KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Pat Summitt is glad to be back at practice with her Tennessee squad after revealing during the off-season that she's been diagnosed with dementia.
"That's what I want to talk about, basketball, not dementia," a fully-engaged Summitt said Wednesday after the Lady Volunteers' first practice of the 2011-12 season.
Summitt revealed to her team and the rest of the world in late August that she had been diagnosed with early onset dementia, Alzheimer's type, over the summer. The 59-year-old Hall of Fame coach said she wanted to go ahead and deal with the news then so she could focus on basketball when the season arrived.
The timing seemed to have a positive effect for the Lady Vols, who have failed to reach the Final Four for three straight seasons after winning back-to-back national championships in 2007 and 2008.
"I think it motivated this team. Once they heard about it, they were like, 'We're cutting down some nets,'" said Summitt, who was her usual intense self on the sidelines. "When I gave them the diagnosis, I think it really motivated them. I wanted to sit down with my team and tell them what was going on. They've been great.
"I think they really are motivated for a championship."
Sophomore guard Meighan Simmons said she cried when Summitt shared the news but feels she's becoming even closer to her coach now.
"I feel like I will be able to hug her more and tell her I appreciate her because I really feel like she really needs that," Simmons said. "With Pat, she's one of the best coaches in the country, and I think to be playing for her I really feel like it touches me because I'm playing for her and she's taking care of me as far as making me become a better person, a better athlete. I feel like now it's our turn to return a favour to her."
Summitt sought a diagnosis after struggling both mentally and physically during the 2010-11 season, which ended with a 34-3 record for the Lady Vols and a loss in the regional finals.
"Back in August after she told us she was going to make that announcement, she came to us and said, 'OK, now that we've got that out of the way, now everyone knows and now we're back to business,'" freshman point guard Ariel Massengale said.
There's been an outpouring from former players, fans and casual observers ever since she revealed she was struggling with dementia. This week alone, Summitt has been named the recipient of the Maggie Dixon Courage award and the Mildred (Babe) Didrikson Zaharias Courage award. Former Lady Vol standout Kara Lawson announced she was working to raise money for the Alzheimer's Association in Summitt's honour.
Summitt struggled for several months with the news that she was facing dementia before her son, Tyler, encouraged her to share her diagnosis with the world. Tyler Summitt helps her keep her days organized by making to-do lists for her.
On the list for Wednesday in addition to practice was a book club meeting with the Lady Vols. At their coach's encouragement, they're reading "Good to Great" by Jim Collins, a book about what makes some companies more successful than others.
"We have two players that present any time that we go in," she said. "It's really been good because they have to explain it. It doesn't come from the coaches, it comes from the players. I think they're learning a lot. It's a good focus for them."