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eyes of the STORM
Gary Smith
March 02, 1998
When Tennessee's whirlwind of a coach, Pat Summitt, hits you with her steely gaze, you get a dose of the intensity that has carried the Lady Vols to five NCAA titles.
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March 02, 1998

Eyes Of The Storm

When Tennessee's whirlwind of a coach, Pat Summitt, hits you with her steely gaze, you get a dose of the intensity that has carried the Lady Vols to five NCAA titles.

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Price tag? Oh, you bet. Don't you think there are times, when the grease stain on the baseboard has her on her knees at 1 a.m., that she wants this thing that's got hold of her to let go? "Times," as Pat's brother Charles puts it, "when you want to knock Daddy's head off." Times when the pain from tension in Pat's left shoulder grows so sharp that she must schedule a deep massage—like, five hours before every game. Times when she's sitting on an airplane next to two women who are solemnly weighing the floral pattern against the plaid for the master-bathroom drapes, and their relationship to Time is so dramatically different from Pat's that she feels as if she's from another planet. Times when people talk about her as if she's a freak, as if she's a man.

As if she's, say, Bobby Knight. That's what they say when she seizes Michelle by the front of her jersey, twists it and snarls at her during the game against Louisiana Tech in the NCAA regionals in Michelle's sophomore year. The photograph runs in newspapers all over the country. "Spinderella and her wicked stepmother," the Knoxville press calls Michelle and Pat. From all over the country friends and relatives send the picture to Michelle and her parents, demanding, What is this woman doing to Michelle?

Pat flinches. Why, she wonders, can't people look at the photograph in context, why can't they understand that she's as swift to drop her whole life and rush to her players' sides when they have problems as she is to drop the roof on them when they screw up? That she's Miss Hazel's daughter every inch as much as she is Tall Man's? That she grew up watching and imitating her mother, who was the first to visit the sick or the dying, first to pick, pluck, prepare and deliver a meal of butter beans and fried chicken and mashed potatoes and homemade ice cream to the worried or the grieving?

Pat calls Michelle's mother to try to explain. "She's all yours, Pat," says Betsy, but privately she and her husband are aching for their child and wondering about Pat, too. Doesn't Pat understand that Michelle isn't just like her? Doesn't she know that Michelle's father is tough too, an old college fullback, but that every night he gave his girl a good-night kiss?

Life's funny, though, and something else happens in that 1994 NCAA tournament game after Pat grabs Michelle's jersey: Michelle grabs Pat's heart. She comes in at point guard when the Lady Vols are gagging in the second half, down by 18, and nearly saves them single-handedly before they lose by three. Furious drives to the basket, long jumpers, brilliant passes, knee-burning steals.

Pat sits there shaking her head, the truth moving from her mind into her gut. Michelle is the only one out there refusing to lose; the only one just like her! Pat can't wait. She tells Michelle right after the game: Tiffany's out. You're in. You're my starting point guard next year. "But remember," Pat says, "the point guard's an extension of me on the court. You've never been through anything like what you're about to go through."

Michelle goes home. She places one large framed picture of Pat twisting her jersey and snarling at her on her bedroom wall, and one small framed picture of the same scene on the dashboard of her car. Now Pat's everywhere Michelle goes, everywhere Michelle hides.

We've got an appointment, so let's break into a trot. Let's dash right past another year and a half; let's bully Time, the way Pat does. Let's fly by the day Pat throws her starting point guard out of practice in her junior year, past the day when Michelle finally crumbles and sobs in front of everyone. Let's jump clean over the last day of that same junior year, when Michelle comes within a whisker of her dream but loses in the NCAA title game to Connecticut—still unsure of herself on the floor in critical moments, still whirling between Pat's way and her way, no longer the All-America guard nor even the all-conference one.

There it goes—did you see it?—the day midway through Michelle's senior season when Pat makes her sit on a chair at midcourt, like a bad schoolgirl, and watch practice, then makes her move the chair to the far end of the floor after she whispers to a teammate.

We've got an appointment to keep, an appointment with an ice storm in Mississippi, coldest night of Michelle's life. It's February 1996. Time's not ticking now for Pat and Michelle. It's hammering. Pat has fixed that problem she had of making it to the Final Four and losing, fixed it mostly by persuading the best recruiter in the country, DeMoss, to leave Auburn in 1985 and be her assistant. Pat has won national titles in '87, '89 and '91, but four years have elapsed since her last one, way too long, and she needs her team leader, Michelle, as much as Michelle needs her.

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