Pat Summitt: The Face of Women’s Basketball

“She was an astonishing woman.”

That’s Women’s National Basketball Association star Tina Charles’ description of basketball legend Pat Summitt, spoken eight days after Coach Summit passed away. The death of the unanimously-respected Tennessee coach saddened the sports world, as no individual figure has made a larger and more productive imprint on today’s women’s basketball landscape than Summitt did during her lifetime.

Legendary coach Pat Summitt. (Photo: WJBC)

Legendary coach Pat Summitt. (Photo: WJBC)

The beauty of Summitt’s career is that her passion for basketball left a tangible impact on the people she interacted with directly — and even indirectly. Traces of Summit’s passion and belief in women’s basketball are embedded in individuals who never met Summitt personally or did not have a close relationship with her.

“I didn’t know her, but she gave so many women an opportunity to play at a high level,” said Sugar Rodgers, a current teammate of Tina Charles on the New York Liberty. “She left her legacy behind for future generations.”

On the other hand, some individuals have interesting ties to Summitt and were able to connect with the coach during her lifetime. In Charles’ case, Summitt recruited the current New York Liberty forward during high school. Although Charles eventually decided to play for the UConn Huskies, she fondly looks back at that fleeting experience with Summitt. “I was honored she recruited me.”

Charles isn’t the only Liberty with Summitt. Swin Cash, a league veteran and three-time WNBA champion, also went to UConn after being recruited by Summitt. Cash, too, spoke glowingly about Summitt’s stamp on women’s basketball.

“What she’s meant to the game goes above wins and losses,” Cash said. “Knowing Coach Summitt and what she’s meant to the game of basketball, I am encouraged by the legacy that she left here. This next generation of men and women players can learn a lesson from her and really move things forward.”

Generational legacy is a common takeaway from Summitt’s long career. She was an inspiration for players like Cash and Charles, who grew up — like many other young girls at the time — watching and enjoying the intensity and passion of Summitt as she coached her teams to championship after championship. Summitt not only helped spark that generation’s interest in playing and following basketball, but she also forced the rest of the sports world to treat the women’s game seriously.

“Her impact can be seen in the confidence women’s basketball has,” Charles said. “She fought for us to be on television so people could see women’s basketball.”

Summitt’s ability to raise attention for women’s basketball games is yet another important aspect of her legacy. Specifically relating to television, her success in women’s college basketball played a part in the national respect and demand for the sport. When she began coaching at Tennessee in 1974, NBC would only air the championship game from the sport’s end-of-year tournament. By contrast, starting 29 years later in 2003, ESPN and ESPN2 now broadcast all 63 games of the tournament. And although she doesn’t have a direct connection to the WNBA’s publicity, Summitt’s involvement in raising the competitiveness of women’s basketball is visible in the professional league’s popularity.

“She was a stalwart when women’s basketball was not anywhere near where it is now,” Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer stated. “She was the standard-bearer and torch-carrier for a long time.”

Although those sentiments have been heard countless times when discussing takeaways from Pat Summitt’s life, the meaning still stands strong. What she poured into the game throughout her career resulted in influencing and inspiring an entire generation of young women and men.

“She was the bar for everyone,” Cash said. “She was the face of women’s basketball.”

Pat Summitt after Tennessee won the 2008 national title. (Photo: Reuters)