NEW YORK - Debby Haskins, a retired high school basketball coach from upstate Vermont, flew in just for this one, wearing a "We back Pat" shirt she'd ordered from the University of Tennessee website. Haskins has gone to Tennessee women's games before - she yelled out at UT players by name during warm-ups - but on this day, in this season, Haskins especially felt the need to be here.
Maybe you had to play high school basketball in the days before Title IX, then coach your own daughter from third grade through high school, and see your father-in-law die late in life from Alzheimer's disease, and an aunt come down with early-onset Alzheimer's in her mid-50s, to fully appreciate why Haskins traveled to honor Tennessee women's coach Pat Summitt at Sunday's Maggie Dixon Classic at Madison Square Garden.
"She's the ideal coach," Haskins said of the woman who brought her here. "Demanding. Intense. . . . Not just on the court."
And now that Summitt, in her 38th season, winner of eight national titles, has chosen to coach as long as she can after being diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease earlier this year at age 59, perceptions of her haven't changed, only intensified. All around the Garden, hundreds of spectators wore orange and white shirts with "We back Pat," on the front, proceeds going to Alzheimer's research and programs in Tennessee, cheering on the seventh-ranked Vols as they beat DePaul, 84-61, improving to 5-2.
Earlier in the day, Summitt had been honored with the Maggie Dixon Courage Award - named for the former Army women's coach who died of cardiac arrhythmia in 2006 at age 28. She blinked her eyes a few extra times and swallowed hard a couple of times waiting to be introduced, appearing to fight back some emotions.
Her courage shows up in interesting ways. The winningest coach in the history of Division I basketball, men's or women's, has delegated more control of her program to her assistants than she probably ever could have imagined. At times, you could mistake Summitt for an assistant during Sunday's game, leaning into timeout huddles listening as 27-year assistant Holly Warlick drew up a play. Summitt isn't shy about getting her thoughts across, but in a way - "she still has that stare," Haskins said - she operates more like a football coach, allowing the offensive and defensive coordinators more of a voice.
"I will tell you this: Pat Summit's the coach at the University of Tennessee. She still is coaching," Warlick said, later adding, "She's still my boss. And she reminds, when we practice at 6 in the morning, she asks who calls practice [at that time], I said, 'I did.' She says, 'I'm the still the boss if you can remember that.' She's still leading us."
It can't be an easy transition for a famously hands-on coach.
"She's focused. She's clearly focused on what's going on," said Summitt's friend Harry Perretta, the Villanova women's coach who talks to Summitt a couple of times a month and stayed at her house for a day and a half in September. "From that perspective, I've seen no change. If you didn't know her, you wouldn't notice any difference. The difference I saw was, sometimes when she gets fatigued and tired. It wasn't like she's forgetting where she was going, nothing like that. We talked a lot of basketball. She had to take a nap. That was just the part that was different. She was always never tired."
Perretta has known Summitt since she called him out of the blue in 2002, asking if she could come study his offense. She made the trip, and they developed a friendship that both coaches clearly value. Their talk still is usually basketball talk.
"I do ask how's everything going," Perretta said. "I did have a conversation. 'How are you feeling during the games?' We understand each other. We understand the fatigue of the games. . . . We're all affected as we get older."
Perretta said when he visited her, Summitt was diligent on doing word games and Sudoku.
"She approaches this like it's competitive," Perretta said. "She plays the mind puzzle games a lot. We came back from dinner. I'm like illiterate with computers. She's got the iPad touch on. I can't get any. She's like, 'Harry, I'm supposed to have Alzheimer's, not you. Get some right.' "
Summitt does the postgame radio interview while Warlick does the postgame news conferences. Summitt spoke at length during the Southeastern Conference media day. You can understand why she doesn't want to answer the same questions at every road stop. You could also understand why she decided she wouldn't need constant observation of how her brain is functioning.
"She doesn't want it to be a distraction to everyone else around her," Perretta said. "She doesn't want anyone looking at her like, 'Poor Pat.' "
Tennessee players have been amazed to see opposing teams come out for warm-ups with "We back Pat" T-shirts.
"When you see that, it kind of gives us energy and motivates our team," said Volunteers forward Glory Johnson. "We're playing for everyone. We're playing for Pat. We're playing for women. I think it helps a lot."
Warlick was asked if there can be pressure for the players, too, if anything less than a national title would be a letdown.
"I think at Tennessee every year we're supposed to win a championship, and if we don't, we haven't had a good year," Warlick said. "That's what Pat Summitt has built. So yeah, they're playing for Pat. What we ask them to do is go out and play as hard as you can every possession. We don't really talk about winning a championship right now. . . . Instinctively, they're playing for Pat. But when it comes to it, they're playing basketball, and they want to win basketball games."
The focus also is on how this disease with no cure can happen to anyone, even Pat Summitt.
Baylor coach Kim Mulkey, whose Bears are top ranked in the country and beat St. John's in the first game of the Maggie Dixon Classic, said: "Pat Summitt is our John Wooden. What she means to the women's game is what John Wooden meant to the men's game. Her presence on that floor and what she means to all of us, I do not think anyone will have that presence. There may be coaches that win more championships than her, but they won't be Pat Summitt."
"There's no cure for this. I'm sure the news was as devastating for her family as it was for ours," Haskins, the woman in from Vermont, said during warm-ups. "But her family is all across the United States. We've watched her for 30 years, as coaches and women."