KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Pat Summitt has handled the talk about her dementia diagnosis the same way she manages Tennessee basketball and her life: with control and determination.
The Hall of Fame coach dictated how news of her condition was revealed in August and has made it clear since that she wants the focus to be on the Lady Volunteers basketball program and not her.
“That’s the reason for when I came out with dementia and Alzheimer’s,” Summitt said. “I knew I had to do it, and I did it. I’ve got a good game plan. I feel good about it, and I think it motivated this team.”
She’s stuck to that plan, speaking reluctantly at practices about her diagnosis while steering conversations to Tennessee’s strengths, weaknesses and chances for a ninth national championship.
On Thursday, she’ll face more questions about dementia and Alzheimer’s disease when she makes her first major public appearance for the annual Southeastern Conference media day in Birmingham, Ala.
“I don’t want it to be all about me. I want to be able to help other people know you can live your life with dementia,” Summitt said.
She’s got plenty of basketball to talk about, with the Lady Vols unanimously picked by the media this week to defend their SEC title and senior forward Shekinna Stricklen tabbed as the league’s preseason player of the year.
Assistant coach Dean Lockwood doesn’t think Summitt or anyone on the team will be distracted by talk of Summitt’s condition.
“Once you’ve accepted something, it becomes part of your daily existence. That’s part of us now,” Lockwood said. “They’ll answer questions, but after a while it’s going to become ‘ho hum.’ (The players are) very focused on doing well. I think maybe this has given them an incentive to do it even more for a coach they love and respect.”
Summitt made it clear to the Lady Vols that nothing would change after she told them in August she’d been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. She was still their coach, and the plan to win a national championship this season hadn’t changed.
What has changed for Summitt is her daily routine.
While drinking her morning coffee she’ll play brain-bender games on her iPad or work on math skills to help keep her mind sharp. She adds coconut oil to her daily protein shakes. Son Tyler Summitt writes out her to-do lists to keep her organized, and Summitt occasionally will take a few extra breaks outside of her daily naps that she claims have been a key to her ongoing success.
She still has her friends and staff over for dinner from time to time, and she has no problem joking with her assistants, like she did after a 6 a.m. Monday practice last week.
“She walked in and said, ‘Who called this practice? I thought I was the head coach. I wouldn’t be calling a practice this early,’” said assistant coach Mickie DeMoss, the offending party.
Summitt has long relied on her assistants to scout opponents and develop players. DeMoss, Lockwood and associate head coach Holly Warlick have been more involved in running practice drills this month, but Summitt is always on the sideline shouting assessments of the players’ performances while wearing her trademark icy stare.
“She still has her bench under both baskets and yells at people as they walk past her,” senior forward Glory Johnson said with a laugh. “She’s fine. Her memory, I don’t think has changed. She still remembers to call people’s names out when they miss their layups. I don’t think she’s lost a step in anything.”
Summitt has taken breaks during drills to talk with her Olympic coach and mentor Billie Moore. Former Lady Vols players Chamique Holdsclaw, Semeka Randall and Michelle Marciniak also have stopped by practice to say hello. During those times, her assistants, who have a combined 52 seasons at Tennessee among them, bark enough directions and critiques to cover for the head coach.
At the end of practice, Summitt comments about the Lady Vols’ need for better passing and more defensive rebounds while acknowledging that she feels pretty good about their chances. The players are spending more time on their own in the gym, and they have a strong leader in fifth-year senior forward Vicki Baugh. Freshman Ariel Massengale’s arrival means they finally have the bona fide point guard, a missing piece since the 2008 national championship.
“This team right now is at a different level,” Summitt said. “I think they’re very focused. I think their leadership has been solid. I think we’ll be disappointed if we don’t cut down the nets this year.”