We grew up wanting to impress Pat Summitt.
Pretty much all of us: every young basketball player, at every summer camp, at every tournament, in every nook and cranny of this entire country -- even those of us, or perhaps especially those of us, who would never be good enough to actually play for the Tennessee Lady Vols.
It mattered little that achieving this goal -- impressing Summitt -- was unlikely. The theoretical was motivation enough: Had we played hard enough that Pat Summitt would have been impressed, had she somehow been there?
We held ourselves to her lofty standards, imagining those watchful blue eyes upon us, in cavernous field houses, at random tournaments, in small towns and big cities, all across the country.
Our reverence for Summitt was understandable. She was the commander-in-chief of the best women's basketball program in the country; the woman whose legendary precision and steely determination had been immortalized on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and who had, more importantly, delivered widespread respect to our game. As we flew around those summer courts, all kneepads and ponytails and grape Gatorade, we did so believing we were really, truly important -- that our game mattered, that we mattered.
It was Summitt who had earned us much of this; this baseline belief we all grew up with: that we were respected.
And now, she's gone.
On Tuesday morning, the 64-year-old coach died of complications from early-onset Alzheimer's, which was diagnosed in 2011, when she was just 59. Summitt coached Tennessee for 38 years, winning 1,098 games and eight national championships and demanding the heart and soul of every young woman who put on that orange jersey.
Pat Summitt is gone.
Writing those words is actually much easier than believing or understanding them.
The simple fact that Summitt has died knocks the wind out of me. I imagine thousands of other former players around the country -- really any young girl who picked up a basketball in the past 40 years -- must feel something similar upon hearing the news. And the lucky women and men who did know and love Summitt, and those who did play for her, must feel as if something exquisite and priceless has drifted from their grasp.
I was 16 years old in the summer of 1998. It was hot and humid outside, so I was inside, on the couch in our living room, reading "Raise the Roof," the first of three books that Summitt wrote with journalist Sally Jenkins. Books about women's basketball were rare, so the ones that did exist -- "In These Girls, Hope Is a Muscle," "Venus to the Hoop" -- I devoured. I was thirsty to understand how these women had become great in the way I wanted to be great. I supposed that if I knew how, I could mimic them; I could carefully step into every footprint they'd left behind.
I read "Raise the Roof" in two days, absorbing the stories of hot gyms and long workouts and emotional team meetings, and when I was finished, I remember immediately walking upstairs to my bedroom, pulling on my basketball sneakers, then kneeling on the ground and tying the laces. I marched downstairs, collected my basketball from the front hall closet, then pushed through the screen door and went outside, where I stayed for the rest of the afternoon, dribbling and shooting and pretending to be the most impressive thing I could imagine: one of Pat Summitt's players. I even told myself that if I earned a college scholarship, I would consider rejecting it; perhaps instead, I would walk on at the University of Tennessee.
Six years later, I was in Knoxville, Tennessee, playing for the University of Colorado in the Sweet 16 of the 2003 NCAA tournament. (Turns out college scholarships aren't an easy thing to turn down -- despite my noble intentions.) We had just finished morning shootaround, and later that day, we would play Villanova, after which the Lady Vols would play Penn State. The rest of my teammates were already in the locker room, gathering their stuff, about to walk to the bus, when I remembered I had forgotten something out on the court of Thompson-Boling Arena.
I heard Pat Summitt before I saw her. She was wearing an orange tracksuit, and the fabric rustled with each stride, her sneakers smacking the concrete. She was at the top of the tunnel; I was at the bottom. Just the two of us. The tunnel seemed to fill with her energy, a kind of sharpening of the air -- a crispness. I fought the urge to drop my gaze, to disengage, and as she passed me, her piercing blue eyes connected with mine and she nodded, just once.
"I did not know Pat Summitt. And yet, somehow, what she offered me was invaluable: She helped me know myself."
The 12-year-old in me leaped in triumph, pumped a fist: Pat Summitt had nodded at me! I pictured all the courts I had played on, sweat dripping, not knowing exactly who I was, what kind of player, what kind of person, but knowing I needed to find out, and knowing that trying as hard as I could would help me discover it.
The 21-year-old me stopped, turned and watched her walk onto the court.
I did not know Pat Summitt. And yet, somehow, what she offered me was invaluable: She helped me know myself.
I imagine a generation of women feels the same.