SI Vault
 
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.
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
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.

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

Michelle's desperate. It's her last shot at the title, her last shot to make all this pain pay off. Her last chance to regain the kind of national acclaim that vanished for her after high school, to become a player whom the two fledgling women's pro leagues will come looking for. But how can she? The Lady Vols are 17-3, but they look nothing like a title team—and guess whose fault that is?

Now Pat's team has gotten skunked a fourth time, by Mississippi, and Michelle has gone 0 for 7 from the field and fouled out, having played as if she could feel Pat's eyes burning through her back. The bus is crawling toward the airport, across the ice, through the darkness; crawling as Michelle listens to Pat, a few seats away, ridicule her; crawling as Pat rises and takes a seat next to Michelle and tells her that unless something drastic happens, she doesn't think the Lady Vols can win a championship with Michelle as their point guard. It's hopeless—no lip-biting can possibly dam it now that the gates are open, now that Pat has already brought Michelle to tears twice that day, at halftime and just after the game, and...here it...here it comes...the third wave of sobs.

Michelle doesn't sleep that night. She's terrified. For the first time she has gone past anger and frustration and the hunger to show Pat she's wrong. The girl with the brightest flame is dead inside. She cannot. Take this. Anymore.

At 6:45 a.m. she calls Pat's home. Only fear and despair could make her speak to Pat Summitt this way: "You don't think we can win it all with me playing like I am," she says, "but I...I don't think we can win it all with you coaching like you are. You've got to back off me now, especially in front of other people. You can't do that to me anymore." Her breath catches.

Maybe it's because Pat has won so many championships that she can be more flexible now. Maybe it's impossible not to soften a little, stop choking each minute quite so hard, when there's a five-year-old boy in bed breathing the night in and out while you listen and then wrapping you in a hug when morning comes. Maybe Pat has no real choice this late in the season. She and Michelle speak for a while, and then there's silence. Well? "Doesn't mean I won't criticize you anymore, do you understand?" Pat says. "But I'll try it."

With that, everything changes. "As if we were two people in a room with boxing gloves," Michelle will say a few years later, "who finally both come out with our hands up." Pat gives Michelle more rope. Michelle quits trying to tie a triple knot when a single will do just fine. Tennessee reels off 15 straight wins, beating UConn in overtime in the NCAA semifinals behind Michelle's 21 points and then blowing out Georgia to win the crown.

Pat goes up into the stands and gets the first hug and kiss from her father that she can remember. Michelle is chosen the Final Four MVP. Her flying leap into Pat's arms nearly knocks Pat off her feet.

If this were a TV movie, it would end there. You would never get the chance to watch Michelle go home with Pat and finally understand the force, or to gaze down the road and peek around the bend to where the story really ends. But it's not a TV movie. It's summer, four months after the title, and the two women are busting 90 through middle Tennessee, heading to Henrietta. It's O.K. with the NCAA because Michelle has just graduated, and it's O.K. with the state police because Pat Summitt can go as fast as she wants in Tennessee, and it's O.K. between Pat and Michelle, who cried together at the senior banquet a few months before.

From this new place, from this last ledge before Michelle leaps into the pros and adulthood, then maybe marriage and children, she looks over at Pat. The championship glow is still emanating from both of them, but it's no longer blinding. It's good light in which to look at Pat and assess....

Does Michelle want to be like Pat? Does she want to make herself go cold and hard inside when she needs to, or is the cost too steep? Can she have children and sweep them along with her, the way Pat does with Tyler, showering him with love and attention on airplanes and bus rides, taking him and his nanny on road trips whenever he can go...then steeling herself and walking out the door alone when he can't? Can Michelle dress like the First Lady, give goose-bump-raising speeches, spearhead $7 million United Way fund drives, be competent in everything—can she be, does she want to be, the woman who's trying to do it all and pulling it off, as Pat is?

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10