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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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Here comes this lady into your life. You don't know that she has been up all night peeing, racked with pain in her lower back. You don't know how many people told her she was nuts to get on an airplane and fly to your hometown at a time like this. You don't know that an hour ago, when her water broke, she was crouched in an eight-seat King Air blotting her legs with paper towels. Hell, you're 16. You don't know that she's spitting Nature in the eye and kicking Time in the teeth.

She's sitting on your sofa as you come through the door from school on a September day in 1990, and she grins and grinds her teeth against the contractions. How could you know that it's already too late—that Pat Summitt's got you, she's got you forever?

Michelle Marciniak takes a seat and looks around her living room. She's a senior at Allentown (Pa.) Central Catholic High, an hour north of Philadelphia, a guard who in six months will become the Naismith and Gatorade player of the year. But that's not enough for Michelle. In her dream she has both the acclaim and love that go to the best player in the land and the championship that her high school team keeps falling short of. She would love to put her dream in Pat's hands, but in Pat's hands already rests the other player of the year candidate, the other All-America who plays Michelle's position.

Michelle knows something weird is going on the minute she walks in the door...but what is it? Her mom, Betsy, and her older brother, Steve, are wearing the same nervous, crooked little smile. Michelle's cocker spaniel, Frosty, is yip-yapping laps around the premier coach in the history of women's basketball. Pat's bouncing from the sofa to the bathroom to the telephone and back. Her assistant coach, Mickie DeMoss, is whipping through Tennessee's recruiting scrapbook as if she were sitting on a mound of fire ants: Here's the arena, here's the library, here's the '89 national championship—O.K., Michelle, any questions? Michelle's dad, Whitey, is sitting across the room jingling coins manically in his pocket. You try it. It's not easy to jingle coins while you're sitting down.

Suddenly Nature mounts a furious comeback, Time starts kicking Pat in the teeth. "Mickie," she blurts, "we have to go. Now." Suddenly they're babbling to the teenage girl that Pat's baby is coming, and Steve and Michelle are racing to his car to lead the Tennessee coaches to—to the hospital, right?—heck no, to the airport, because Patricia Head Summitt is going to have this baby when and where she wants it. Suddenly Steve and Michelle are swerving around curves, blowing through red lights and stop signs and DO NOT ENTER signs, swiveling their heads to look back at Mickie, who's freaking out at the wheel of the rental car, and Pat, who has her feet on the dashboard and is groaning. They all screech to a halt near the airport's private hangars. Mickie runs up the steps into an airplane. Wrong airplane. She pops back out. "I'll call you!" Pat shouts to Michelle. She strides into the King Air, and off she roars into the sky.

******

There are a hundred ways to write a story about a hurricane. We could watch it gathering shape and strength from afar and chronicle its course. We could follow at its heels and document its wake, or attempt to speak to all who experienced it and make a mosaic of their impressions. But perhaps the most direct and true way is to see and smell and feel it through one person—one girl who ran both from it and straight at it; one girl sucked into its eye and then set down on its other side; one girl, now a woman, who has had time to sort out what it did to her life.

Those who are playing for Pat Summitt now at Tennessee—members of the 1997-98 team, which finished the regular season 30-0 and is favored to win an astonishing third consecutive national title, the sixth in 12 years—cannot see the hurricane clearly because they're still inside it. They're hugging a tree for dear life, waiting for the wind and water to recede. Someone else, on a dry, sunny day a few years from now, can ask them to describe what it was like to play for this woman whose five national championships are surpassed in NCAA basketball history only by John Wooden's 10; whose .814 winning percentage in 23 seasons ranks fifth among all coaches in the history of men's and women's college basketball; whose number of trips to the Final Four, 14 and counting, will most likely never be matched, seeing how she's only 45. This woman who never raised a placard or a peep for women's rights, who never filed a suit or overturned a statute or gave a flying hoot about isms or movements, this unconscious revolutionary who's tearing up the terrain of sexual stereotypes and seeding it with young women who have an altered vision of what a female can be.

So we'll leave her for now, we who can't grasp yet what women like her will mean to the rest of us. We'll leave her doubled over in pain on an airplane, clenching every muscle she's got, trying to recall everything her mother told her about birthing babies so she can do the opposite until she's back on the ground in Tennessee. And we'll return to the teenage girl by the phone, awaiting Pat's call, trying to fathom what this strange day portends.

It's so hard, when so much air has leaked out of your dream, to inflate it again. For the previous two years, whenever Michelle was frustrated or angry on the court, whenever her high school coach yanked her midway through the third quarter because he didn't believe in stars or 40-point scoring nights, all she had to do was look up in the stands and see her mother forming that little T with her forefingers. It meant Tennessee, but it really meant Pat. It meant NCAA championships and All-America honors and Olympic gold medals, because that's what girls got when they were handpicked by Pat.

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