Pat Summitt fights Alzheimer’s with laughter

Washington Post columnist and author Sally Jenkins produces another great piece on legendary Lady Vols Coach Pat Summitt, who is dealing with her early-onset Alzheimer’s diagnosis with humor, among other things. She also has a differentn approach to coaching these days:

Pat, by contrast, was uncharacteristically cool. When sophomore guard Meighan Simmons nailed consecutive three-pointers to finally put the Lady Vols ahead, Pat merely leaned over and said with a sardonic mildness to her staff, “That helps.”

The demeanor, partly a result of the need to manage stress for her health, is a startling role reversal. It used to be that Pat was the most intense member of the bench and her assistants softened her blows. Now it’s Pat who is the softer presence. “More motherly,” Spani says. “Obviously she still gives us the stare when we need it, but she’s had a very calming effect.”

It was Pat, the Lady Vols say, who restored the confidence of Simmons, a frenetic young guard who was in the grip of a bad slump. In the days before the Rutgers game, Pat corrected her shooting motion in individual teaching sessions and kept a consistently comforting arm around her — while refusing to tolerate any pouting. The result was a timely, explosive performance.

“Pat had a lot to do with those shots,” Spani says. The light went on for Simmons just in time. “Hallelujah,” Pat says.

Yet, these Lady Vols are one of Pat’s most characteristic teams in the way they battle, too. After they overcame a five-point deficit in the final minutes in front of a roaringly hostile crowd, Rutgers Coach C. Vivian Stringer remarked ruefully, “They’re playing in her image.”

It was a gratifying comment. Pat has worked for four years to instill her brand of fight in the senior class, a group led by Stricklen that has failed to reach a Final Four, and in the past exhibited a lazybones quality, but no more. Pat used to tease Stricken about her lack of intensity and complained she would rather sit by a pond with a fishing pole back in Arkansas. But against Rutgers, Stricklen went 40 minutes without a blow, led the team in scoring, provided lockdown defense grabbing three steals, and played so hard her calves cramped in the final minute.

“I love who they’ve become,” Pat says. “We were on our toes instead of our heels. Aggressive. I haven’t always seen that from them.”