one ever wanted to criticize publicly the greatest coach her sport has ever seen.

You watched and you winced and you cursed the unfairness that this could happen to such a superb coach and better person at the tender age of 59.

Then you positioned yourself in front of the television Tuesday night to watch the ESPN documentary "Pat XO." A love letter? Sure. And no one deserves it more.

But what was equally striking was Summitt's behavior, her memory of long-ago events as she recalled her past with son Tyler. Some say that's common with Alzheimer's patients, but her eyes looked far less foggy than in her final year on the bench. Her voice seemed stronger and more certain.

If only within the 60 minutes of this documentary, there was a prolonged glimpse of the old Pat within the current Pat, which is at the very least a good memory for all of us to cling tightly to in the uncertain years to come.

Some of the stories were vaguely familiar, such as the time her father Richard Head forced her to drive a tractor to harvest hay, despite her 16th birthday party going on nearby.

Said her mother Hazel of that memory: "It took us a long time to live that one down."

There was her sister Linda Atteberry lovingly zinging Pat about forcing her siblings to do Saturday morning chores while "she sat down and talked on the phone and we did the work. She was always good at bossing people around."

Added her brother Charles: "She was really more like a brother."

Much of it was light-hearted, such as the scene when Nell Fortner was discussing arriving at Summitt's home for dinner one night and Pat was on the phone discussing the questionable behavior of an 11-year-old Girl Scout, then quickly cut that call off to say briefly, "President Bush, 'I don't know if we can get on that plane tomorrow.'"

There was the scene of Tyler and Pat discussing the time she benched Candace Parker for the first half of a game at DePaul for a curfew violation, despite the game being scheduled specifically so Parker could see family and friends in the Windy City.

"I know she wasn't happy about it," Pat said. "But I wasn't happy, either. And if I ain't happy, ain't nobody happy."

There was Tyler talking about his "161 sisters," which was the number of Lady Vols whom his mom coached to 1,098 wins and eight NCAA titles.

Another gem from her son: "She always says, 'Tyer, left foot, right foot, breathe.' That's pretty good advice."

The funniest moment in the documentary? Perhaps the story from Chamique Holdsclaw regarding a photo shoot with the famous photographer Annie Leibovitz.

With Summitt dressed in a stunning black outfit, Holdsclaw and her teammates told their coach before the shoot: "You look so GQ."

A few days later, Summitt walked in the UT locker room in a snappy orange suit and asked, "What do you guys think? Do I look QT?"

Said Holdsclaw: "We just died laughing."

Watching her slowly fade is no laughing matter. But this documentary -- which ESPN will do doubt rerun often -- is sure to bring more upturned lips than quivering ones.

It's also sure to further cement her image as one of the most decent, thoughtful, gifted people of her generation.

"Do the right thing," said current coach Holly Warlick, one of Summitt's first great players, on what she most learned from her coach and mentor. "If you have to think about it, you shouldn't do it."

Said Summitt biographer Sally Jenkins, who also is one of her closest friends: "Men respected what she did, and that changed everything for women. Basically, she made the winner's circle genderless."

Another Jenkins observation: "[Pat] didn't say the first wrong word in 50 years."

We are taught from our earliest days that there are no perfect people. And Summitt surely has her flaws, even if she's kept them well-hidden.

But her coach at the 1976 Olympics may have delivered the line that should possibly frame Summitt's entire life. Said Billie Moore: "She's the mother you wish you had."

Tyler and his 161 sisters surely would agree.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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