Pat Summitt’s greatest legacy will live beyond basketball

05 September 2012: Former Tennessee coach Pat Summitt (right) and Indiana's Tamika Catchings embrace in Atlanta Dream 71-64 victory over the Indiana Fever at Philips Arena in Atlanta, GA.
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Pat Summitt walked away from Division I basketball its all-time winningest coach — more than John Wooden, Adolph Rupp or Dean Smith. Her impact on the growth of women’s basketball can’t be overstated.

However, one year after the Hall of Famer and basketball legend passed away, Pat Summitt’s most enduring legacy might have nothing to do with the game she poured her heart and soul into.

Her impact on the world will endure through another avenue to which she was devoted. A clinic bearing her name and invoking Summitt’s memory opened this January in the city she made a college basketball mecca: Knoxville, Tennessee.

Partnered with the University of Tennessee Medical Center, the Pat Summitt Clinic is the result of the coach’s efforts to combat Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

Summitt’s own words spell out the clinic’s mission:

“It is our hope that by creating this clinic at The University of Tennessee Medical Center, everyone will have access to resources that will help them as they walk through this difficult journey.”

It is indeed a difficult journey for the five million Americans estimated to live with Alzheimer’s in the United States. Alzheimer’s-related deaths have increased 89 percent since 2000, per the Alzheimer’s Association.

Anyone with a friend or family member who suffers from Alzheimer’s feels its impact, too. The Alzheimer’s Association estimates 15 million Americans work more than 18 billion combined hours to care for the afflicted.

Alzheimer’s has no cure, nor any clear preventative measures. The disease is one of the most perplexing medical mysteries in modern times, but one that college basketball’s most successful coach worked to fight.

In her lifetime as a basketball coach, Summitt directly influenced the lives of thousands. She was also among those estimated five million, diagnosed in 2011.

The disease forced her out of the game she loved, but she refocused her energy on a new endeavor to affect the lives of others, spearheading fundraising efforts for the clinic in 2015.

Her legacy and work continue even after she is gone, providing grants for researchers studying the disease.

With prevention and cure still the goal at the end of a long road, the Pat Summitt Clinic also strives to offer support to both patients and family members fighting Alzheimer’s in the present.

Before the clinic became a reality this year, Summitt herself gave public awareness to an affliction many of us have experienced through family or friends, but one that still has a certain stigma attached to it.

Summitt’s candor about her own fight with Alzheimer’s is a moment in the fight against the disease akin to national championship-winning North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano’s speech at the 1993 ESPYs.

An Associated Press-published excerpt from Summitt’s 2013 book Sum It Up addresses certain misconceptions about Alzheimer’s and its impact on memory.

“Numbers have a strange slipperiness for me, a lack of specificity; they suggest nothing. If you ask me how many games we won in 1998, or what happened in the 2008 national championship game, I struggle to remember which one it was. But if you tell me who was on the team – if you prompt me with names rather than numbers … they bring it all back. Show me a picture of a former player, frozen in an old team photo, and I remember her.”

Almost a quarter-century after his death, Valvano has remained a prominent face in America’s effort to defeat cancer. More than her four decades as an iconic coach, Summitt’s most important legacy will be what she did after the game was over.

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