Jenkins Discusses Summitt's Dementia Diagnosis

Melissa Block talks with Washington Post sports writer Sally Jenkins about her friend, basketball coach Pat Summitt. This week, Summitt, the winning-est NCAA basketball coach in history, announced that she has been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's at 59.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: And I'm Melissa Block.

Pat Summitt, the legendary coach of the University of Tennessee women's basketball team, has more wins than any coach in NCAA basketball history, male or female. She's led the Lady Vols since 1974. Over the last year, Pat Summitt noticed she was getting confused, more forgetful. She felt like she was drawing blanks. Well, now she's come forward to explain why. She recorded a video that's posted on the Lady Vols' website.

PAT SUMMITT: Earlier this year, the doctors at the Mayo Clinic diagnosed me with an early onset dementia, Alzheimer's type, at the age of 59.

BLOCK: Pat Summitt decided to talk about that diagnosis with two reporters, one of them her close friend, Sally Jenkins, The Washington Post sportswriter who co-authored Summitt's autobiography.

Sally, welcome to the program.

SALLY JENKINS: Thank you for having me.

BLOCK: How did Pat Summitt describe to you the signs that she noticed, the things that signaled to her that something was wrong?

JENKINS: Well, the main thing you notice is that she would ask two or three times, now what time do I have to be there again? What time is my meeting? Or, I mean, even something as basic as practice, you know, what time is practice? Now, nobody loves practice more than Pat Summitt. She's always said she prefers practice to games, because it's her classroom and that's where she teaches. So that was a pretty profound sign that there was something, you know, off.

BLOCK: When you watched her coaching in games, did you see at all a different Pat Summitt than you had seen before? Was it showing up at the games?

JENKINS: Just slightly. You know, she was still so highly functional that it was a little confusing. But in the final game that the Lady Vols played, they lost to Notre Dame. And I thought in that game you could see that her assistants were really getting in the huddle and drawing up plays. And I sort of watched that and thought, you know, that Pat wasn't as confident.

She had lost her confidence in terms of directing the team in the heat of a high-pressure game. And that was another, I think, fairly profound sign for me that she just wasn't grabbing onto things with her usual mental sharpness.

BLOCK: Here's how you described the change in your story in The Washington Post this week: There's a faint sense of dimming, as if a jar has been placed over a candle.

JENKINS: Well, Pat is incandescent. I think that anyone who's ever been around her, she radiates such energy. You know, she's a throw-back-her-head laugher. And there was just, in retrospect, the slight sense of something withdrawn and suppressed. And I think a lot of that is not necessarily the dementia. I think a good deal of that, I believe, was Pat becoming withdrawn because she was so worried about what was going on with her.

And one of the things that I've been so glad to see in the last few days is that now that she has clarity and now that she has an answer and she sees the opponent, as her son says, I feel like Pat is more of herself this past week than I've seen her in the past year, to be perfectly honest.

BLOCK: Pat Summitt is famously tough and wouldn't have gotten where she is if she weren't intensely driven. How did she react at first to the Alzheimer's diagnosis?

JENKINS: Well, as her son Tyler says, nobody accepts this diagnosis. Denial is probably the normal reaction. And I think that there was a few weeks of: Well, I'm just going to go on about normal business. And she had a very busy schedule this summer and so I don't think it was really until the end of July that she was able to really sit down - and I think her son, Tyler, really forced her to sit down - and address this head on.

You know, she had a big decision to make. She had to decide whether or not to continue coaching with this. And I think that she just needed, you know, five or six weeks to the mull that over and internalize it, and come to the realization that the quickest way to ruin her health would be to give up what she loves the most.

BLOCK: You write, Sally, that under Pat Summitt's contract, the University of Tennessee could have removed her as head coach. But they haven't. They've embraced her. Her role, though, is going to change. How is it going to change?

JENKINS: Well, they don't really know yet. She's sitting down with her staff and her athletic director. They're going over what Pat does really, really well. For instance, you know, Pat Summitt is one of the great rebounding coaches of all time. I mean, that hasn't gone away, that's still there. She still one of the great defensive-minded coaches who ever, I think, ever lived, men or women. You know, that's still there.

What she has difficulty doing is tracking all 10 players and both benches in the heat of a game. The day that she feels like she's a liability, as opposed to an advantage, she'll walk away tomorrow. I mean, if she - she said it a hundred times, if she said it once: I don't want to hurt the program. You know, I don't want to hurt the team. And, you know, if she thought for an instant that she would be some sort of liability, she wouldn't be in the building today.

BLOCK: I want to play a bit of tape. This is Pat Summitt telling you how she thought she was going to let her team know about this diagnosis. This is a video that's on The Washington Post website.

SUMMITT: Just going to go in there and be myself and tell them what I've dealt with. And we're going to move on and that's what I want them to do. I don't want to be - I don't - there is no pity party. And I'll make sure that.

JENKINS: That's my girl talking, right there. That's Pat. You know, that's - it's funny, her players said that the meeting started out sort of subdued. And, you know, there was a gasp - a sharp intake of breath. But within about 15 minutes, it became, you know, you could hear laughter coming out of the room.

I wasn't in the meeting, but there was this sudden turn towards a real upbeatness. And Pat used it as motivation and her kids are using it as motivation. You know, they all came out of there with grins on their faces. You know, it's funny but the people around Pat get real strength from her in this.

BLOCK: You know, Pat Summitt is such a high-profile figure in the sports world. Does she see herself now as having a public role, as sort of a face of Alzheimer's disease? I get the sense that she's also quite a private person.

JENKINS: First of all, yes, she does see herself as taking on a spokesperson role. If there's any way that anything she can do as a public figure might help stir up the tension towards funding for research or provide an example for people that you don't have to just go home and go into a dark room and do a crossword puzzle, you can try to remain as highly functioning for as long as possible.

You know, I think that one of the things you learn from Pat is that your attitude is a choice. She says it is what it is, but it will become what you make of it. Those are her battle cries. And it doesn't matter whether it's Alzheimer or cancer or an ACL injury, she's prepared her whole professional life for this sort of battle. She has prepared her kids her whole professional life for this sort of battle.

If this sort of thing isn't what she has been teaching basketball to young women for, then she's had no purpose at all these last 38 years.

BLOCK: Sally Jenkins, thank you very much.

JENKINS: My pleasure.

BLOCK: That's Washington Post sportswriter Sally Jenkins, talking about her friend, the Tennessee women's basketball coach, Pat Summitt, who has been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's disease at age 59.

Summitt will be coaching her 38th season with the Lady Vols at the University of Tennessee.

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