Whether a former Tennessee player graduated last year, or 20 years ago, she’ll say the same thing: she can still hear Pat Summitt’s voice in her head.
Now, since the legendary coach’s death earlier this week, that voice will not only push but inspire those who are playing in the WNBA this summer. All of the former Lady Vols in the league say they are playing for Summitt from here on out.
That was evident immediately, as Candace Parker and the Los Angeles Sparks played Glory Johnson and the Dallas Wings the day Summitt died.
Parker scored the first two buckets of the game. After her first, she pointed at the sky. She scored 31 points and grabbed 13 rebounds by the final buzzer and said afterwards, through tears, that she was playing for her former coach. Johnson, who also scored in double figures that day, and in another game since, said she was staying focused through her grief.
“It’s been really emotional, really tough when you have games to play and practices to go to,” she said. “I’ve been thinking about what Pat’s done for me.”
Parker said they kept tabs on each other throughout the evening.
“I talked with Glory before the game, during the game, after the game, asking her if she’s OK,” Parker said. “We’re a big family, and….she understands the importance of just being around each other and being supportive of one another.”
The next day Indiana Fever forward Tamika Catchings also went on a scoring tear against the Chicago Sky, putting up 26 points in 27 minutes. After her first field goal, she pointed to the sky in acknowledgment of Summitt.
“It was a great day. I’m very happy…..(with regard to) Pat, I wanted to play well for her,” Catchings said afterwards.
Summitt always emphasized defense, and Friday against San Antonio, Catchings had six steals to go with her 12 points. Parker also had another double-digit game Thursday.
Other Tennessee alums with good games this week were Sun forward Shekinna Stricklen, who had 11 points against Phoenix, and Mercury center Isabelle Harrison, who played extremely effective defense Friday while putting up 11 points.
Their performances are not a trend that is likely to go away anytime soon, as Summitt’s unparalleled coaching ability was matched only by the care she had for her players. Parker said Summitt was both “a mother figure and a legend.”
“She’s meant a lot to this game, and she’s meant a lot to us as individuals, as well,” Parker said. “She held true to her promises. Every student athlete who stayed four years graduated. And she’s run a successful program from top to bottom. Not just on the court, but off the court as well.”
Catchings said Summitt was inspirational by example.
“She demanded excellence on every level,” Catchings told CBS Sports Radio. “In her demanding that excellence, it forced you to be your very best. That’s what Pat lived every single day, and that’s what I live every single day.”
“I still play because I still feel like I can be better.”
Summitt, 64, died of Alzheimer’s Disease early June 28, five years after diagnosis. When her health declined severely last week, her former athletes began making the trip to Knoxville to see her one last time. Parker, Catchings and Stricklen found their way there in between games.
Semeka Randall, who arrived at Tennessee the same year as Catchings, got a call last Saturday from another of her former teammates who was already with Summitt, telling her she “better get here now.” Randall, who recently took a job as assistant coach at Wright State University in her home state of Ohio, threw her dog into her car and started driving at 9:15 p.m. She arrived at Summitt’s care facility at 2:30 a.m.
“I went in, saw her, then went back to the car and took a nap for a few hours,” Randall said. “But there were Lady Vols sleeping on the couches, on the floor there.”
Randall said it didn’t surprise her that so many of Summitt’s former players made the trip – some, like herself, driving all night or changing plans at a moment’s notice to be there.
“That’s what Pat always told us, is that we’re a family,” Randall said.
Sparks assistant coach Tonya Edwards helped Tennessee and Summitt win the school’s first two NCAA titles, in 1987 and 1989. She said being a Lady Vol is akin to gaining dozens of sisters.
“From those who graduated in the late 70’s to the 80’s to someone who graduated in 2000, you can call on them anytime,” Edwards said. “They’ll come and help you in whatever way you need them to, because you’re sisters for life. Even if you didn’t play with them.”
The most winning Division I coach in history, with 1,098 victories, Summitt was known for her steely gaze, her demanding nature, and her strength. Parker said she used to watch Catchings, Randall, Chamique Holdsclaw, Daedra Charles and their Tennessee teammates play in the late 1990’s, and she saw the coach’s toughness.
When Summitt learned she had early-onset dementia, she remained strong.
“When she first got diagnosed with Alzheimer’s I called her and I was crying on the phone,” Parker said. “I remember telling her ‘I love you, I’m so sorry, I’m always here for you.’ And she said, ‘don’t throw a pity party because you’ll be the only one there.'”
“And that’s just who she is. Her attitude is that life is going to throw you whatever, and you’re in control of how you deal with it. Until the very end she didn’t just talk the talk but she walked the walk; she backed up everything she said.”
Catchings said Summitt cared about players as people, and not just athletes.
“She always wanted us to be great people – not just great basketball players but great citizens….great people overall,” Catchings said.
Parker said her best memories of Summitt came off the court.
‘My favorite memories at Tennessee were just sitting in her office, propping my feet up and just having a conversation in between classes,” Parker said. “Her door was always open, her house was always open. You could stop by there anytime. She had team dinners, and was just a mother figure.”
Edwards said she talked to the Sparks as a team prior to Tuesday’s game.
“I spoke to the team and gave them perspective on Pat, and told them how they could pay homage to her,” Edwards said. “She was always on us to play hard: you’ve got to work, you can outwork people. So that’s always been my thing, and I tried to convey that today.”
The ever-resilient Catchings is taking a positive stance moving forward.
“While we mourn, we also celebrate what she’s given us,” she said.