Few people dominate the landscape of a sport so as to become synonymous with it, inseparable from it even after they’ve left the scene as an athlete or coach. To lose three of them in the space of a month is unfathomable.
First it was Muhammad Ali. Then Gordie Howe. And Tuesday morning, Pat Summitt at only 64, taken so quickly by Alzheimer’s disease, only four years after it forced her to retire as the winningest college basketball coach, thanks to her 1,098 wins building Tennessee into the first dynasty of women’s basketball.
Rarely is a single person as closely connected to a sport as these three were. Howe was Mr. Hockey, which says it all; an amiable ambassador for the sport even if he was miserable to play against and eventually surpassed in talent by Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. Ali was not only the greatest boxer of all time, but he paved the way for athletes to embrace their beliefs.
Summitt has since been passed in wins by Harry Statham at NAIA McKendree, and Mike Krzyzewski isn’t far behind, but it’ll be at least eight years after Summitt’s 2012 retirement by the time Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer is in a position to catch her on the women’s side.
Yet it wasn’t merely the wins that made Summitt the greatest to coach women’s basketball. She helped create an entire world of women’s athletics to which girls could aspire. Her impact was not merely on basketball, or sports, but an entire gender.
There were many in the early days of women’s basketball who steered the sport out of the shadows and into the mainstream, who gave it polish and legitimacy, who fought back against the misogyny and inequality. Summitt was among them, to be certain, as was Kay Yow of N.C. State.
Summitt took things a little farther. She turned women’s basketball players into stars, and in doing so, created role models for a generation. If you played for Tennessee, you were more than an athlete. You were a star. And not a once-in-every-four years star like the Olympic gymnasts and figure skaters who would plop in and out of pop culture, but every-night-on-ESPN stars, especially once that network bought into women’s basketball.
Summitt wasn’t merely a winner, an Olympic gold medalist as a player and a coach, an eight-time national champion. She created opportunity. What Summitt did at Tennessee set the standard. Everyone else tried to catch up. As the sport blossomed and expanded and grew, Summitt just kept on winning.
You can draw a line from Summitt to the growth of the Women’s Final Four as an event; to the ESPN contract that gives women’s basketball a national audience; even to the WNBA, as fans became interested in seeing the stars she created play after their college careers were over. What happened in women’s basketball spilled over into other college sports, soccer in particular. What Title IX began, Summitt helped mature.
And through it all, Summitt reigned over the sport with grace: cutthroat on the court, generous and giving off of it. It wasn’t merely players she inspired, but her peers and her competition as well. Her success and her guidance broadened the sport’s appeal, to everyone’s benefit.
Each year, there are more recruits, more talent to go around, a deeper and more robust crop of players, and not just in basketball. There’s an entire generation of female athletes who grew up knowing that if they were good enough, if they worked hard enough, there would always be a place for them to shine, thanks in no small part to Pat Summitt.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock