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Pat Summitt

USA Basketball Book Club: Sum it Up

  • Date:
    Apr 29, 2021

The purpose of the USA Basketball Book Club is to share stories from and about members of the USA Basketball family. USA Basketball does not endorse the sale or purchase of these books nor the opinions expressed in them. Catch up on previous reads: The Spencer Haywood Rule | The Mamba Mentality | Standing Tall

The Basics

Published in 2013 and written by the late and legendary Pat Summitt with renowned sports columnist Sally Jenkins, “Sum It Up: A Thousand Ninety-Eight Victories, a Couple of Irrelevant Losses, and a Life in Perspective,” is the story of Pat Summitt, beginning with her childhood, continuing through her tremendous success in Olympic and women’s college basketball and through to her diagnosis of early-onset dementia.

The book gives you the personal perspective of the coach who was equally famous for her high expectations for athletes as for the family atmosphere she created for women’s basketball players at the University of Tennessee.

This past December, Tara VanDerveer surpassed Pat Summitt’s NCAA women’s record of 1,098 career victories, but Summitt’s record was one of the most enduring examples of her incredible accomplishments. In this book, she points to her family, particularly her son, and her student-athletes as the most cherished examples of her life’s work.

Summitt’s Tennessee teams earned eight NCAA titles and never missed an NCAA Tournament. She coached teams in 15 NCAA/AIAW championship games, advanced to 18 Final Fours and every player who completed their eligibility at Tennessee under Summitt played in at least one Elite Eight.

USA Basketball

Summit was the oldest member of the USA Basketball team at the inaugural Olympic basketball tournament for women at the 1976 Montreal Games, and eight years later she became the first USA Basketball Olympic medalist to lead a U.S. Olympic team to gold as a head coach at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, where the USA captured the U.S. women’s first Olympic gold medal.

“I remember standing on the medal podium in the 1976 Montreal Olympics, imbued with a sense that if you won enough basketball games, there was no such thing as poor, or backward, or country, or female, or inferior.”

Summitt played on and coached for other USA Basketball teams, but going from being an Olympic athlete in 1976 to Olympic head coach in 1984 fits the pattern Summit had of rocketing to success in her career.

“I remember feeling that an Olympic medal was a mountainous achievement for a girl from Henrietta, Tennessee. Just as it was for a girl from Monroe, Georgia, or from Cleveland, Mississippi, or Far Rockaway, New York. And I remember the understanding that came with it; when you set a goal of such distant possibility and reach it, you gain an insight into what it takes that lasts the rest of your life. It felt utterly life altering. To summon the competitiveness to work every single day for a goal that was months and even years ahead was the most invaluable lesson I’d ever learn. I thought I could accomplish anything. And I thought I could teach it to others.”

Coach as Teacher

Summitt’s style was embracing her athletes as part of her extended family while also demanding their very best effort. Throughout the various recruiting, practice and game stories in the book, Summitt’s commitment to her program was complete. Her commitment went so deep that she almost delivered her son during a recruiting trip to visit Michelle Marciniak.

“Coaching isn’t social work, but it’s more than just a game – it’s a heartfelt vocation, in which you are powerfully bonded to students who need you. Often, they need you more than they know they need you. It’s a job that engages all your mind and muscle and spirit, a job in which you grab kids by the arm and pull them out of their respective emotional fires, whatever that fire is, and show them what real self-worth looks like. Sometimes I almost wanted to say to a kid, ‘I’m going to save you from yourself, and you don’t even realize you need it.’ It’s going to be tough love and you’re going to get it in heavy doses, and you won’t like me at first, but at the end of the day you will love me. I’m going to show you how to live.”

Life Lessons

With her life permeated by sports and particularly basketball, it is no surprise that many of her basketball lessons apply to daily live and vice versa. Interestingly, Summit points to basketball’s ability to teach people to be mindful of the moment and to remember that, good or bad, it quickly will pass you by.

“Basketball is an inherently humbling game. Anyone who has ever played or coached it knows that it moves too fast to savor victory for very long – the action is too fluid. One event goes right into another, and the moment you pause to congratulate yourself, the ball flies down the court, and you’re on the other end of events.”

Early-Onset Dementia

Summitt announced she had been diagnosed with early-onset dementia in 2011, and “Sum It Up” was published in 2013. The book opens with Summitt talking about what she remembers, doesn’t remember and some of her feelings around dealing with her disease. It provides perspective for those interested in Summitt, and for those interested in the difficulty of memory problems.

Preceding all but the first chapter are excerpts from conversations with Summit that happened after her diagnosis, and they are a fascinating, and often inspiring, peek into Summit’s way of thinking.

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