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Dementia diagnosis won't stop legendary coach Pat Summitt

Players, colleagues, rivals and fans express disbelief and offer encouragement to Tennessee women's basketball coach, who at 59 hopes to manage condition and continue coaching.

August 23, 2011|By Baxter Holmes
  • Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt directs Alexis Hornbuckle several seasons ago.
Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt directs Alexis Hornbuckle several seasons… (Rogelio Solis / Associated…)

For a coaching legend who has long maintained control, the diagnosis of a medical condition that robs her of just that didn't seem possible.

So Tuesday, when it was revealed that Tennessee's Hall of Fame women's basketball Coach Pat Summitt, 59, has early-onset dementia, of the Alzheimer's type, the sporting world struggled to grasp the news.

Players, colleagues, rivals and admirers of her 37 years coaching Tennessee responded in shock and disbelief, and issued statements sending prayers, thoughts, warm wishes, love, encouragement and hope.

"I've known Coach Summitt for 23 years," said Louisiana State Coach Nikki Caldwell, who played for Summitt and also coached at UCLA, "and there has never been a fight that she's backed down from."

Summitt told the Knoxville News Sentinel that last season she had troubling memory lapses. In May, after tests at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, Summitt learned she carried signs of the debilitating brain condition that progressively destroys recall and cognitive abilities.

The dementia will apparently become Alzheimer's, which affects about 5 million Americans.

Summitt hopes to manage it with medication and mental exercises and continue to coach at Tennessee "as long as the good Lord is willing," she said in a statement.

Summitt said her longtime assistants will take more coaching responsibilities. "Obviously, I realize I may have some limitations with this condition since there will be some good days and some bad days," she said.

Tennessee Chancellor Jimmy Cheek and Athletics Director Joan Cronan pledged to support her decision. "She's ready to fight this and move on," Cronan said in a statement.

"Coach Summitt you never cease to amaze me with your strength and courage," tweeted Sparks forward Candace Parker, an All-American at Tennessee who won two NCAA titles under Summitt. "True inspiration for me and one of the strongest women I know."

Summitt has built a dynasty in Knoxville, winning eight national championships, the most recent in 2008, and 1,071 games, the most in NCAA basketball history, men or women.

"Coach Summitt has set the standard for all the coaches in our sport," DePaul Coach Doug Bruno said. "We, all of us, try to build our programs to a level so that we can compete with the Lady Vols."

USC men's basketball Coach Kevin O'Neill, who coached at Tennessee in the mid-1990s, said he and Summitt have stayed in touch. "As good a coach as she is, she's even a better person," he said.

O'Neill said that if one wonders about her toughness, just witness her practices.

"If you went to any practice, you'd see how tough she is, not just on her players, but on her coaches," O'Neill said. "That's why she's one of the all-time greats in basketball."

USC football Coach Lane Kiffin, who coached at Tennessee in 2009, said Summitt's impact goes beyond her sport.

"What she represents to not only the sport of women's basketball, but all sports, cannot be measured in words but only described as 'inspiration,' " Kiffin said.

One of Summitt's most intense rivals, Connecticut Coach Geno Auriemma, said he was shocked about her diagnosis.

"You don't necessarily associate dementia with people our age, so this announcement really puts things in perspective," he said.

baxter.holmes@latimes.com

twitter.com/baxterholmes

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