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.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Tribute From a Tennessee Male Practice Player: Coach Summitt & The Greatest Memory of All Time

Guru's Note: Karma and your Guru sometimes make an interesting connection. At some point driving around Knoxville last week in town for Pat Summitt's Celebration of Life Service, he wondered if any of the male practice players from the Tennessee women's basketball program might surface. 

Well somebody heard the thought because one came knocking at the Guru's social media door with a short note. Your Guru invited him to say more on the blog and Steve Winfree has accepted the invite,  so the rest of the post is. Thanks Steve.

By Steve Winfree

I am writing today about one of the most influential, amazing, and undeniable Superheroes of all time...Coach Pat Summitt.

 I had the pleasure and honor to have worked for Coach Summitt while in college at the University of Tennessee. She gave me an opportunity to be a male practice player for the Lady Vols basketball team after kidney disease had just ended my dream of playing college basketball. 

She gave me an opportunity to not only still play basketball, but to put on a Tennessee basketball jersey and practice at Thompson Boling Arena every day. 

I will be forever grateful for that. 

I will never forget the first time I met Coach Summitt when she walked into the gym for the first time. It was as if time stopped and everybody had the same thought; "Act like you are working hard, for the love of God be doing something productive!" 

She commanded respect when she walked in a room and she received it. She always treated everybody the same whether you were Candace Parker or the ball boy at practice. She always asked how your day was going and she genuinely cared. 

Coach Summitt battled Alzheimer's Disease later in her career, but that never slowed her down. She refused to let it take over life in a way that kept her from treating others the way she always did.

 She is the ultimate Lady Vol, the epitome of a Champion, and the beacon of hope for all female athletes out there. 

I too have memories with Coach Summitt that I will never forget. I am part of the icy stare down club, the recipient of the warmth and care that sometimes hid behind the covers of Sports Illustrated, and the recipient of the best compliment an athlete could ever have received....

I was part of the Lady Vols practice in 2005 as a male practice player preparing for LSU. The best player on the other team was typically represented by a red jersey that one of us guys would wear. 

For the LSU game, I was chosen as the player to wear the red jersey.

I remember I was coming off curl screen after curl screen and knocking down the three point jump shot. 

Coach Summitt finally blew her whistle and yelled out, "Come on ladies! Guard the curl screen! This is why I have these guys out here, because if you can guard him you can guard anybody in the country!" 

It was that moment I experienced the best compliment a player could ever receive from Coach Pat Summitt. I was officially called the best female player in the country.

I also tore a ligament in my knee during practice leading up to the NCAA tournament.

 I was wheeled down to the training room and Coach Summitt came down there with me to make sure I was ok. She left practice before the NCAA tournament to check on me, just a male practice player who had nothing to offer in the NCAA tournament! 

She called me a few days later to check on me and told me she would have the training staff rehabilitate me as to still be a part of the team family in the post season.

 This is when one of the best moments of my life occurred. In March of 2005 Coach Summitt beats Purdue in the 2nd round of the NCAA Tournament to become the winningest coach in college basketball history. 

As it so happens, in the following day when she returned to practice at Thompson Boling Arena after breaking Dean Smith's record, that was my first day back to practice in my knee brace. 

I was sitting on the trainers table and rows of media were waiting on Coach Summitt to emerge from the tunnel. 

She finally arrived and the cameras flashed and reporters began asking questions. She pushed her way through all of them and of all places came to me! 

She said she would talk to the media later and wanted to check on me first. She came over and asked how I was doing and was glad to see me back.

 Talking about this actually brings tears to my eyes because this shows the type of person she was. I was literally a nobody and she was Coach Summitt, the winningest coach of all time, and she cared more about me than talking about her accomplishments.

Here's to the greatest of all time, the most influential female athletic representative ever, and to a woman I will forever be grateful for having had the opportunity to know. God Bless you Coach Pat Summitt and Go Lady Vols!

Steve Winfree


Lady Vols Male Practice Player- 2005