Photo by Saul Young, 2013 Knoxville News Sentinel // Buy this photo
The title of Pat Summitt’s memoir describes the undertaking as neatly as the words fit the book cover.
“Sum it Up.”
The play on words is obvious. Yet it doesn’t adequately convey the challenge faced by Summitt and co-author Sally Jenkins with totalling the lifetime of the former Tennessee women’s basketball coach. She rose from humble beginnings to a storied 38-season coaching career that featured eight national championships. Summitt became an iconic figure that transcended her sport, as reflected by the Mount Rushmore-quality photo featured on the book jacket.
The book, which goes on sale March 5, is 376 pages. Jenkins estimates that she could’ve written 600.
Furthermore, chronicling Summitt’s life wasn’t possible without conceiving a plan to assist her memory, which has been affected by a brain disease. As Jenkins said this week, “Obviously writing a memoir with Alzheimer’s is a neat trick.”
The magic emerged from photos and interviews with everyone from former players to bitter rivals. They helped guide Summitt through the process. The result is a memoir that’s rich in the recall of people and relationships, more so than events. In the first chapter, Summitt concedes that there are things that she doesn’t remember, important things. But she also says that she remembers every single Tennessee player.
Summitt has continued working with the Lady Vols as the program’s head coach emeritus. No. 11 Tennessee (21-5, 12-1 SEC) plays today (TV: MyVLT, 2 p.m.) at Arkansas (17-9,5-8).
Jenkins supports Summitt’s contention concerning former players with a specific occasion. They were perusing team photos when Summitt pointed her finger at Linda Ray, mentioning her major (Biochemistry) and what kind of a teammate she was. Ray was a Lady Vol from 1981-85, but played in just 19 games, averaging 1.1 points per game.
“The trick of interviewing Pat with the Alzheimer’s is to prompt,” Jenkins said. “If you just say, ‘Let’s talk about the 2008 championship’ it’s difficult for her because numbers don’t mean as much to her. Whereas if you say, ‘Let’s talk about the 2008 championship and Candace Parker and Nicky Anosike, and you sit there with pictures, it’s a whole different experience. If you talk about people it’s a whole different experience.”
The work on Summitt’s memoir began in earnest after she stepped down as coach last April. She and Jenkins had always laughed and joked about doing the book, but not until Summitt was finished coaching.
Jenkins, a columnist for the Washington Post, co-authored two books with Summitt in the 1990s. “Reach for the Summitt” was a how-to manual and “Raise the Roof” told the story of the 1997-98 team, which went undefeated in winning a national championship. All the tapes and transcripts left from those books served the memoir’s purpose.
“There was wonderful stuff in those transcripts, not just about life on the farm but all of her early years,” Jenkins said. “A lot of it got left out of the first two books because it just didn’t fit into a how-to-succeed book.”
“The University of Tennessee Basketball Vault,” a history of the program compiled by former Lady Vols sports information director Debby Jennings, was a valuable resource, too.
“We’d sit down at the beach with ‘The Vault’ and we’d just turn the pages,” Jenkins said. “We’d stop at a picture and we’d talk for awhile.”
Quotes interspersed throughout the book were gathered from fresh interviews during the past year. Three generations of players gathered at Summitt’s house this summer to tell stories. Despite the conviviality of the get-together, Jenkins thinks that some players still are working through their relationship with Summitt, much like she did with her stern father, Richard.
“Pat is very clear on how she managed kids and why she managed them the way that she did,” Jenkins said. “The kids are still sorting through their responses to her and that was interesting.”
Jenkins would relate her player conversations to Summitt as a means of prompting her stories. As the tales mounted from such former Lady Vols as Michelle Marciniak or Abby Conklin about Summitt’s tough manner, Jenkins said that Summitt would simply smile and say, “bless their hearts.”
Jenkins also spoke with Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma. Despite a fractious history, Summitt said in the book that their friendship has been recouped. Auriemma was the first person to donate to Summitt’s foundation, writing a check for $10,000.
The final part of the process involved Jenkins reading what she’d written, chapter by chapter, to Summitt and gauging her reaction. Along with the basketball material, delicate personal matters had been covered, including her divorce from husband, R.B., and the six miscarriages that she suffered.
Summitt was uncomfortable with the initial account of the miscarriages, telling Jenkins: “It’s too much. It’s too detailed.”
“It was a painful subject,” Jenkins said. “It was too matter of fact, too harsh for her. I just didn’t handle the material the right way.”
Jenkins rewrote the material until Summitt was comfortable with it.
Conversely, Summitt was fine with the vignettes preceding each chapter. They relate to Summitt dealing with Alzheimer’s. Jenkins used the structure to shed light on the subject without it dominating the memoir.
Summitt’s first book appearance is at 4 p.m. March 5 at the Barnes & Noble bookstore at 8029 Kingston Pike.
“We had a good time doing the book, that was huge for me,” Jenkins said, “My favorite thing about the experience is we had a good time doing it.”