You can best appreciate Sports Illustrated's Sportsman and Sportswoman of the Year awards if you know some of the winners.
Here's a shortlist: Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Jack Nicklaus, Bobby Orr, Pete Rozelle, Arthur Ashe and Billie Jean King.
No lightweights in that bunch. Not any basketball coaches, either.
UCLA's John Wooden and North Carolina's Dean Smith had been the only two basketball coaches to win the award — until this week. Tennessee's Pat Summitt and Duke's Mike Krzyzewski share the Sports Illustrated cover as the 2011 winners.
The pairing is a natural in that Summitt and Krzyzewski are the winningest coaches in their sport. Yet the magazine made it clear in its announcement that the selections were based on more than winning.
I have sometimes wondered how much a good story plays into the selection of SI's year-end awards. In Summitt's case, the story is as good as her record. The story is now more compelling than ever.
Her story became a national headline in August when Summitt announced she had early onset dementia, Alzheimer's type. But the story didn't end there. She also announced she would continue coaching.
Her challenge to continue doing what she always has done is the prevailing theme in a season that is six games old and will continue this weekend in Madison Square Garden. It's not something that should evoke daily reporting, but it's something that occasionally bears revisiting. The award provides a convenient peg for that.
Summitt said in her announcement that she anticipated "good days and bad days." She also said she would rely more on her assistant coaches.
You can see that on game day. The same intense stare isn't always there. And, despite the
advance warning, its absence can be striking.
In some games, she appears more involved than others. That can be troubling for a fan base so familiar with her dominant court-side presence.
So many attributes come to mind when you think about how successful Summitt has been that "flexibility" often is overlooked. You don't succeed for so long without being able to adjust. This season qualifies as Summitt's greatest adjustment.
I wonder how many other coaches could pull it off.
Forget the daily struggle of dealing with a disease of this magnitude. There's also the matter of sometimes playing a subdued role. When you're the best at what you do, accepting that you won't always be at your best is daunting in itself.
Summitt has taken on that challenge, too. She has adapted and delegated. She also has provided another poignant example for the players she coaches.
If your jump shot isn't falling, you find a way to get to the basket or focus more on defense. If a bruise or sprain deprives you of half a step, you rely more on technique, positioning and anticipation.
Summitt is not only adjusting to a devastating disease. She's doing it in public.
Sports Illustrated obviously factored that into its decision. But you could argue that the honor is long overdue. Summitt could have been named Sportswoman of the Year after winning her thousandth game or three consecutive national championships.
This season isn't about coaching milestones. It's even more significant.
Congratulations to Sports Illustrated for recognizing that.