Circle of Support
“If I aint happy, nobody’s happy.”
“The whole state of Tennessee is counting on you. Have you looked at the orange in this building?” Pat Summitt is standing in her Lady Vols’ locker room, her players about to take the court in Thompson-Boling Arena. Framed from the back of the room, the shot situates the coach front and utter center, as she makes sure that her team, seated in rows and leaning forward as she speaks, understands the pressure of expectations and is ready to meet them.
The image is striking and iconic, like so many images of Pat Summitt, the all-time winningest coach in NCAA basketball history. But while you’re reminded of the University of Tennessee coach’s legacy by the film Pat XO, its focus is less her work as a coach than her multiple impacts as a person. Directed by Nancy Stern Winters and Lisa Lax and premiering 9 July as part of EPSN’s “Nine for IX” documentary series, Pat XO opens with narration by Pat’s son Tyler, who suggests that what follows will be a collection of impressions, some from people who know her well, including 18-year assistant coach Mickie DeMoss, who offers, “Every day we went into practice like we were playing a national championship that day,” or, “Pat was the queen of multi-tasking: if she didn’t have at least five things going on at one time, she wasn’t busy.” Other observers include people who don’t know her well at all, but bring their own legendary weight, like, say, Peyton Manning, who pops in for a moment to assert, “I’d like to play for her in some capacity, just to see what she’s like inside the locker room.”
Manning’s aspiration leads to a shot of Pat in a locker room with a pen and paper, insisting to a clutch of players, “I don’t know about y’all, but I want to go out an win a national championship.” On this cue, which might have occurred on any number of like occasions, the team members jump up and agree, “I want to win a national championship!” The idea, summarized so briefly here, is the film’s fundamental argument, namely, Pat is awesome in every way.
Selected instances of her awesomeness do provide a story arc of sorts, as well as a familiar sort of mythic structure, from humble origins to mega stardom. Pictured in scratchy-seeming, anti-slick, internally framed clips, the interviews create a sense of the subjects’ personal experiences with the coach, however contrived and however briefly noted. A couple of these reflections, near film’s end, focus on speakers’ respect for how she’s handling her 2011 diagnosis with early-onset dementia. It’s a terrifying next step for the coach, and Pat XO structures it as another instance of her courage.
That said, the movie doesn’t spend much time on the diagnosis, only notes it and gives Jenkins and a couple of other interviewees brief moments to respond to it. Their stoicism appears to mirror hers, as the film spends most of its time on anecdotes rather than details. Friends and family recall that Patricia Sue Head was born in 1952 and raised in Clarksville, Tennessee, did chores on her family’s dairy and tobacco farm before and after school, and played basketball with her brothers. But no one dwells on her childhood, only uses images from it to lead to the Lady Vols. Her sister Linda Ateberry reveals—no surprise—that Pat was bossy as a child, and their brother Charles says both their parents were “real strict on us.” Sally Jenkins adds that he was “complicated not easy,” as well as “a deeply good man,” illustrated by the fact that in the 1960s, “He moved his entire family across the state so his daughter could play basketball like her brothers” (that is, in Henrietta, which had a women’s high school team).
Jenkins here sets up the context for Summitt’s career and even her mission going forward, that women’s basketball—or more generally, women’s sports—was hardly a priority at high schools or colleges before the era Summitt helped to shape. As a player, you hear repeatedly, Summitt was “very aggressive and very intense,” and moreover, she was inclined to coach, to motivate her teammates and also to “hold them accountable.”
Summitt explains her approach, at this point in the film and a few others appearing on a couch with Tyler; they leaf through a book of photographs, most of which you don’t see. Tyler tells part of his mom’s story (when she was “my age,” she took the job coaching the Lady Vols, for just $250 a month, driving the team bus and washing their uniforms), and she fills in occasionally with comments on other comments, voicing her own memories or reflections. She was skinny as a child, she says, which is why they called her “Bonehead.” Her fist practice for the Lady Vols was tough “because I wanted it to be tough.” Tyler recalls—and photos illustrate—that he was at practices and games from the time he was a baby, and various generations of Lady Vols embraced him, making him something like an honorary team member.
In all its forms, that team looms, winning lots of games (1098) and multiple national championships (eight), producing college graduates (all 161 Lady Vols), 45 college coaches, from Kellie Harper to Gwen Jackson and Tyler Summitt (now an assistant at Marquette), and WNBA stars like Tamika Catchings and Chamique Holdsclaw. Some of this success is a function of Summitt’s relentless energy (former Auburn and 2000 Olympics coach Nell Fortner acts out her memory of finding Pat on the phone in her kitchen, dinner cooking while she contended with three or four callers, as well as her guest, Nell) as well as Summitt’s formidable reputation as recruiter, summed up here by Michelle Marciniak and her parents (who recall how pregnant Summitt was when she arrived at their home).
As famous as Summitt’s fortitude may be, a couple of memories ensure your appreciation: a few players describe “the stare,” for which Summitt is renowned (Holdsclaw says, “It’s just rips through your soul,” and Jill Rankin adds, “You might just as well die before I shoot these darts through you”), and other interviewees affirm her life lessons: Jenkins remembers, “You don’t play the victim, there are no excuses in Pat Summitt’s world, none,” by way of a story about her support of Patricia Roberts, in 1976 the only black player on the Lady Vols. When she responded with a gesture to racist taunts from Ole Miss fans, Summitt benched her but, Roberts says now, she also told her, “‘You can go out there and be the player I know you can be… or you can go out there and sulk and be mad, and not play. It’s up to you.’ That’s all she had to say.”
This belief, that success is “up to” individuals, however gifted or encouraged, troubled or constrained by circumstances, has no end of adherents in sports. The film makes the case that Pat Summitt helped girls and young women to share in this belief, by building a dynasty and dealing daily with individuals.