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Tennessee's Pat Summitt sticks to game plan in Alzheimer's fight

Seven months after being diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease, Tennessee women's basketball Coach Pat Summitt is focusing on her sport and her health — and on Saturday's game against UCLA.

December 16, 2011|By David Wharton
  • Tennessee women's basketball Coach Pat Summitt hasn't let early-onset Alzheimer's disease stop her from focusing on basketball and her health.
Tennessee women's basketball Coach Pat Summitt hasn't let… (Al Behrman / Associated…)

Pretty much everyone who wanders into Pat Summitt's office or visits her basketball practice these days has learned to fear the iPad. The coach keeps her tablet filled with brain-wrenching games.

Crossword puzzles and Sudoku. Math quizzes and memory tests.

"When people come by," said Tyler, her son, "she gets them to sit down and try one of those things."

It was seven months ago that doctors diagnosed Summitt with early-onset dementia, Alzheimer's type, an incurable brain disease that affects memory, thinking and behavior.

Summitt chose to go public with her affliction and now the Tennessee Lady Vols, who face UCLA on Saturday, have become much more than a sports story.

Think back to when Magic Johnson announced he was HIV-positive and fans expected the worst. Something similar is happening with the 59-year-old Summitt.

This is an iconic figure, a pioneer of women's athletics who has 1,077 victories on her resume, more than Mike Krzyzewski or Bob Knight or anyone else in the college game. People are watching to see if that famous stare goes vacant or her razor-sharp mind turns dull.

Maybe that's why Summitt delights in challenging them to a computer game.

"Yeah, we've played," said Holly Warlick, her long-time associate head coach. "She kills me every time."

The game plan

Facing the fight of her life, Summitt has chosen to focus her energy on basketball and health. That means no interviews for the time being, but she encourages friends and family to speak for her.

They say the early signs of dementia might have gone overlooked because the preternaturally busy Summitt had always misplaced her keys or forgotten where she parked her car.

But then her jam-packed schedule — meetings and practices, booster club speeches and news conferences — became too much.

"She just wasn't multitasking like she used to," Tyler said. "She was doing four things at once instead of seven."

Her staff noticed that she would forget some small detail about a high school recruit they had discussed the day before. That might have been understandable with another coach, but not Summitt.

"Pat was always a machine," assistant Dean Lockwood said. "Normally, she would remember everything we talked about."

Last May, a trip to the Mayo Clinic confirmed the worst. Not surprisingly, there were a few days of anger and denial. Then came another predictable response.

"She always has a game plan," said Billie Moore, the former UCLA coach who has been Summitt's mentor and friend for many years. "She thinks that if she follows her game plan, she can control whatever's going on."

Summitt has attacked dementia with the same tenacity that fueled her career, from Tennessee farm girl to college and Olympic athlete, from 22-year-old rookie coach to living legend.

The first step was easy. Her style has always accentuated honesty — sometimes brutal honesty — so she wasn't about to hide this disease. Summitt called a team meeting.

It was late August, the season still weeks away, and the Lady Vols wondered if they were in trouble. Forward Vicki Baugh said: "We had no idea."

Summit broke the news, then made two promises.

"I'm not going to forget your names," people in the room recall her saying. "And I'm not going to stop yelling at you."

Her players were emotional, Baugh standing up to say: "We've got your back." Others asked how they could help, but Summitt's game plan was already in motion.

The coach takes various medications in hopes of slowing dementia's progress. She watches what she eats, does yoga and keeps her mind active with those iPad games.

"She plays them all the time, and she's good at them," Baugh said. "Those games are hard."

Humor is another part of the approach. If someone around her forgets to do something, she quips: "I guess I'm not the only one with dementia."

The disease comes in handy from time to time.

"If there's something she didn't want to do," Warlick said. "She'll just pretend that she forgot."

Small changes

Fans might have noticed a difference this season, watching the sixth-ranked Lady Vols forge a 6-2 record against tough preconference competition.

At the start of each timeout, the coaches gather to decide on their message to the players. After that, Warlick usually runs the huddle.

"This didn't happen overnight," she said. "Pat has always been trusting of her assistants."

It helps that her staff has been with her for years. They know the program top to bottom and can step in for all types of duty.

That means taking over Summitt's speaking engagements and much of the recruiting chores. Warlick focuses on defense during practices while Mickey DeMoss handles the offense.

Lockwood compares Summitt to a football coach who used to be all over the field, jumping into defensive line drills, then demonstrating technique to the running backs.

"Now she's like a coach in the tower," he said. "Every so often, that bullhorn comes out and a player gets blasted."

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