The fact that UT women's basketball head coach Pat Summitt's disclosure Tuesday that she has early onset Alzheimer's disease was the major topic of discussion on a day that an earthquake struck the nation's capital and that a longtime dictator's regime apparently ended is a stunning tribute to the respect and affection that she engenders across the state and country.
Summitt has earned that respect and admiration.
She's the winningest basketball coach -- male or female -- in collegiate history. Her Lady Vols have won eight NCAA championships and 15 league championships. She's been NCAA coach of the year seven times and is a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame. The basketball court in Thompson-Boling Arena, home of the Vol basketball teams, is named "The Summitt" in her honor. She's accomplished all that without a hint of scandal over 37 seasons.
Her name and her program are synonymous with honesty and integrity sportsmanship since 1975, when she became the Lady Vols coach. It's an enviable personal and professional record.
Her public announcement is a blow to the body and to the heart. The prognosis for those with early-onset Alzheimer's disease is grim. Only about 5 percent of people with Alzheimer's are under 65. Summitt is 59. There is no cure. The condition is progressive and eventually becomes too severe to allow individuals to meet the demands of work and everyday life.
Summitt's courageous announcement is in keeping with her commitment to honesty. She said Tuesday that she's always had an open relationship with the public and that she intends to maintain that. She said she is undergoing treatment, that she would continue to coach and that her staff of able assistants will help her do so. It was typical Summitt. She identified a problem and revealed her plans to combat it.
Her revelation Tuesday is shocking; it also is heroic. She's not the first public figure to announce an Alzheimer's diagnosis. Ronald Reagan did, too. Such revelations create an openness about a disease that once was kept in the shadows. Public attention won't bring an immediate cure for Alzheimer's, but it can inspire hope in others and promote research to gain an understanding of the disease. In a nation where the number of Alzheimer's cases is rising rapidly (about 200,000 Tennessee residents are currently affected), that's an incomparable gift.
No one knows what course and speed Summitt's disease will take, but two thing are certain. She won't travel this new road alone, and the prayers of Tennesseans and people everywhere are with her as she confronts this new challenge.