There are iconic legends who are inspirational, admirable and beloved -- but still might remain largely remote to most people. Perhaps because of their personality, or maybe because of their occupation, they tend to be distant from all but those very close to them. And sometimes distant even from them.
Then there is the opposite of all of that: Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt. She had no use for pedestals. The shyest basketball camper, the most starstruck fan, or the greenest reporter never got big-timed by Summitt. Because nobody did.
That's why you will see so many heartfelt tributes to Summitt, who passed away Tuesday morning, from people of all walks of life. From ticket-takers, to student managers, to parking-lot attendants, to hotel desk clerks, to nurses, to teachers, to millionaire CEOs, to politicians, to librarians, to NFL stars, to musicians to ... anyone and everyone.
The exact essence of greatness is very concentrated and finite in some legends. It was boundless, glowing and stunningly accessible in Summitt. And so anyone lucky enough to interact with her, even briefly, keeps that as a priceless gem made no less valuable by the thousands and thousands of gems like it.
As just one of those countless gem-holders, here are five of my favorite memories of Summitt.
Driving Coach Summitt
In the summer of 1997, I got a message that Pat Summitt would be in town for a basketball clinic and had some free time to meet with me. But in the time window I had, I also wanted a photographer from my newspaper, The Kansas City Star, to get photos of Summitt out at Kemper Arena. That's where the 1998 Women's Final Four would be played, and I was fully expecting the Lady Vols to three-peat there. (Which they did.)
To maximize the time, I decided to tape-record my interview with Summitt while driving her out to the arena. But I was also utterly terrified of the prospect. I'd lived in Kansas City less than a year then, and can be directionally challenged anyway. What if I got lost? (Obviously, this was pre-cell phone/GPS.) What if I had an accident with PAT SUMMITT in the car?
Luckily, the executive director of the Women's Final Four that season, broadcaster Brenda Van Lengen, stepped in and did the driving, while I sat in the back seat asking questions.
Summitt gave fantastic, in-depth answers and graciously posed for the pictures (even hopping cheerfully into the photographer's beat-up, junky hatchback at one point to go to a different side of the arena). Nearly two decades later, Brenda and I still talk about our drive with Pat.
Visiting her roots
In November 2011, after covering a Lady Vols game, I visited Cheatham and Montgomery counties in Tennessee, where Summitt grew up, and the city of Martin, where she went to college.
I wanted to do a more in-depth story on her roots then, because it seemed that, sadly, it would be Summitt's last season on the sidelines. (It was.) I rode around in a pickup truck with her brother, Kenneth Head, and heard the details of how hard all of Richard and Hazel Head's kids had worked growing up. And saw how hard they all still worked as adults. But how they also had a keen sense of humor about it.
At UT Martin, I saw the small, old building where Pat had played college games in the early 1970s and the newer arena where the court is named after her. I talked to the delightfully hilarious Bettye Giles, who was UT Martin's women's athletic director for many years. She told funny stories about both Pat and another former UT Martin player who'd become a successful coach, Lin Dunn.
Then Ms. Bettye, as she's known by all, asked me to wait while she went to get something. Summitt had given her a few autographed basketballs in recognition of her 1,000th victory at Tennessee in 2009. And the wonderful Ms. Bettye gave one of the basketballs to me.
Newsflash: There always were and still are some male chauvinists in sports journalism. Occasionally, they have been "forced" to write about women's sports. Yet Summitt seemed to transcend even their prejudice.
I remember one Tennessee game in particular in the early 1990s, when a reporter was grousing in the media room, acting annoyed to be there because he felt he had more important things to write about.
Until Summitt walked in for her news conference, that is. And I noticed he alertly sat up straighter in his chair, just like everyone else did. He asked good, insightful, thoughtful questions.
Summitt had that quality, that aura, that presence that prompted admiration without demanding it. It was palpable. Her mere presence made everyone strive to earn her respect. Even that crabby writer wanted to impress Summitt.
She wore it well
Orange is ... a loud color. It is not easy to wear bright, vibrant orange in dress clothes. But Summitt did it fabulously, even with the famed outfit that only she could have successfully pulled off.
I called it -- affectionately -- the orange pajama suit. It was all-orange, with white piping and large gold buttons. Definitely not off the rack.
Summitt wore it for the 1996 national championship game against Georgia. That contest included another sartorially resplendent Tennessean -- Smokey the mascot -- body-slamming a stuffed bulldog toy and not realizing it would break and release hundreds of foam pellets onto the playing floor.
It turned out to be a metaphorical stunt by Smokey, as the Lady Vols would beat Georgia for Tennessee's fourth NCAA title and first of three in a row.
The orange suit? It went to the Naismith Hall of Fame, as Summitt also did.
Mom and Pat
After she retired, my mom had time to become an ardent sports fan. She also had a Yogi Berra-esque tendency to refer to people by names that weren't actually their names. Mom got into her head that Pat Summitt was Pat "Summers." And so it stayed.
She would periodically ask me if I'd talked to Pat Summers lately. Or when Pat Summers' team was going to be on TV next. Or she'd see a team (in any sport) that she thought was loafing or otherwise screwing up, and would say, "Pat Summers would never put up with that."
Mom sometimes, to my great embarrassment, would brag to random people -- such as a plumber who came to the house or a store clerk -- that I was a sports writer who knew "Pat Summers, the famous basketball coach."
The thing is, I know that if Summitt had met my mom, she never would have corrected her.