During the 20-plus years that I taught a basic journalism class, I asked my students what I thought was a simple question during my lecture on strategies in beat reporting, including sports. The goal was to get them to think about the impact of one of the high commandments of the news business: All news is local.
In other words, you don't just cover news stories. You strive to cover stories with unique hooks into the lives and interests of your own, local readers. Thus, I would ask: If you were a reporter who wanted to specialize in covering women's basketball, where would you rather work -- Atlanta (or some other big market) or Knoxville, Tenn.?
For decades the answer was obvious. You needed to work in Knoxville, because of two words -- Pat Summitt.
As you would imagine, the media here in East Tennessee have been offering wall-to-wall coverage in the wake of the Tuesday morning death of the 64-year-old Summitt, who many consider the greatest basketball coach of all time, male or female. At the very least, the czarina of the Lady Vols was to the women's game what the great John Wooden of UCLA was to men's college hoops. Truth is, Summitt changed the whole world of women's sports.
I thought I knew quite a bit about Summitt and the challenges of her amazing life. Then a saw the tribute story at Baptist Press. Yes, Baptist Press.
It included a timely detail from her life that I had not seen in the local and national coverage. It's especially stunning that this detail -- yes, it's a religion ghost -- was not included in Knoxville coverage.
The key passage, starting with a quote just before she died:
Summitt, coach of the University of Tennessee women's basketball team from 1974-2012, was a member of Faith Promise Church, a Southern Baptist congregation in Knoxville, Tenn. Her pastor, Chris Stephens, told Knoxville's NewsTalk 98.7 June 27 she would "probably pass into heaven in the next few days."
Stephens led listeners in prayer during a five-minute interview, praying, "I knew her as one of Your followers. She brought so many people to church, and there was such a side of Pat that so many did not get to see and know, but I did."
Summitt and her son Tyler were baptized together in 2012, a "special moment they shared that outshines all the others," according to a statement from the Pat Summitt Foundation.
Wait a minute. This religious detail was actually in the official obituary prepared by Summitt's own organization, on behalf of her family? It was right there on the website?
Yes, it was. Here's the language straight from the website.
Motherhood suited Pat, and on September 21, 1990, she and R.B. Summitt II had their first and only child, Ross “Tyler” Summitt. The relationship between a mother and son is a special one, and they had an unbreakable bond built on their love for God and for one another. They also shared a passion for the game of basketball, a game that would provide the two of them many unique moments and milestones, side by side.
She was most proud of one special moment they shared that outshines all the others. On May 5, 2012, Pat and Tyler were baptized together. On this day, they decided together to go public with their faith and professed their love for and acceptance of Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. On this day, they created the ultimate and eternal memory, together.
Tyler Summitt (yes, he has had struggles in his private life) added this:
For 64 years, my mother first built her life upon a strong relationship with her Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Her foundation was also built upon love of her family and of her players, and love of the fundamentals of hard work which reflected her philosophy that "you win in life with people."
Now, that's the kind of detail that might not, under ordinary circumstances, make it into national level coverage at places like The New York Times or The Washington Post (and it didn't). For the record, I loved this anecdote in a Times sidebar:
You can talk about her toughness: She once dislocated her shoulder while chasing an aggressive raccoon off her porch, in an attempt to protect her Labrador retriever, and spent two hours trying to pop her shoulder back into place before calling for medical help. And you can talk about what a leader she was, for her players and for women’s sports. When she was offered a job coaching the men at Tennessee, she said, “Why is that considered a step up?”
At the national level, I would urge hoops fans to dive into the stunning coverage at ESPN, starting with the actual obituary. Then click into the dozen or so extended video features and then the shorter video interviews. At some point, the Knoxville News Sentinel needs to create a landing page for all of its stories. You can start here, as you dig in.
But, you know, maybe this crucial faith detail should have made it into the national coverage. Why is that?
Well, when was that walk down the church aisle? When was that baptism?
It was on On May 5, 2012, during the most tumultuous year of Summitt's life -- following her stunning August, 2011, announcement that she was suffering from early-onset Alzheimer's Disease. The baptism was less than a month after he announced her resignation as coach of the Lady Vols. This also came several years after her divorce, after 27 years of marriage.
Clearly this act meant something crucial to Summitt. It was a statement, in part, linked to what she was going to do next -- lead a public fight against Alzheimer's, as long as she could. There would, in her words, be "no pity party" for Summitt.
I guess I can understand leaving this amazing woman's faith out of the national coverage. Maybe she was too important, and symbolic, to be a born-again Christian.
After all, she was -- with good cause -- a feminist hero, before and after the Title IX era. She was an icon of women's empowerment, strength and superhuman drive. As a player, she won an Olympic medal while running on a semi-busted knee. As a coach, Summitt once held a mandatory, full-squad practice the day AFTER being knocked out in first round of NCAA tournament.
Pat Head (then called "Trish") grew up on farm near tiny Ashland City, northwest of Nashville. At age 22, she took over as Lady Vols head coach, making $250 a month and she was in charge of driving the bus and washing the team uniforms. She ended up with 1098 wins (do the math on annual wins) and eight NCAA titles. Stunningly, her athletes had a 100 percent graduation rate. Summitt allowed zero absences from classes and ordered her players to sit in the first three rows in all classes.
She had those steely blue eyes and knew how to use them. "The stare" said it all.
I knew the story about how the pregnant Summitt, out of state on a recruiting trip, had the UT pilot rush her home after contractions began -- so that Tyler could be born in Tennessee. I did not know that she had, in all, six miscarriages in her battle to become a mother.
So if you are looking, in the Knoxville media, for a word about Summitt as a believer, the best you are going to get -- ironically -- is this passage in the remarks from President Barack Obama (surely with help from researchers and speechwriters):
"Pat was a patriot who earned Olympic medals for America as a player and a coach, and I was honored to award her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She was a proud Tennessean who, when she went into labor while on a recruiting visit, demanded the pilot return to Knoxville so her son could be born in her home state. And she was an inspiring fighter. Even after Alzheimer's started to soften her memory, and she began a public and brave fight against that terrible disease, Pat had the grace and perspective to remind us that "God doesn't take things away to be cruel. … He takes things away to lighten us. He takes things away so we can fly."
The News Sentinel has noted that her private funeral will be held at the Mt. Carmel United Methodist Church, near the Head family farm in Oak Plains.
FIRST IMAGE: Screenshot from ESPN documentary, as Pat Summitt received the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage in 2012.