It didn't seem real.
It was an afternoon, late December, sometime in the mid-'90s, in Hendersonville High School's gym. The walls bore a curious emblem: a machine-gun wielding commando looming above the court.
In the age of zero tolerance and concern about weapons in school, the outsized warrior was a source of weird looks and wry jokes as it looked down on the players. On this day, however, it was eclipsed by a figure even larger than life.
It was Pat Summitt, leaning against some folded-up bleachers.
Hendersonville's holiday basketball tournament wasn't one of those prestigious midseason competitions that typically draws big-name teams with major conference recruits. It was a fundraiser and a way to keep teams fresh during the extended time off from school. It certainly wasn't the kind of event that reeled in coaches from championship-caliber college programs.
And yet there stood Summitt — the winningest coach in college basketball, ever — present to see some under-the-radar recruit from whichever county school drew the 4 p.m. game.
For a kid who grew up around women's basketball — my dad has, in some capacity, coached prep girls hoops for the better part of three decades — she was a startling sight. Imagine going to a middle-school band performance and catching a glimpse of Mozart on the back row.
We were across the width of the floor from one another. As the teams ran through their warm-ups — lay-up after lay-up clanging off the rim, the players glancing sidelong at the coach, throwing off their aim — Summitt watched the proceedings with those striking blue eyes, dual gems set in a strong, sharp face you'd expect on the statue of a warrior goddess. Those eyes — the same color blue as the trim on the Lady Vols' uniforms, a coincidence surely someone has noticed — raked the court looking for flaws or potential: casting a player two years into the future, transposing the high schooler into the lay-up line at the Brobdingnagian Thompson-Bowling Arena.
Eventually the dozens who braved the weather to watch this game noticed the coach standing there. How could they not? They approached to glad-hand or ask for autographs — which she signed, of course, graciously. But none approached too closely. There was a void — two or three feet in radius, maybe — as if Summitt's famous will exerted a force field we mortals dared not cross.
It left an impression of Summitt not as a coach, but as a monument, a cenotaph, something that will exist forever, bridging the gap from the time when her sport was dominated by forgotten schools like Wayland Baptist and Immaculata to the present, when women's basketball sells out gyms and ESPN has teams of writers and talking heads dedicated to the sport.
Everyone who's ever met the coach has a similar tale of greatness moving among us, a walking allegory who personifies strength and determination. That is precisely what makes Summitt's diagnosis of early-onset dementia — announced last week to stunned disbelief — so devastating.
Alzheimer's doesn't happen to legends. It strikes our grandparents and our parents, and it's awful beyond imagining. People forget their children's faces yet force 50-year-old memories into the present where they don't belong, like a drunk editing a movie. It's a disease that's intimate. It doesn't wither the body: it rips away memories and personalities, the things we share with the people we love.
In the grimmest of ironies, it strikes the very people who serve as the family's storytellers, the caretakers of our accumulated histories. The precious thing Alzheimer's ravages is that inner archive of home movies. Remembrances, gone. Accomplishments, gone. The light on the film projector flickers and dims. Eventually it burns out. Everything gets locked away.
Even for legends.
In her time at Tennessee — an epic 37-year saga that started with Summitt, then just 22, building a program, driving the bus and sleeping on opposing teams' gym floors — she has come to be respected as one of the sport's master tacticians, trading stratagems with Mike Krzyzewski and Bobby Knight and Phil Jackson. She's no less renowned as a taskmaster. A famous story recounts her making a hard-partying team run laps around strategically placed trashcans until every player had voided her hangover into the refuse bins.
Summitt — like Lombardi or Bryant or Rockne — is no mere coach. She's a symbol. Vince Lombardi wasn't just the overlord of the Green Bay Packers or even just a legendary professional coach. He was professional football.
And Summitt is women's basketball.
She's going to try coaching for a few more years and lean on her assistants a little more. She's going to fight Alzheimer's, because fight is what she does best. She'll advocate for research with the evangelical zeal she's used to advocate for women's sports. And good will come of it.
But the sad reality is that the millions of people who have seen this incomparably cruel disease in their own families will start to notice the little signs. And Summitt will inevitably retire. And we will feel that pang of mortality to the bone. Because legends — like statues, like our parents and grandparents, like their memories and ours — are supposed to last forever.