Pat Summitt says she has a game plan for how she’ll deal with dementia while continuing as University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach.
For the first time since she revealed her diagnosis more than two months ago, that strategy has taken her to an actual Tennessee game day.
Summitt, 59, will kick off her 38th season at the team’s helm on Tuesday night when Tennessee – ranked No. 3 in an Associated Press preseason poll – faces Carson-Newman in an exhibition match in Knoxville.
“What I want everybody to know is that I’m doing great,” Summitt, whose 1,071 wins are the most in major-college basketball history, said Thursday at a Southeastern Conference preseason media event. "Overall, I don’t really feel like I have dementia, but I have dementia.
“Everyone is asking about it all time. I don’t think it’s something that’s slowing me down. If anything, it’s revving me up.”
Summitt, whose Lady Vols have won eight national championships, most recently in 2008, announced in late August that she’d been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s causes significant memory and cognition problems; early onset means the disease was found before age 65.
She revealed in August that her pre-diagnosis symptoms included asking her son the same question repeatedly. And she said that she intended to keep coaching. A Mayo Clinic physician told her she could coach as long as she wanted to, she said.
She’s scaled back some of her workload, allowing assistant coaches to handle e-mails and other tasks. But with medication and a “game plan” to keep her mind sharp, she’s recruiting, coaching and hoping to guide her team to another Final Four.
“I wake up and I go and drink my coffee, and I do about 12 puzzles before I ever go into the office,” Summitt said Thursday. “When I get there, my mind is sharp. And that’s important – very important.”
Summitt, long revered for her success, earned plaudits for coaching on. SI.com’s Kelli Anderson wrote that Summitt can add to her legacy by bringing attention to Alzheimer’s in the way other sports figures – Jim Valvano, Kay Yow and Lance Armstrong for cancer; Arthur Ashe and Magic Johnson for HIV/AIDS – did for their diseases.
No typical job scenario exists for early-onset Alzheimer’s patients, in part because the disease progresses at different rates for different patients, Dr. Patrick Lyden, chairman of the neurology department at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, told CNN in August.
CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta said that there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that medication and mental exercises such as puzzles can help to slow the progression of the disease, for which there is no cure.
“But it’s a progressive problem, typically, so what (Summitt’s) memory is like now … may be different five to 10 years from now,” Gupta said.
Summitt said Thursday that she’s still coaching because she loves working with her student-athletes and coaches.
“There will probably come a time when I say enough is enough,” she said. “But it’s not about me. ... It’s all about these student athletes. We want them to win, and we want them to be able to say, ‘We cut down nets.’ That’s our focus right now, is on this team.”