Suddenly, she’s not just the winningest basketball coach on the planet. With the revelation she has early onset dementia, Pat Summitt has become my mother and your favorite aunt. Someone’s wife or sister or the friendly lady next door.

She is no longer intimidating or invincible. Which doesn’t mean she’ll be less wrapped up in Tennessee orange or any less the fighter.

“She’s going to be a great example for all of us,” said Richard Barron, the University of Maine women’s basketball coach. “She’s going to give us a chance to watch how she handles this. She’s a gracious woman and as tough as nails.”

More than likely, you’ll see both sides over the next weeks and months. For many, Alzheimer’s has replaced cancer in our nightmares. Medical research and advances have given hope to cancer patients. Alzheimer’s changes lives in ways that are harder to face.

And now comes Pat Summitt telling the world of her diagnosis and that she’ll continue to coach the Tennessee women’s basketball team. She has the courage to understand that every decision she makes will be judged by those wondering about the state of her mind.

“That’s the profession we’re in,” said Barron. “We expect to be questioned. Coach Summitt knows that.”

That she went public with the news did not surprise those who know her. That she decided to stay in the public eye did. So many, including former president Ronald Reagan, returned to the privacy of their homes. There are a number of former high-profile college coaches who have dropped out of sight because of Alzheimer’s.

At some point, Summitt will retreat. But not before she gives anyone who wishes to watch and listen a very public primer.

What Summitt has done is not unlike Magic Johnson revealing he had HIV/AIDS in 1991. At the time, the country was gripped by a hysteria concerning anyone who tested positive for the virus. Its victims were treated like lepers.

Johnson did more to humanize AIDS as he continued to live a life away from basketball. He just turned 52.

I spoke with several college coaches on Thursday, including a former Tennessee assistant who declined to speak on the record. While none said they had guessed the diagnosis, they watched a different Pat Summitt last year. Hesitant at times. Subdued. Turning to her assistants more during timeouts.

Tennessee basketball is like a corporation, said Barron, whose first head-coaching job was at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., long after Summitt became coach at Tennessee. Her staff is one of the best in the country and an extension of her.

“No way she’ll do anything that’s not what’s best for Tennessee. She’s not going to compromise,” Barron said.

Tennessee players will close ranks around their coach. You’ve got to believe their heads will be in games more. Their common cause is Pat Summitt. Tennessee fans, who rival the University of Connecticut’s women’s basketball fans, will join the mission.

What about recruiting? Will prospective Volunteers looks elsewhere? University of Southern Maine Coach Gary Fifield, for one, thinks not. The women who played for Summitt or coached on her staff are her acolytes. Her presence will always be there, he said.

Barron quoted John Wooden in describing Summitt’s decision to speak: “You can’t live a perfect day without doing something for someone who will never be able to repay you.”

Her legacy will go beyond the victories and NCAA championships and Tennessee borders. Few of us can relate to that extraordinary woman.

Many of us can relate to the woman who will teach us more about living.

Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

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