Tennessee grads play with pride for Summitt

6:07 PM ET

Candace Parker of the Los Angeles Sparks and Glory Johnson of the Dallas Wings will face off when their WNBA teams meet Tuesday (ESPN2, 10 p.m. ET), and they’ll do it with all the pride that Pat Summitt would want them to show in playing.

Yes, their hearts are heavier, knowing that Summitt’s health has deteriorated in recent days, and that family members of the legendary Tennessee coach have said they are preparing for the worst.

It isn’t easy for Parker, who won two NCAA titles in her time at Tennessee (2004-08), or Johnson, who played for the Lady Vols from 2008-12, to set aside some of the sadness they’ve been feeling.

But they know Summitt would tell them to do just that.

Parker’s Sparks have the best record in the league (13-1) and are coming off a big victory at Minnesota (handing the Lynx their first loss) on Friday and a home win against Connecticut on Sunday.

Between those games, Parker traveled to Knoxville, Tennessee, to see Summitt. Parker said out of respect for Summitt’s family’s wishes, she did not want to talk much about the details of that visit.

However, she spoke about the bonds that are always there between former Tennessee players. There are eight Lady Vols in the WNBA; Parker faced one of them, Connecticut’s Shekinna Stricklen, Sunday.

“We gave each other a hug and said we were praying for Coach and the family,” Parker said. “Just past and present Lady Vols are being there for each other. That’s what Coach wants. She wants us to be there to lean on each other.

“The biggest thing that she has done for the Lady Vols is create this family atmosphere. The amount of the prayers and thoughts that have gone out and have been felt across the county has shown how important she’s been. Not just to the growth of women’s basketball, but the growth of the individual. She has had an impact on everybody’s life, and will continue to.”

“The amount of the prayers and thoughts that have gone out and have been felt across the county has shown how important she’s been. Not just to the growth of women’s basketball, but the growth of the individual.”

Candace Parker on Pat Summitt

Parker, a two-time WNBA MVP, has had a strong season so far, as have the Sparks. Their only loss was June 21 against Minnesota. Parker, who has done everything there is to do in women’s basketball except win a WNBA title, is averaging 15.3 points and 7.4 rebounds per game.

The Sparks have just started a stretch in which they play six consecutive games at home; their next road game isn’t until July 13 at Chicago, which is Parker’s hometown. She’s played there already once this season, and the city has a role in one of Parker’s favorite Tennessee stories.

It actually involves her getting in trouble — she missed curfew in her final season with the Lady Vols in 2007-08, which generally meant an automatic one-game suspension. Since Tennessee’s next game, though, was at DePaul and so many people back home were going to see Parker, Summitt relented a little. Parker had to sit out the first half, and Summitt’s point was still made.

“It was a lesson that I learned,” Parker said. “She has changed the way I looked at life, and the way all her players have. She’s not a person who just talks the talk, she walks the walk as well. She does exactly what she says. Through this disease, through Alzheimer’s, she’s been exactly what she’s lived her entire life [like], and that’s strong. And that’s what we need to be right now. We need to be strong for everybody.”

Parker said that strength is part of why so many Tennessee players have been so good as professionals. That is also part of Summitt’s legacy.

“What separates Lady Vols is just the mental aspect of it,” Parker said. “The game is a lot more mental than people think. And you have to have that work ethic. Coach kind of instilled that in all of us: You can never be satisfied.

“Her favorite quote to say when I was at Tennessee was, ‘You’ve never arrived.’ Success is not a destination. Success is continuous work. She’ll tell you she never ‘arrived’ at success. So that’s the mentality that all of us have.”

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