Michelle Marciniak recounts difficult final days of Pat Summitt's life

Credit: Jonathan Daniel / Stringer via Getty Images

Michelle Marciniak, right, was the MVP of Pat Summitt's 1996 Tennessee national championship women's basketball team.

She was acutely aware the anniversary was looming, but June 28, 2017, was a milestone Michelle Marciniak preferred to avoid.

Pat Summitt had been gone for nearly a year after her untimely death from early-onset Alzheimer's disease when the foundation that bears the Hall of Fame coach's name hatched a plan: Make a video titled "Thanks Pat," with short clips recorded by everyone from former Tennessee players to Billie Jean King to Shaquille O'Neal, sharing what Summitt had taught them.

Marciniak was the point guard and MVP of Tennessee's 1996 national championship team, as well as a member of the Pat Summitt Foundation Advisory Board. She had a treasure trove of memories to choose from. Yet Marciniak couldn't bring herself to conjure up a "Thanks Pat" moment. The loss was still too cavernous.

"I didn't want to do it," Marciniak admits. "I had just spent a year grieving. Losing her ... it set me back."

Marciniak finally acquiesced, though, and, in her halting, haunting clip, she peered into the camera and declared, "I just miss you so darn much."

The ache of loss weighed on Marciniak nearly as heavily as a persistent helplessness about how to honor someone who had profoundly touched so many people. In her final years, Summitt chose to become the face of the cruel disease that took her life, displaying the same grace and dignity she had exhibited as the face of women's basketball.

Marciniak was searching for a tangible, meaningful way to recognize that. So, Oct. 17-28, Marciniak will ride 1,098 miles from Knoxville to Key West, Florida, (1 mile for each of Summitt's career wins -- the most ever in the college game) as part of a fundraising initiative called Pedal for Pat. The event, which will benefit the Pat Summitt Foundation, is the vision of Josh Crisp, a Tennessee fan and entrepreneur who owns numerous senior-living care facilities, many of which house Alzheimer's patients. Riders will be required to raise $10,000 to participate, with the money going to Alzheimer's research and care.

"I'm in," Marciniak says, "for all of it."

Marciniak, in her first public comments since Summitt's death, says she still finds it difficult to recount the final days of her coach, who was a towering public symbol of strength and resolve. Summitt's illness chipped away at her independence and her sharp wit. Her vulnerability was unnerving, and her close circle of friends and family fiercely guarded her privacy in the final months.

It was Marciniak who delivered the eulogy at Summitt's funeral and admitted, "Honestly, I'm angry." She told the mourners how Summitt hated it when she cried. She revealed that she had a speech impediment when she was young and that it was Summitt who forced her into public speaking to eradicate her stuttering. "Pat helped me discover a voice I didn't know I had," Marciniak said that day.

"I want to find a cure [for Alzheimer's] because it killed my coach."

Like many of Summitt's former players, Marciniak detected something was amiss long before Summitt's diagnosis. She confirmed it after an impromptu visit to Pat at her Knoxville house, a perpetual hub of activity, about eight years ago. Summitt loved company and encouraged friends to stop by so she could cook them dinner, regale them with stories and offer them a comfortable bed. Marciniak had gravitated there many times for advice and counsel, but on this night, it was Summitt who shared intimate details of her own life.

"It was the most real she had ever been with me," Marciniak says. "Her guard was down. We talked late into the night about our faith, our families, our experiences. It was the first conversation I had with her as a real friend. It was awesome."

The next morning, as Marciniak poured herself a cup of coffee in the kitchen, another friend who had stayed over joked about Summitt and Marciniak "burning the midnight oil."

As they chatted, Summitt walked in and said, "Good morning, Michelle, did you sleep OK?"

"Fine," Marciniak answered. "I'm telling Florence about my parents."

"So, Michelle, how is your family doing?" Summitt asked.

Marciniak blinked, stunned. A chill passed through her, raising the hairs on her arms. Summitt had completely forgotten their entire conversation from seven hours earlier.

"I just froze," Marciniak says. "I finally said, 'They're doing fine, Pat.' She smiled at me and said, 'Good, tell them I was asking for them. I really love your mom.'"

Marciniak left Summitt's house in a daze. She tracked down longtime assistant Mickie DeMoss and demanded some answers. DeMoss acknowledged that Summitt had seemed disconnected at times during a staff trip to Italy from which they had just returned.

"Something's going on," DeMoss told Marciniak. "We just don't know what yet."

The encounter triggered a memory from earlier that season when the television panned to the team huddle and Summitt was curiously standing outside the circle. Marciniak recalled experiencing a wave of uneasiness about that.

"That's different from the Pat Summitt I knew," Marciniak says.

One of the most uncomfortable things I've experienced is carrying on a conversation with someone you love so much, who you've known your whole life, and it's a one-way conversation.
Michelle Marciniak

She saw Summitt for a first time as a 12-year-old at a national AAU tournament. She saved the handwritten note the iconic coach penned her some two years later, encouraging her to consider Tennessee.

It was in Marciniak's Allentown, Pennsylvania, house that Summitt, in the full throes of labor, cut a home visit short for the first (and only) time in her illustrious career.

"[Summitt's son] Tyler was almost born in our living room," Marciniak says. "I got home from school, and Pat and Mickie were already there. My parents knew what was going on, but I didn't. I walked into a very nervous household."

Marciniak says DeMoss pulled out a recruiting manual the size of a coffee table book and began madly flipping through it, pointing out the dining halls, the dormitories and the academic programs.

"She was going a hundred miles an hour," Marciniak says, "and Pat kept getting up and going to the bathroom."

Summitt asked to use the phone, then returned and said, "I'm afraid I'm going to have to cut this visit short. My water broke coming here on the plane. My doctor says I should go."

Marciniak's father offered to drive her to a nearby hospital, but Summitt declined. She later famously announced, "This baby is going to be born in Tennessee." Her contractions became so intense during the flight home that the pilot recommended landing in Virginia, but Summitt, whose team had lost to the Cavaliers in the NCAA tournament that year to thwart their Final Four bid, nixed that plan, too.

Summitt wound up offering a local point guard prospect a scholarship ahead of Marciniak but told her she was still welcome at Tennessee. Marciniak committed to Notre Dame instead, even though her gut told her that was the wrong move.

"We played Tennessee and I had a really good game, but we got drummed," Marciniak recalls. "That didn't feel good. That's when I realized, 'I want to play for Pat, not against her.'"

Thus, Marciniak became the first transfer in Tennessee's history.

When her playing career ended, she briefly coached at South Carolina but dreaded competing against Summitt. "It put a weird wrench in our relationship," she says.

When she started her own company called Sheex, a performance-fabric bedding company, Summitt was the first to congratulate her on the venture. "She didn't say 'I'm proud of you,'" Marciniak says. "She said, 'I'm proud for you.'"

It was agonizing to witness Summitt declining so rapidly, especially for those who loved to drop in unannounced and plop down in Pat's Knoxville kitchen. "I still came around," Marciniak says, "but it literally broke my heart. I was used to seeing Pat at the door, her arms wide open saying, 'Come on in, stay for dinner, stay over if you want.'"

Soon, as Summitt's conditioned worsened, the house was teeming with caregivers. It became necessary to schedule visits and to limit them to just 20 minutes.

"For those of us who were close to Pat, who had been visiting for years, it was pretty hard," Marciniak says. "There was a lot of, 'What do you mean stay just 20 minutes?'"

A year before Summitt's death, Marciniak flew into Knoxville for her scheduled time with Pat. The coach sat quietly while the player struggled to establish a connection with her.

"One of the most uncomfortable things I've experienced," Marciniak says, "is carrying on a conversation with someone you love so much, who you've known your whole life, and it's a one-way conversation."

And yet, as she often did, Summitt surprised Marciniak one last time. After the allotted 20 minutes were up, the caregiver gently told Summitt that her friend Michelle was leaving. For a split second, a flash of Pat Summitt's Tennessee moxie returned.

"Oh no she's not," Summitt barked. "Michelle is staying for lunch." She asked Marciniak to bless the food. As she did, Summitt lifted her head for a moment to examine the woman before her.

"She looked at me," Marciniak says, "and she knew I was extremely familiar..."

The hope is that Pedal for Pat will find a way to ease the pain of families who endure the devastation of Alzheimer's disease. Marciniak doesn't know how she'll carve out the time to train while running her own company, but she's not going to cry about it because Pat would really hate that.

"You know what the best part of that story of her going into labor is?" Marciniak says. "She called me at 2 in the morning to tell me she had a baby boy. I remember thinking, 'I'm going to be close to this woman for the rest of my life.'"

She was right. Only Michelle Marciniak -- and the great Pat Summitt -- deserved more time.

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