One of the neat things about this job is getting the chance to meet some of the giants in the world of sports.
It’s provided the opportunity to interview (and I’m talking one-on-one here) more such folks than I ever imagined when I started. In most cases, they were baseball players: Bob Feller, Warren Spahn, Brooks Robinson, Ernie Banks, Ferguson Jenkins, Jim Thome and Orel Hershiser (as a minor league rookie out of Bowling Green State), among others.
Don’t have quite the same track record in the sports of football (does Jim Everett count?) or basketball (Cotton Fitzsimmons, maybe?), but certainly the opportunity earlier this year to interview marathon legend Frank Shorter was one I won’t forget.
This all came to mind a few days ago when the startling news broke that the winningest coach in college basketball history — men’s or women’s — has early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type.
I got to interview Pat Summitt in 1997 while covering Illini women’s basketball was part of my duties for The News-Gazette. The Tennessee coach has since accumulated more NCAA titles (she’s up to eight now) and many more victories (it’s at 1,071 and counting), but her stature 14 years ago certainly was no less legendary than it is now.
As part of the N-G’s preview of an Illini game at No. 1 Tennessee in December 1997, I was working on a story about the Catchings sisters — Tauja of Illinois and Tamika of the Volunteers — who would be meeting on a college court for the first time. Meeting for the first time ever as opponents (if you don’t count the one-on-one battles while growing up).
Wanting to get multiple perspectives on this reunion, I put in a call to the Tennessee sports information office requesting a phone interview with Summitt. Wasn’t sure it would actually happen, but decided to give it a try. Busy coach. Out-of-town media request. Probably not a high priority.
I also figured if an interview did happen, it would be as part of one of those media conference calls, in which the coach fields questions by phone from multiple reporters. Trust me, those can get pretty disjointed, with little opportunity for follow-up questions. And no guarantee of getting your question in before it’s over.
Instead, what happened was this: Late on a weekday afternoon, I got a call at the office from the Tennessee sports information office. Asked if I’d still be around in a half-hour to talk to Pat Summitt. One on one.
It went well. She was friendly and relaxed. Patiently answered all the questions I had. Gave me as much of her time as I needed.
My recollection is that we even talked a little bit about her young son, and you could sense how proud she was of him and how happy she was to be a mother.
And, as I’d hoped, she enhanced my story on the Catchings sisters with insight into Tamika and with the following anecdote about a conversation she’d had with Tauja’s younger sister:
“(Tamika) said, really in a joking way, some time ago when we told her we were going to play Illinois, “Coach, there’s no way you’d make me guard my sister.’ I said, ‘No, not until we had to.’ “
It’s not overstating the case, I don’t think, to say Pat Summitt is a giant in the coaching profession. And I got to interview her — and just to talk to her; it wasn’t all about basketball.
Like I said, pretty neat.
Here’s hoping and praying that as the 59-year-old Summitt faces an incurable disease, she’ll hold it at bay for more years than the medical experts ever expected possible. Hoping and praying, too, that she’ll have the wisdom to know when it’s time to step away from a job she clearly loves.
And, by the way, Tennessee won that game against No. 5 Illinois 78-68, storming back from a 17-point halftime deficit.