My grandmother knew how much I liked sports, and one day long ago, in an apparent attempt to earn some street cred with me (as if grandmas ever need to win favor with their grandchildren), she pulled out a team photo of the 1915 Shadyside (Ohio) High School girls basketball team on which she played.
Girls basketball in 1915?!
Whoa! Wait a minute.
You mean to tell me that my grandmother, the kind lady who, every single time I saw her, had her long gray hair up in a bun, was wearing a flower-print cotton dress with short sleeves, had her legs wrapped in gauze bandages, with hose stretched over them to keep them in place, and had on black shoes with short, thick heels, played hoops way back in the day, over 100 years ago?
She sure did. I could see her as plain as day in the photo, in which the girls, adorned in long, dark dresses that extended nearly to the floor, stood in a row, each of them extending their right arm and placing their hand on the right shoulder of the player in front of them, as if they were all in some type of conga line.
She told me that when the photo was taken, she was 15, the same age as I was then. That clever lady. She had me. I was hooked. She made the connection from two generations ago to me, so I could see that she used to have an adventurous and athletic side to her, just like I did then. There was a whole heckuva lot more to her than just cooking, cleaning, playing dominoes and sitting on her front porch with me as we shared a strawberry milkshake from the Dairy Queen up on Central Avenue.
It was 1970, which, for younger people reading this, probably seems like the Stone Age, and for those of us who are … ahem, older, it probably seems like only yesterday. In reality, it is somewhere in between.
In the 55 years that had come and gone between my grandma’s teenage years and mine, a lot – almost everything – had changed in the world.
There had been two World Wars and a pair of other wars in that span. The country was on its 10th different president. People went from riding in a horse and buggy to riding in souped-up buggies with all kinds of horsepower. And instead of dirt roads, they drove on interstates.
But one of the things that had not changed – not even in the least bit – was girls and women’s basketball. The same non-competitive rules used in the Woodrow Wilson administration – the ones that made for a pace of the game that was about as up-and-down as a jack-in-the-box or a teeter-totter – were still intact, with no end in sight.
In Ohio high schools 46 years ago, girls played in something called the Girls Athletic Association, which was about as far away from the level of the Ohio High School Athletic Association as 1915 was from 1970.
Not for long, though.
The times they would soon be a-changin’.
Two years later, on June 23, 1972, Title IX, providing for equality for females in sports and other activities, was enacted by Congress. And two years after that, Pat Summitt, then only 22 years old and a graduate assistant coach at the University of Tennessee, got the head-coaching job there when the coach suddenly quit just before the start of the 1974-75 season.
She earned only $250 a month, which included her pay for washing the uniforms and driving the team van to games. Wonder if John Wooden, Adolph Rupp and Fred Taylor were doing that?
But it didn’t matter, for there was a new law with some real teeth in it.
And a new hire who was determined to sink her teeth into coaching and the game.
The two combined to form the perfect storm, forever changing not just basketball, but, as as it turned out, all women’s and girls sports throughout the United States and, eventually, the entire world.
There are a lot of females playing basketball today who are unaware of that story. Just as Summitt’s arrival on the scene 42 years ago began an epic tale that all those long-ago players grew to know by heart because they lived it, watched it and were part of it, her departure on Tuesday at the way-too-young age of 64 from complications due to Alzheimer’s disease, will jump-start the re-telling of that story to today’s players, letting them know that it wasn’t always like it is today and that the road to get here was long and difficult, but obviously well worth it.
That’s just the Pat Summitt would have liked it. That’s what she would want the final page of her legacy to be, that even in passing, she was able to move female athletes, and the game, forward.
Title IX was greater than great. It lit a flame and created an opening. But that would have meant nothing unless there was someone courageous enough, daring enough and determined enough to jump through it feet first and take full advantage of every opportunity it provided, not just for the short term but also for the long haul.
That someone had to seize the moment and put herself out there. She had to be willing to work hard to be the leader in both deeds and words, and always in a positive and constructive light. Women’s basketball needed a giant who could carry the sport on her shoulders and be the face of the sport.
To do that, she would have to be dynamic and so wildly successful – so off-the-charts spectacular and polished and professional and precise - that it would lure people, even those with just a passing interest in basketball and/or women’s rights, to look to see what was going on.
In short, women’s basketball was in need of a Babe Ruth of a coach.
Summitt was all that and then some.
She was not content just to coach for the sake of coaching and being nothing more than a game manager and a facilitator so the ladies could don shorts and sneakers and get onto the court and run off some steam. Rather, she wanted to coach just like they did on the men’s side, or even better. She succeeded in both regards.
While almost every other coach was only too happy to spend time merely familiarizing her players with a basic understanding of the sport, including explaining what each position was for, kind of like teaching a course entitled "Introduction to Basketball," Summitt was coaching as if her hair was on fire. She was coaching "The Finer Points of Basketball," and her class was much, much tougher to pass.
And one more thing: She wanted to win.
She knew that winning would be the catch that would keep people interested in the Vols, who were the biggest deal in the sport and in fact carrying the torch for it. So interest in the Vols was interest in women’s basketball. Talk about a win-win in the truest sense of the word.
And how does a team win? By getting great players and pairing them with a great coach who is going to push them both physically with grueling practices, and mentally by teaching them at a higher level - the same level at which players on the men’s teams were learning.
Welcome to Summitt and the Vols, and the building of a dynasty that would put the school, the program and the sport, all in one neat, concise package, on the map.
She harped on boxing out and grabbing rebounds, then throwing quick, accurate outlet passes to start fast breaks; passing off the dribble; overloading a zone and then throwing no-touch passes to beat its rotation; using proper footwork and shooting technique; setting a screen and then rolling to the basket for a pass and a lay-up; and pressing and trapping to get steals to set up easy transition points.
Playing the Vols was like trying to use arithmetic principles to understand calculus and physics. It was, quite simply, women against girls.
Summitt demanded that her players got it right, and drove them tirelessly until they did. Volunteers practices were like boot camp. In contrast, games were a piece of cake. They were like a day off.
The Volunteers were so much better and more refined than all of the rest of the college teams combined. They won – and won big – and had a blast doing it. They were to women’s college basketball what UCLA was at the time to the men’s game. They were the New York Yankees back in the day. Or the Bill Russell-led Boston Celtics from the 1960s. They were the team every team wanted to be. They set the bar and then kept exceeding it.
Every little girl growing up, whether she lived in Ohio or Oregon, California or the Carolinas or New Hampshire or New Mexico, dreamed of playing basketball for Pat Summitt and the Volunteers. Maybe these girls couldn’t find Knoxville or even Tennessee on a map, but they just knew they were going to be headed there someday, with a basketball tucked under their arm and a pair of tennis shoes, laces tied together, dangling over their shoulder.
It gave girls something more to get jazzed up about other than just dolls and frilly pink outfits. It was something new and exciting, and it was just for them. The boys already had their own deal, so they were excluded.
It was like a tsunami the way Summit and the Volunteers were taking women’s basketball by storm.
And it only got better as the game, because of Summitt and the dominance of the Volunteers, grew and grew and grew, and with it grew meteorically the amount of media attention they and the sport were getting. It made everything real and legitimate. This wasn’t just a passing fad. This was the wave of the future – the females’ future - and y’all better hop on board now so as to not miss the ride
There is absolutely no doubt that UConn’s Geno Auriemma will end up smashing all of Summitt’s records, thus making him the most successful head coach in women’s basketball history. And his accomplishments will no doubt stand for a long time.
But Pat Summitt will forever be the matriarch of women’s basketball, its founder, pulse and soul, the woman who built the framework for everything that has happened, and will happen down the road. She is the forever face of the sport.
My grandmother would be thrilled.
If the truth be told, what these girls get to do now are what her and her high school teammates really wanted to do a century ago, if only there had been a visionary like Pat Summitt around to give them all a chance.