Sunday, April 14, 2013

Sum It Up: A Thousand and Ninety-Eight Victories, a Couple of Irrelevant Losses, and a Life in Perspective by Pat Head Summitt and Sally Jenkins

Almost nightly I troll Salon, NPR, Good Reads, Audible, New York Times and LA Times for interesting books. When I saw that Pat Summitt and Sally Jenkins had just published a new book, Sum It Up, I immediately went to to snap it up. Here's why.

First, Pat Summitt, for those of you who don’t know of her, is the all-time winningest basketball coach in National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) history of either a men's or women's team in any division. She coached The University of Tennessee’s women’s basketball team, “The Lady Vols,” for 38 years from 1974 to 2012, and now serves as the head coach emeritus. During her tenure, she won eight NCAA national championships, second only to the record 10 titles won by UCLA men's coach John Wooden. She is the only coach in NCAA history, and one of three college coaches overall, with at least 1,000 victories.  Every four-year college basketball player she coached graduated from college – also a record.

Second, I love basketball. I grew up playing basketball with Suzy Smithson and her brothers at their oil company “camp” house, located out in the tullies of west Texas. We didn’t have TV; we didn’t have Nintendo or Wii. Town, such as it was, population 1,500, was 20-miles away. We had a basketball hoop attached to the garage. When Suzy and I were in the 9th grade (Junior High), we approached the Junior High boy’s basketball coach, who was actually the science teacher, asking him to help us organize a girl’s team.  He agreed and our first game was in Barnhart, a town so small that we didn’t even know they were big enough to have a team. They stomped us. The next year, when our class entered high school the boy’s basketball coach took us under his wing and we won district.

Pat Summitt too grew up playing basketball with her brothers in rural Tennessee. But probably the strongest influence on her life and coaching style was her father, an iron-fisted dairy farmer of few words who was so hard on his kids, and so withholding of love and affection that it skirted on abuse. Summit was 43-years-old before her father hugged her and told her he loved her, then added, “I don’t want to hear anymore about that.” And indeed, Summitt took up his persona. She is renowned for how hard she could be on her players.
In Sum It Up, Pat talks a lot about her coaching style and it was painful to hear, but the results are undeniable. Her team members are also quoted extensively, and although they are gracious, you can hear the undertones of resentment and respect. She would beat her players down and punish them relentlessly until one of two things happened. They’d either leave, which was not an easy choice given the prestige of playing for the Lady Vol’s, or they would get better. Click on read more...

Summitt’s personal life, what little there was of it as basketball and coaching consumed most of her waking hours and sleepless nights, consisted of a 27-year marriage that ended abruptly in divorce, and seven miscarriages before she gave birth to her only child, a son, Ross Tyler, who went on to become an assistant women’s basketball coach at Marquette. I loved hearing how Pat took her son in his infant seat to basketball practices, and how he frequented the sidelines during games, the players ooing and cooing over him.

Summitt’s co-writer, Sally Jenkins (pictured) did a great job of weaving in the comments of players, coaches, sports writers, family and friends, their perspective doing just that, giving perspective. Jenkins has written two other books with Summitt, so she knows the woman inside and out and it shows. By the end of the book I felt like I’d known Pat Summitt for years myself.

And the final thing that attracted me to this book was the tragic twist that you know is coming, but never the less creases your heart when it is officially revealed. In 2011 after 38 years of unsurpassed coaching and a list of awards too long to list, at the age of 59, Pat Summitt was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's disease. I’m not sure if Summitt’s misfortune is more heartbreaking because she is such an icon of determination and triumph, or less. Tragedy is delivered without bias.

In her memoir, Summitt was asked if she would trade her trophies for her health. She hesitated and finally said, "I'd give up all my trophies to still be coaching." Sum It Up is an engrossing story about a poor country girl whose work ethic drove her to international fame. Yes, there’s a lot of Lady Vol’s basketball history in there, but even if you don’t care about basketball, you’ll learn something from Pat Summitt’s book.

1 comment:

  1. I remember how you managed to make two baskets "in less that 10 seconds" to win a district championship! I thought I wanted to be a coach, but won more sportsmanship trophies than ballgames....too nice! haha!
    I enjoy your blog, Sue, and hope you give us more to look forward to after finishing 100 Things....
    Thanks for the reminders of the 'good ole days'!!