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 the Gatorade player of the year. But that's not enough for Michelle. In her dream she has both the acclaim and the 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.
Suddenly Nature mounts a 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, 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, groaning. They all screech to a halt near the airport's private hangars. "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 gather shape and strength from afar and chronicle its course. We could follow it and document its wake. But perhaps the truest way is to see 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 cannot see the hurricane clearly because they're still inside it. 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 marched 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, doubled over in pain on an airplane, 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.
Ever since that day in December '87, during her freshman year, when Michelle persuaded her mom to take her on an unofficial visit to Knoxville and she watched this tall, handsome, crisply dressed woman coach a game and a practice, Michelle's aim in life had been to play for Pat. That practice had blown her mind; never had Michelle met a woman (hell, a human being) so intense, so authoritative, so certain and yet so caring. Pat walked into a room, and everything about her—her ramrod posture, her confident smile, her piercing blue eyes and her direct manner of speaking—said, "I love what I'm doing and this is what I'm here to talk about, and you'll pay attention while I'm talking or you'll leave the room." Michelle could picture her as president—not of the university but of the country! And imagine this: Coach Summitt told her girls to call her Pat!
For hours the teenager would thumb through her bible, a scrapbook full of photographs of Tennessee women's basketball and of warm notes from Pat. To heck with rival recruiters who warned her that Pat would snuff out her flamboyance on the court—envy, poison envy. She was going to play for the lady, case closed... until that afternoon in the spring of 1990, her junior year. It was the day after Michelle's second unofficial visit to Knoxville, and on the way home she stopped in Hampton, Va., to play in an AAU tournament. She had decided it was time to announce her decision to the world when....
"Did you hear about Tiffany?" It was her AAU coach, Michael Flynn, addressing Michelle just before she took the court.