Raise the Roof
by Pat Summitt with Sally Jenkins
Broadway Books, $25
This is a book about basketball and the often complex people who coach and play it. That it is also a book about women's basketball is of little consequence to the narrative, and therein lies its significance. In fact it is a measure of the amazing progress of the women's game that this should be so. Change the pronouns in these pages from feminine to masculine, and the familiar story of the heretofore unyielding and tradition-besotted coach's adjusting to gifted but free-spirited young players, some of them from impoverished single-parent homes, remains the same.
Substitute he for she in "she could take you off the dribble with either hand, or bury you with a three," and you are hearing coachly exposition common now, at long last, to female and male alike. Yet what ultimately separates this excellent read from conventional courtside memoirs is the fact that the talented players it describes are women. When Pat Summitt, the coach at Tennessee for the past 24 years, steps onto the court in Knoxville before a sellout crowd of 24,597 gathered to see her Lady Vols, she is moved nearly to tears. "For years," she says, "we had worked in a sport no one else seemed to care about. We loved what we were doing, but there were times when we despaired of ever filling a stadium." She recalls walking into gyms "so empty you could hear your own footsteps echo."
Last season the Lady Vols averaged nearly 15,000 at home games. Of course the team was well worth the attention, winning 39 games without a defeat (by an average margin of 30.1 points) and taking its third straight NCAA championship, Summitt's sixth overall. The Lady Vols were led by Chamique Holdsclaw, a survivor of the New York City housing projects with skills so dazzling that Michael Jordan himself suggested that he and she play one-on-one. (The two players were introduced to each other by Summitt, who has been a friend of Jordan's since the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, at which Jordan played on the U.S. men's team and Summitt was a coach for the women.) Holdsclaw was the Lady Vols' acknowledged star last season, but this great team also featured four freshmen, whose transformation from girls to women gives this book its dramatic thrust—that, and the presence midway through of a menacing stalker.
This is the second collaboration between Summitt and Sally Jenkins (Reach for the Summit was the first), and it represents a gratifying breakthrough in the literature of women's sports. The book, says Summitt, "is about trading in old, narrow definitions of femininity for a more complete one. It is about exploring all of the possibilities in yourself."