After the Boston Celtics’ 102-98 win over the Orlando Magic to (rather surprisingly) win the NBA’s Atlantic Division last night, head coach Doc Rivers addressed the media about Pat Summitt’s announcement that she is stepping down as head coach of the Tennessee Lady Vols.
“I want to finish with Pat Summitt. Retired. (long pause to gather himself) She’s a neat lady. I got to know her a little bit. And I just think it’s really sad, in a lot of ways. Not basketball, but everything. So, I didn’t want to get emotional; I’m an emotional person. And when you see a giant like that leave the game, and leave the game because of health, it’s just sad.
“But she is responsible for women’s basketball. But she’s not just a women’s basketball coach, she’s a great coach. And you know, I’m in this, and the longer I’m in this I just realize how much coaching means to all of us. You think about it today: Pat Summitt is retiring at her age, and Larry Brown is taking a job at his age. And it just tells you how much it’s in your blood, how much you love it. And for her not to be able to do it, for me is very sad.”
For Jimmy Toscano of SB Nation’s CelticsBlog, this moment just summed up what Doc Rivers is all about.
However, it also sums up what Summitt means to women’s basketball.
Despite signs of growth in women’s basketball, the fact remains that very, very few figures from the game have managed to make a sustained impression on the mainstream sports world. Geno Auriemma is certainly becoming a household name, if not already. Most sports fans can identify Lisa Leslie, Candace Parker, and Sheryl Swoopes with women’s basketball, even if they don’t know whether or where they’re each playing. It remains to be seen what type of staying power names like Skylar Diggins, Brittney Griner, and Maya Moore have in the mainstream.
However, where Moore stood out last year was that people began saying that she wasn’t just the best women’s basketball player in women’s college basketball, but that she was the most skilled college basketball player in the nation, male or female. Even suggesting that was significant in a culture of lunkhead sports fans that seems increasingly fond of demeaning women at nearly every available opportunity – women’s basketball shouldn’t be held up to a standard set by men, but the reality is that for most people it is and Moore almost managed to transcend a rather rigid boundary that very few female athletes have been able to break.
Similarly, what’s especially unique about Summitt is that she’s one of the very few women who people have come to accept, perhaps by force, as simply great for her basketball coaching accomplishments without the qualifier that she’s “just” a women’s basketball coach.
Former Tennessee men’s basketball coach Bruce Pearl would take his players off the court if they were not playing at a level of excellence and intensity worthy of Pat Summitt’s court. It’s not uncommon for people to publicly wonder whether Summitt could coach men’s basketball, college or pro, and more often than not, the conclusion among reasonably intelligent sports fans is, “If she wanted to.” It’s a sort of awkward “compliment” – when applied to Geno Auriemma it comes with the subtext that he’s selling himself short by coaching women and would really prove his coaching ability if he could succeed coaching men.
Yet as awkward as some of the compliments about Summitt might be, she has managed to make a major impression in the male-dominated mainstream sports world. It’s not quite the level of respect that we might hope women’s basketball eventually attains; it would be nice if someday women’s basketball could simply be appreciated on its own merits without the incessant need to compare it to a men’s game that is played very differently.
But as Auriemma said yesterday in a statement, her vision at a time when women’s basketball was literally merely a novelty is a large part of why the game is even at the level it is now. She’s made Tennessee synonymous with women’s basketball excellence. And the quality program she built is a primary reason why women’s basketball gets whatever media attention it does, giving girls the opportunity to dream big, and has had an immeasurable impact on coaches, players, and the very existence of a women’s pro basketball league in the U.S.
Summitt isn’t just the standard bearer in college basketball or someone who’s changed the game; as Rivers said, she’s about as close as any one person could hope to come to singlehandedly being responsible for where women’s basketball is today.