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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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They climb out of the car, and Michelle stares across the hayfields and the tobacco barns and the silence. She gazes at the old homestead where Pat grew up, no girls her age within five miles. She sees the hayloft behind the house, blown off its 10-foot cinder-block legs by a tornado. It's where Pat climbed a ladder nearly every evening when chores were done and played two-on-two basketball under a low tin roof and two floodlights, on a tongue-and-groove pine floor surrounded by bales of hay, with three older brothers, two of whom would go on to play college sports on scholarship.

Michelle sees Pat's mother limp toward her on ankles worn to the bone by all the years of stocking shelves on a cement floor in the family grocery store, all the years of tucking her foot beneath the old 10-gallon milk cans, hoisting them off the ground and into the coolers with a thrust of her leg. All the years of milking cows before sunrise, picking butter beans all day in summer, laying down linoleum floors on the houses her husband was building to sell, never resting from the moment she woke till the moment she dropped into bed.

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Michelle sees the three farms that Pat's father ran along with the feed store and the grocery store and the hardware store and the tobacco warehouse and the beauty salon, all while he was a school-board member and the county water commissioner. She sees the field where he once disked all night, then hitched up the mules and began planting corn until his head jerked and he saw that his rows were running together. She sees the white-haired man coming home from his tractor, on which he still spends 10 hours a day after two knee replacements, prostate surgery, two mini-strokes and quintuple-bypass surgery. She sees all the command and authority leak out of her coach as Tall Man draws near.... Deference...Pat? In a funny way, it's what Michelle needs to see: Pat's vulnerable. Pat's a regular person. Michelle does what Pat can't do. She walks up to Pat's dad and throws a hug around him.

She sees the schools where Pat never missed a day, not one, from grades one through 12, because illnesses were like birthdays—her father didn't believe in them. She sees the high school to whose district Tall Man moved the family just so Pat could play basketball, because he never separated what a girl ought to be able to do from what a boy ought to. Michelle sits at the table where the family still gathers often because only Pat, of the five Head children, has moved on. She sees how bare-boned and basic the family's life is, and how silly a spin move can seem.

She gazes across the dirt and asphalt roads where Pat used to take the family car, killing the dashboard lights so her kid sister, Linda, couldn't see the needle nosing 95, and it begins to dawn on Michelle that the wind that has been at her own back for the last three years is really the wind that has been at Pat's back all of her life. And that maybe you don't have as much choice as you like to think—after you've lived that long and that close to a force that strong—about the kind of woman you would like to be. Maybe the wind just sends you flying.

But the significant moment in Pat's story isn't back there, in the past, or even in all those traumatic and giddy moments that she and her point guard shared. The story doesn't end with Michelle—it goes through her, and on to people that Pat will never know, because Michelle is now the carrier of a spore.

A year after she leaves Tennessee and a few months before she joins the Philadelphia Rage of the ABL, Michelle meets a 15-year-old girl named Amanda Spengler, who plays basketball at a high school a few miles from Allentown, where Michelle grew up. Michelle takes Amanda under her wing—plays ball with her, lifts weights with her, talks about life with her and tells her all about Pat.

"She makes you feel there's nothing to be afraid of in life," Michelle tells Amanda. "If you want something, you go after it as hard as you can, and you make no excuses."

She tells Amanda how much she misses that lady now, how much she misses that sense of mission all around her—the urgency of 12 young women trying to be the best they can, every day, every moment. Sometimes in practice Michelle pretends Pat has just walked in to watch her, and she practices harder and harder. She tells Amanda how she dreams of being a coach someday, maybe even Pat's assistant.

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