Disclaimer: I have always been a fan of Pat Summitt. There was precious little women’s basketball on television when I was growing up, but inevitably I would see the Tennessee Lady Vols. I loved watching Pat Summitt coach. I loved watching her teams play. I loved their commitment to defense. I loved their commitment to one another. Many of my all-time favorite players are former Lady Vols. One of my prized possessions is an autographed Candace Parker jersey I won at a charity auction. And Kara Lawson can do very little wrong in my eyes.
So needless to say I was extraordinarily eager to read the memoir, “Sum It Up” co-written with Sally Jenkins (another person on my all-time admiration list). Life got in the way of my reading, but I’ve just finished the book and, as I expected, it’s a pretty fantastic read.
Pat Summitt starts at the beginning, her childhood in Tennessee with a hard-driving father and brothers who expected her to pull the same weight on the family farm. Read about her relationship with her father, about the values and ethics instilled in her from a young age, and you begin to understand the icy stare, the demand for excellence and the unrelenting quest to bring out the best in others.
And perhaps that is the crux of what I took away from Pat Summitt’s story. Player after player notes that while they may have hated the coach in the moment, she brought out more than they thought was possible in themselves. Her relentlessness took them to a new level. It wasn’t a game plan for everybody, but the lesson learned here is simple yet profound: Challenges can raise our game, not just in the moment but over the course of a lifetime. The challenge isn’t what defeats its. It’s what gives us an opportunity, if we take it, to bring out the best in our unique selves.
There are other fantastic parts of the book. She tells the story of the building of the Lady Vols program, about some of her rockier relationships with player and about creating a championship mentality. She takes you through several championship seasons and goes into detail about her own playing career and Olympic experience.
Summitt also discusses some of the more painful episodes in her life. She is fairly detailed about the emotional pain she suffered as she went through several miscarriages. While not divulging specific details, she recounts the pain of the dissolution of her marriage. And through it all she weaves in the emotion of her relationship with her son, Tyler, who is as central a figure in her memoir as her fellow coaches and former players.
Each chapter begins with discussions about mortality and the reality of her battle with Alzheimer’s disease. And she ends the book with a powerful sentiment:
“God doesn’t take things away to be cruel. He takes things way to make room for other things. He takes things away to lighten us. He takes things away so we can fly.”
Challenges come into our lives to make us stronger, teach us a lesson, or force us to let go of something old to make way for something new. Sometimes those challenges come in the drilling from a basketball coach. Sometimes they come from the loss of a relationship. Sometimes they come from the failure of your body. But there is always a way through. There is always something greater on the other side. Keep doing what you’re doing, stay true to your beliefs with a willingness to change, and great things can happen. That’s what Pat Summitt’s life story teaches me.