Editor's note: Maura Healey, the attorney general of Massachusetts who played women's college basketball at Harvard, pays tribute to Pat Summitt.
Like many, I awoke this week to the news that legendary Tennessee Lady Vols basketball coach Pat Summitt had died. Throughout the day, I exchanged texts with fellow hoopsters, coaches and friends, all saddened by the news. I was moved by the tributes and stories chronicling her career and impact. Pat Summitt is rightly hailed as a pioneer, a trailblazer, a role model and an inspiration. She got the most out of her players, put women's hoops on the map and profoundly changed the perception of gender across American sports culture. She broke records, pushed teams and players beyond what they even imagined was possible, and she showed that girls can play.
Coming into coaching just after Title IX went into effect, she made the most of that opportunity, and over the course of her career blew doors open to advance gender equity and became the winningest basketball coach in NCAA Division I history to boot.
I didn't know Pat Summitt and I didn't play for her. But for me, like so many, Pat Summitt was a big-time influence on my life. Sadly, it's in her passing that I find myself appreciating all that she meant.
In a hot July summer when I was 15 years old, I made a trip to Knoxville, Tennessee. I was on my way home to New Hampshire with my coach following play in the national AAU tournament in Oxford, Mississippi. We came in fifth place and I took home an All-American award.
I was excited and determined to visit the playground and classroom of a coach I hoped to play for someday. Because if you were a young girl growing up then, the coach you knew, the one you wanted to play for, the ultimate destination, was Pat Summitt. When I did my ball handling, shooting and zigzag drills in cold winter gyms and outdoors on playground hard-top under pelting summer sun, when I did fingertip pushups and sit-ups in my bedroom calculating that I'd play on four Olympic teams before I was done, my eye was on Pat Summitt. Because when you were a young girl with big hoop dreams, when you thought you could do and be anything, you dreamed of playing for Pat Summitt in a Lady Vols uniform.
So when we pulled up to the athletic complex that day, I felt like I was visiting the promised land. Maybe it was because of my wide eyes -- or maybe it was our funny accents -- the kind receptionist who looked like she'd seen this movie before took pity on us and said that "Coach Summitt" was on the road recruiting, but that I could meet with one of her assistants. A short while later, out came assistant coach (and current Tennessee head coach) Holly Warlick.
Holly had been a super player and a point guard like myself, so I was immediately pumped. (In retrospect, I can imagine that poor Holly had to deal with this scenario many times each week.) She walked us around the facility and showed us the trophies and Lady Vols memorabilia. I was like a kid in the candy store; I bought a Lady Vols T-shirt at the campus store and we hit the road. After, Coach Warlick sent me a nice letter and told me to keep in touch -- a gracious touch but one I now realize was extended to probably thousands of girls who showed up similarly unannounced at the door. But I was pumped and returned to New Hampshire fired up.
Later on, I got invited to try out for the national team. I went to the trials and was promptly cut after the first couple of sessions. Before I did, I had the chance to scrimmageunder the watchful eye of Pat Summitt, who was helping scout for the team. And for those few hours one day, I felt like a champ, getting to share the hardwood with Pat Summitt.
I remember at the end, before heading home, I wanted to go up to her and tell her how great she was. Instead, I got shy and merely mumbled something like, "Thanks for having me. I learned a lot." But, I'll never forget, she looked at me with those steely blue eyes, and said, "Just keep working hard." That was it. No fuss, no muss. That was my first and only interaction with Pat Summitt.
Years later, after I had the chance to play college ball for a great coach and an even better person, Kathy Delaney-Smith at Harvard, I watched and rooted for Pat Summitt's teams. It was visceral. I couldn't exactly explain why I felt that way, but I did. Even as the New England favorites UConn Huskies -- a great program with great players and a great coach -- came to dominate, I still always rooted for Pat.
I'm older now. I still play, but very poorly. But I think I better understand.
Pat Summitt made it OK for girls like me to compete, to play hard, to bring it with sweat, conviction and emotion. To dream big, even foolishly, but to dream. She made us believe in ourselves and value ourselves as women competing in sport. But, importantly, she made America sit up and take notice -- to recognize that women bring as much to any endeavor as their male counterparts.
I think that what I was also tuning into -- but I didn't know it at the time -- was the power of leadership. Basketball is a team game; success depends upon getting five players to work together in sync on the court, and for the entire team to get those on the court in the best position to succeed and win at any given time. Leadership is about recognizing the skills and talents -- and limitations -- of all the players and then figuring out how to maximize their efforts in a way that gets collective results.
"She looked at me with those steely blue eyes, and said 'Just keep working hard.' That was it. No fuss, no muss. That was my first and only interaction with Pat Summitt."
Pat Summitt was willing to lead, to take chances, to advocate. And she trusted her players and her coaching staff. She put the right people in place in the right time and got them working together. She also was tough. And tough is good. Because if something's worth doing, it's worth doing with intensity and intent.
Look at clips of her coaching from the sidelines. With just one piercing, penetrating look, Pat Summitt could convey to a player that she wasn't doing enough. But look at the same time, at the hand extended, a hand that says "I believe in you. I encourage you."
Leaders inspire and push people to be their better selves. And that's what I took from watching Pat Summitt -- taking whatever skills you bring to the dance and making that work for the team and getting people together to get it done.
Look, I didn't have the opportunity to play for her, so this is only what I observed. Pat Summitt was a leader. You could put her on any battlefield, in any board room, and she would make you a winner. Great coaches know how to inspire, they know how to push people beyond where they think they can go, and they know when to give a high five, a hug, or a stern talking to.
Pat Summitt was a genius. She knew how to do it. She changed the face of what it meant to be a female athlete. To compete, to work hard, to sweat, to get angry, to rally, to win. She knew defeat and she knew victory, and she knew the difference that mattered. The country is a poorer place with her gone. I never got to tell her this: She mattered to me, and a whole bunch of people. And that's a great legacy. Touching people you never knew you touched.
Well before orange was the new black, we had Pat Summitt.
It's a playbook to follow.