It was the beautiful warm summer evening of Aug. 30, 2008, which is not that long ago by the calendar. But for the way things were at the time, and all that has happened since, it could have been a lifetime ago.
Tennessee coach Pat Summitt had guided her Lady Vols to a second consecutive NCAA Championship just over four months earlier. It was Summitt’s eighth national title, and the buzz around the program was huge. Everyone on the team was a star – especially All-American Candace Parker, who had stood on the sidelines for the last 30 seconds of the title game yelling “eight, eight, eight, eight!” with four fingers up on each hand.
The next day Parker was drafted No. 1 by the Los Angeles Sparks, and three of the other Tennessee starters were also taken by teams: Alexis Hornbuckle, Nicky Anosike and Shannon Bobbitt. Bobbitt went to LA with Parker. Sidney Spencer, who had helped the Lady Vols win their seventh title a year before, was already a part of the Sparks, which meant the team would have three players from Knoxville.
Tennessee fans were ecstatic. Some hadn’t watched much WNBA before, but there they were, watching every Sparks game.
Parker, Bobbitt and Spencer helped LA in a great season that summer, which hometown fans had been hungry for in light of a poor showing in 2007. Parker dunked the ball twice, igniting the crowd each time, and Bobbitt’s showmanship and fearlessness on court, despite her small size, helped make the team fun to watch.
Midway through the season, the Sparks announced they were hosting UT Alumni Night during Labor Day Weekend. Tennessee fans were deliriously happy, and began making plans to fly, drive or otherwise get there. They came from all over the country for the game that night, which would be followed by a reception upstairs at Staples Center.
And she was coming.
Pat Summitt was coming to see her girls play.
To myself and my other orange friends, that was like saying God was coming. You could see yourself passing out.
Some of my friends came from the Midwest. We got together before the game with the other Tennessee fans, and I got to meet people from that state and all around the country. The players say the Lady Vol family is family. You can say the same thing about Lady Vol fans. When you see someone else wearing Tennessee gear away from Knoxville, you smile and say hello, even if they’re strangers.
Pat sat courtside with Mickie DeMoss and Holly Warlick, and she watched Parker, Bobbitt and Spencer put on a show. Smiling for what seemed like the entire game, she seemed to really enjoy herself.
Afterwards our orange crowd of a few hundred went upstairs, and our amazing evening began. Pat was accompanied by members of the Tennessee athletics administration. She introduced Holly Warlick and Nikki Caldwell, who had just accepted the head coach job at UCLA. Pat sang “Rocky Top” to us, and told a lot of jokes. She talked about Tennessee’s incoming class, which included Glory Johnson, Shekinna Stricklen, Lyssi Brewer and Brianna Bass. Then Bobbitt, Spencer and Parker each had a Q&A with the crowd. Pat concluded by giving each player a handmade bag, which you can see in Parker’s video. CP brought it to Sparks games for years after that.
The videos, below, show the event. They’re also a head-tripping trip back in time.
“Coop” that Bobbitt refers to is Michael Cooper, who was Sparks coach at that time. Parker talks about her first Olympic experience in China. Pat makes an eerie joke about Warlick becoming her memory bank. The Lady Vols were still on top of the world, and the world was still on top, as the stock market hadn’t crashed yet.
There were no tweets about this event, and no Facebook posts, as it predated the significance of both mediums. Cell phones hadn’t become that sophisticated yet, so Sheryl Manongdo’s video was from a camera. She had to upload the video on to a PC to get it into this format. My own pictures of this magical evening were from a camera with film in it that I took to Costco to get developed.
The world – and the circumstances of the people in this video – are also shockingly different less than eight years later.
Video by Sheryl Manongdo
The first time I met Pat Summitt, I could barely speak. By the time I met her at UT Alumni Night, I was cool as a cucumber. I gave her a small book of pictures I had gathered and had printed up, of all her athletes in the WNBA. She did a double take and looked through it thoughtfully. Finally she looked up at me with those eyes and handed the book back to me.
“Put your name and address in the front of this,” she said, and then looked away because she seemed touched.
I suppressed a smile, because I knew what that meant: she was going to send me a handwritten thank you note. But I did what I was told, and then I handed the book back to her.
What stands out to me about Pat during this event was her warmth, her humor and her love. Not every coach would make a 2,000-mile trip to see some of her graduates play. And many coaches wouldn’t bother talking with a group of fans the way she did.
For those of us there in 2008, it’s a night we’ll never forget with a legend we’ll always love.