Summitt’s players are her greatest legacy

1:19 AM ET

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Of all the moments that tugged at your heart, made your eyes well up, or caused you to laugh out loud, one thing seemed the most sweetly symbolic of an evening celebrating the life of Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt.

That was when one of her biggest superstars, Tamika Catchings, asked all the Lady Vols in attendance to stand. As one, they rose.

Pat Summitt honored at ‘Celebration of Life’

Friends, family members, and former players honored former Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt, who won eight national titles and a Division I record 1,098 games in her 38-year career.

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  • “I hate the circumstances, but I love the opportunity,” former Tennessee guard Kellie Jolly Harper said Thursday of the chance to see so many who played for Summitt gathered to honor her at what was billed a “celebration of life.”

    “She always said she wanted that to be her last book: to have everybody come and be together and just tell stories. And so it’s not her last book. But it’s her last wish, really.”

    As she stood in a hallway at Thompson-Boling Arena, the building in which she played during 1995-99 and was part of three national championships teams, Harper smiled and shook her head when asked how much she is like Summitt as a coach. Harper, who now guides the Missouri State women’s program, said there’s a part of Summitt in all her former players, but there’s no way she, or anyone else, can ever be Pat.

    “It just doesn’t seem real. It’s like we’re just talking about Pat. Invincible Pat,” Harper said of how she felt during the memorial. “For me, the thing that makes it real is when you see clips of her being Pat. Like just the subtle movement of her head, the way Pat does. That’s when it’s real that she’s gone. Thank goodness Kara Lawson had tissues. But, still, it was a really nice evening.”

    With several high-profile former colleagues of Summitt — including UConn’s Geno Auriemma, Notre Dame’s Muffett McGraw, Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer and South Carolina’s Dawn Staley — in attendance, along with thousands of Tennessee fans, Thursday evening was a chance for everyone to reflect on what this one remarkable woman meant to so many people.

    She was a best friend to some, a rival to some, and inspiration to some, a larger-than-life presence to most.

    In the rival department, of course, there was Auriemma. At one point during Thursday’s service, he looked up at the eight national championship banners hanging in Thompson-Boling Arena. If anyone knows just how much goes into being able to hoist even one such banner, it’s Auriemma, who has 11.

    After the ceremony, he said he thought about the intense games that he and his Huskies had in this building, all those times when Tennessee and UConn took women’s college basketball to its most passionate and competitive heights. He praised Summitt as being a pioneer in women’s sports who paved the way for thousands of others to have opportunities.

    “That went straight to my core. That’s her legacy.”

    Miami coach Katie Meier, on seeing all of Pat Summitt’s former players stand together

    “But mostly, I think when you’re at something like this, it makes you think, ‘You know, none of this lasts forever,’ ” Auriemma said. “None of what we’re doing right now is going to mean a whole lot other than the impact, hopefully, that we have on people.

    “All those years, all those games, all the stories written. After all that, it comes down to, what are people going to say when someone asks about you someday? It really brought that home. With Pat’s players, what they’ll remember is that she made it possible for them to live the lives that they did.”

    Staley, who in 1991 played for Virginia against Tennessee in one of the most dramatic NCAA women’s championship games, said that even when she herself became a coach, there was still something ethereal about Summitt.

    “It’s almost like I never really thought of Pat as a person,” Staley said. “I thought of her as this standard, this presence of greatness. I know she was actually really down to earth. But … you know, I’m not usually a person who is star-struck. Maybe only by meeting the president or something. But for me, Pat was like that.

    “I usually could not come up with the right words to say to her. So I always watched her. I just wanted her to always be that standard of greatness.”

    Thursday’s tribute speeches featured heart-wrenching moments, such as when former Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning told of how, near the end of her battle against Alzheimer’s disease, Summitt did not know his name when he came to see her but was happy for the company. Then he found out that when Summitt would watch him on television during an NFL game, she would say, “Hey, that’s my friend! He comes to visit me.”

    It also featured hilarious moments, which came from Summitt’s longtime assistants and dearest friends, Holly Warlick and Mickie DeMoss.

    Warlick, who was an All-American player at Tennessee and is now the Lady Vols’ head coach, joked about Summitt’s “need for speed” and frequent ability to charm the police when she got pulled over.

    Warlick said Summitt started carrying her purse in the trunk. So when she was asked for her license and registration, she’d go open the trunk.

    “And there’s about a half-dozen basketballs that just so happened to be signed by Pat Summitt,” Warlick said as the crowd roared with laughter. “And the police officer would say, ‘Can I have one of those balls?’ And we all know what the next line would be: ‘Now, you slow down, Miss Pat.’ “

    “None of what we’re doing right now is going to mean a whole lot other than the impact, hopefully, that we have on people. … With Pat’s players, what they’ll remember is that she made it possible for them to live the lives that they did.”

    Geno Auriemma

    DeMoss, now an assistant at LSU, shared the story of when a group of people in a restaurant in Florida appeared to recognize Summitt. When she went past their table and said hello, though, a woman sitting there said, “You look so familiar to us. Don’t you work at Ace Hardware?”

    “That is a true story,” DeMoss said, grinning. “And I am so glad that I was there to hear it.”

    The memorial also featured spiritual moments, detailing how Summitt’s Christian faith was very close to her heart. Both her son, Tyler Summitt, and the point guard from her first NCAA title team in 1987, Shelley Sexton Collier, addressed that part of Summitt in their tributes.

    “She never pushed her faith on anyone,” Sexton Collier said. “But she lived in such a way that her life exemplified it.”

    With all the dignitaries present — including Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker — and all the people involved in athletics administration and coaching who looked to Summitt as their model to follow, and all the fans who basically just worshipped her, the depth and magnitude of Summitt’s influence was vividly illustrated.

    Yet there are two distinct groups who will feel this loss the deepest and carry their memories of Summitt with the most intimacy and reverence.

    Those, of course, are her family — including her son, her mother, her brothers, and her sister — and her Lady Vols family, the players and coaches who shared her quest to be the best.

    Which is why that moment when all the Lady Vols stood in unison was so poignant, so precious, so powerful. As Miami coach Katie Meier put it, “That went straight to my core. That’s her legacy.”

    Candace Parker is still in the midst of her basketball career as a member of the current best team in the WNBA, the Los Angeles Sparks. She was one of the players who traveled back to Knoxville last month to say a final goodbye to her coach in the days before Summitt died on June 28.

    Thursday night, Parker posed for pictures with several of her teammates from the 2007 and ’08 Tennessee teams that won Summitt’s last two national championships.

    These women, the ones who competed for Summitt, live on as her cherished disciples. She loved these players as if they were her own children, and she pushed them to achieve things many of them didn’t even believe were possible. She inspired them, and they inspired all who watched them.

    Summitt did so much for women’s basketball, for women’s sports, for women in general, for college athletics, for the University of Tennessee. Yet when you parse it down to its most organic level, her life’s work was helping young women who played basketball for her become the best human beings they could be.

    “You think about winning, obviously, and the championships,” Parker said. “But it’s more the bus rides, the team meals, the practices that were killer at the time but make for great stories later.

    “It’s the mess-ups where you have to go to Coach’s office and talk to her, but you learn. It’s all those things that really stick out. It makes you think of how amazing she was, and the impact that she’ll continue to have.”

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