Tamika Catchings and Semeka Randall will be singled out later this month when they are inducted along with four others into the Lady Vols Hall of Fame.
The two women's basketball stars and classmates, who will be honored the weekend of Sept. 30, did their fair share to stand out. Catchings was a four-time All-American and a former national player of the year. Randall was a two-time All-American and one of the most ferocious defenders in program history. They, along with former teammate and 2010 inductee Chamique Holdsclaw, comprised the fabled "Meeks" who led UT to a national championship and undefeated season in 1997-98.
Yet as former players Catchings and Randall are almost indistinguishable from the rest of the basketball alums in coming to grips with coach Pat Summitt's announcement last month that she has been diagnosed with early onset dementia, Alzheimer's type.
"Obviously, knowing it's something she's going to be dealing with; we're all going to be dealing with,'' Catchings said. "We all know she's going to go at this fighting hard. We'll all be by her side."
Despite a more maternal tone, Randall didn't deviate from the sentiment.
"If there's anything I could do to protect her, I would do so," she said.
Lady Vols associate head coach Holly Warlick, who played from 1976-80, has watched a procession of former players make the trek to Knoxville in the last month. Holdsclaw came the first weekend after Summitt's announcement. Michelle Snow visited on Thursday before heading overseas to play in Russia. Warlick estimates that "tons" more have telephoned or sent messages.
"I think everybody probably feels like I do,'' Warlick said. "She's their second mother. The program becomes your second family. She's your teacher. She becomes your friend when you graduate. I don't think you understand until you step away."
Warlick has noted that this personal outpouring seems to preclude a former player's experience at UT. Catchings and Randall are worthy examples of her observation.
Catchings achieved favored player status at UT with her blast-furnace intensity and multidimensional skill set. She departed as a sympathetic figure, her career cut short by a torn anterior cruciate knee ligament suffered during her senior season.
As a WNBA All-Star and two-time Olympic gold medalist, Catchings' post-Lady Vol career continues to be a compelling promotion for the program. The former forward visited last February to announce a plan to assist at-risk high school students in Knoxville through her "Catch the Stars" Foundation and then spoke to the team — all before catching a flight overseas to continue her playing career.
Before Summitt's announcement about her health, Catchings said the coach was on her mind.
"I had been thinking about her; I don't know why,'' Catchings said. "She was just on my mind."
Despite her achievements, Randall had a rougher ride. The former guard was suspended for two games early in her senior season, missing a trip to Maui as punishment for an impromptu Easter trip the previous spring to visit her boyfriend, who was playing basketball overseas. She didn't tell Summitt about her trip and missed some classes before returning.
She enlisted Warlick's help as a sounding board for her final season. In the end, Randall was one of the humbled spokespersons for an 80-65 loss to Xavier in the Mideast Regional semifinals — a stunning NCAA conclusion to a career that began in such spectacular fashion.
Despite all the history, Randall's loyalty is unwavering.
"No matter how much I was in her doghouse, I still loved her,'' Randall said of Summitt. "There's not a day where I wouldn't want to go through a brick wall for her."
As the head coach at Ohio University, Randall travels the same summer recruiting circuit as Summitt, which affords her more regular contact than most. Sharing the same profession likely has enhanced Randall's
appreciation of Summitt's influence, too.
"In her own way, she's imbedded something in all of us,'' Randall said. "We're almost like little Pats running around."
Still, there's nothing quite like being a former player — not under the circumstances, not with so many of them wanting to be at Summitt's side.