Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

On the Passing of Pat Summitt: The Guru Recalls Years With the Legend, Part I

Guru’s note. Having now seeing how long this may go, this contribution is going to be split into two parts with part one being dealing with watching the decline more from afar, and then part two will be vignettes of the relationship over the years.

Part 1 covers the period from first hearing the news of Summitt's diagnosis through this week. The vignettes will be part 2 coming in the next 24 or 48 hours.

By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru

It was late August 2011 and your Guru was driving down I-95 to Washington for a WNBA game between the Mystics and the Los Angeles Sparks.

For some reason the cell phone connections were not working well but they straightened for a bit to listen to a voice mail from “Willbill” William Ewart, the Guru’s photo friend in Knoxville, who had been with the women’s athletic department at Tennessee nearly as long as the Guru had become involved in women’s basketball and the creation of what within two years became the AP Women’s Poll.

The call was a little broken up but Willbill sounded in an extremely stressed condition saying  something about Hall of Fame Tennessee women’s coach Pat Summitt diagnosed … 

The connection had been broken but soon the Guru was able to pull into a rest stop and pull up the breaking news that the legend had been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease.

Since Notre Dame had broken a goose egg string months earlier that spanned 28 years against Tennessee by upsetting the Lady Vols in the NCAA tournament, the Guru had been constantly quizzed about how bad Summitt seemed to look on the postgame interview.

“Well,” I responded each time, “Considering the magnitude of the loss, and you’re Pat Summitt, how are you supposed to look? And besides, she’s had that nagging shoulder problem since battling the raccoon on her front porch a couple of years ago.”

But this was a shock.

 After years of updating the Guru’s AP women’s basketball poll each week during the season, if at some point Summitt would have to give up coaching, it was going to feel strange for a while not seeing her name at the top of the active list of coaching appearances, let alone cautiously now tracking the Tennessee numbers going forward in combo mindset since her numbers and the overall Lady Vol numbers were no longer going to be the same.

Soon thereafter, a call came from Dave Siegel, the host of the Dish ‘n Swish national podcast, among other things.

“Did you feel the earthquake?”

“Yeah, I just got the news about Pat.”

“No, not that. The earthquake. There was a real earthquake.”

Sure enough, and perhaps, symbolically, on the same day Summitt’s disease is revealed, a major tremor struck the Eastern seaboard.

But within a matter of days, Summitt’s situation quickly outlasted the news of whatever effects had been produced by the tremors.

With Summitt having declared she might coach another three or four years, the inner-self  reaction here was then to calm down and go into business as usual mode.

The only other piece of news in all this from inner circles was that earlier in the summer, having heard the same observations of Summitt that was heard here, UConn coach Geno Auriemma, the longtime perceived arch rival from the wars of the famed series between the two discontinued by Summitt in 2007, made a call.

He didn’t reach her but left a message saying he heard there were some health issues and that he was available for whatever would be needed.

Supposedly, that set up a road to better relations that melted away the anger she had harbored over a host of things.

Meanwhile, Tennessee was not on the Guru’s personal schedule home or away so he never got to see the ensuing months first hand after the season began. But inside news was troubling.

Those close to Pat, guided most everything to keep the public view from being one of major concern.

One time the Guru heard  one day there would be a great conversation on strategy for an upcoming game but an hour afterwards, Summitt inquired when was the meeting going to be held.

First Meeting Months After Summitt's Condition Revealed

That winter saw a host of special awards being given to Summitt for her courageous stance in public to battle the disease.

The United States Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) announced the women’s part of its most courageous awards would go to Summitt. 

That winter, with yours truly in charge of the women’s basketball section, we began putting names on the postseason awards and we decided that Summitt’s name would go on the hardware for all future handouts of the honor she was to received.

While it would initially seem that the right move would be to put her name on the coaching award, Beth Bass, then head of the WBCA, told me that they had a commitment long before the diagnosis from Summitt allowing her name to eventually go on their coaching award.

And actually, when you think of it, putting her name on our courage award would be more meaningful, and actually led to a special moment later on.

When it came time for the award to be given at the Women’s Final Four in Denver, Debby Jennings, who has been Summitt’s longtime media liason as well as friend of yours truly, informed that Summitt was coming Sunday for the USA Olympic coaches in history salute and then going home.

Then-Associate Head coach Holly Warlick would accept for Summitt the next day.

But Summitt actually came Saturday to watch one of her Tennessee players honored as part of the WBCA All-Americans introductions in the arena in between the practices. She was seated with a bunch of other Tennessee staff in the area used by the bands behind one of the baskets.

The Guru was in the media area underneath the stands when Willbill stuck his head in and said, “Pat’s here.”

“Well, can I say hello or is it like Fort Knox?”

“Yeah, You can go over to her.”

Meanwhile as I was emerging to the area, Summitt had just crossed paths with Auriemma, who gave her a hug, they said a few words, which set off a flurry of newspaper columns since the Connecticut media was there with the Huskies being in the finals.

Then as I made my approach, she saw me, a big smile came over her face, she stood up and uttered, “Hey.”

“I responded likewise, “Hey.”

We then gave each other a hug. Willbill, who was nearby, said, “Let’s get a picture.”

Then, since she wasn’t going to be there, I began telling her a little bit about the award, but I kind of detected she didn’t know my reference.

At the same moment some others in the Tennessee delegation noticed me for the first time and shouted their hellos so I walked over to respond in kind.

Then I walked away to continue in the media room.

But as I left, a video in my mind replayed what just had occurred and I quickly came to the realization, “She knew she knew me. But she didn’t know me.”

The reason is whenever we would see each other for the first time after weeks or months had gone by, she upon sighting would always light up and say, “Hey, Mel. How’s it going.”

Someone later said when I was mentioning my experience, “I tell people when you are shaking hands it is ok to say your name.”

Several weeks later Summitt announced she was stepping down and an era had ended.

 Needless to say that summer it did feel strange taking Summitt’s name out of the active list to get the AP database ready for the next season.

A Second Meeting Several Months Later Goes Better Until a Third Becomes A Setback

But in between, there was one other experience – Several months later after Denver, I was seated in the hotel lobby in Knoxville on Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame weekend.

The big news was the day before at a golf outing with a few friends in town for the event, Summitt hit a hole in one.

Meanwhile, the WBHOF board was just breaking up from its annual meeting.

Summitt was with them. As they emerged, many of them seeing me for the first time, there were a bunch of “Hi Mel(s)” as they neared.

It seemed that clicked a switch because Summitt  smiled broadly and came running ahead of them to give me a big embrace.

I joked with her about stealing the news headlines with the hole in one.

She said “I hit it and said, `Where’s the ball.’ `It’s in the hole, coach.’”

Across the next season while again Tennessee was not on my schedule, people who had made visits came back with mixed reviews of good days when some of them saw her, and bad when others did likewise.

A few weeks after the end of the 2013 season, I was invited by ESPN to the Greenwich Village Film Festival in NY where a preview of the 30 for 30 film on her was being screened.

Summitt was there and if one had never seen her in person, they would think things are going quite well.

But afterwards, she was standing in a reception area with a small crowd, of which a few were getting autographs. As they cleared, I stepped forward and looked at her and said, “Hi coach. How’s it going.”

She looked at me, with zero recognition and said, “I’m fine, how are you.”

I said, “OK,” then stepped away for others to shake hands. There was nothing more to do.

Summitt's Surprise Visit to Lauren Hill's Big Game

A year went by and in the fall of 2014 I was at Xavier to give out the USBWA Pat Summitt Most Courageous Award at halftime to Lauren Hill, the Division III student with terminal brain cancer who had made it to the season opener and play the game she long desired to be in.

Tough as it was to have it all together, I was in pretty good shape, emotionally for me in terms of the speech and magnitude of the nationally-televised event in a 10,000-seat sellout arena.

I got to the arena in Cincinnati way early because the NFL Bengals had a game to played three hours later across the street from my hotel.

When I got there, my good friend Debbie Antonelli, who was going to do the color, grabbed me and first introduced me to Brad Johansen, the local TV sports/newscaster who had made the nation aware of Lauren’s story and was going to emcee the halftime.

Then Deb said, “I’ve got a secret to tell you. Pat’s coming.”

“What??? Are you serious??”

“ She’s just going to stand with you, not say anything. She wanted to be here. They wilL announce she is here right near the end of the half.”

When the halftime came, as we approached each other from opposite ends, I said something, in part to see how to play things, “Pat. A 40-year friendship and you still love playing surprises on me.”

She said nothing, but gave a little smile.

In a few, reaching to her that way was helpful because off Brad’s generous introduction of me, I used the same sentence to get into the presentation and I was able to craft the moment for all of us.

The End Comes Much Too Soon For All of Us

And that was the last time we were in each other’s company.

Last Friday after a WNBA game a colleague asked if I had heard Summitt had taken a turn For the worse and was in grave condition.

I hadn’t but said, if true, we need to know, because she is a Basketball Head of State and we have to get ready to go to give her final homage.

On Saturday, the social media was silent on any indication and I dropped for the moment any attempt to reach the inner circle.

Then I awoke to get back to New York for another game and saw the news was out.

As a courtesy since my Inquirer departure in 2010 had been on good terms, I sent sports editor John Quinn a note so they wouldn’t be caught by surprise. He thanked me for the heads up.

A few hours later the office sent a request for me to ready the obituary for the paper.

In a way, her last favor – and she did plenty for me over the years – was her hanging on long enough to for me to produce a tribute that would be worthy of the subject.

That was the professional side – doing this becomes the personal side.

 I think you needed to read this to then enjoy the next part which will be a series of vignettes from over the years.

If you got to this point, thanks for staying all the way through. You will be rewarded in Part 2.

 -- Mel   



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Very heartfelt story Mel. Thanks for sharing.

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