It was a tough day, but coach wouldn’t want her players to be sad.
So South Carolina assistant Nikki McCray-Penson, two-time SEC Player of the Year under the late Pat Summitt at Tennessee, swallowed her emotions and talked about one of the most influential people in her life.
“One of the things that I will always remember and appreciate, ‘You win in life with people,’ ” McCray-Penson said on Tuesday, a few hours after Summitt died at 64 due to Alzheimer’s. “To be successful, you got to continue to associate yourself with the right people, you got to have discipline, you always got to give back to your community.
“Coach Summitt was more than just the wins … she was an impactful coach. And she not only impacted the Lady Vol community, but she impacted America.”
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The entire country expressed its condolences Tuesday. Summitt was much more than a hugely successful basketball coach – she was a pioneer for women’s basketball, taking the game from dingy gyms into the spotlight.
McCray-Penson, like so many other young girls in Tennessee, grew up wanting to don the orange and light blue of the Lady Volunteers. She achieved her dream from 1992-95, being named SEC Player of the Year and an All-American as a junior and senior – but not without one of the legendary Pat staredowns.
“When did I not get the stare?,” McCray-Penson said. “The stare was part of her way of getting to you. You knew coming in, the standard of excellence that you had to live up to as a Lady Vol.”
She found that out when she was being recruited, calling Summitt at 10 p.m. and being tersely told that coach didn’t take calls that late at night. McCray-Penson knew at once that this was no woman to trifle with – and that she wanted that kind of discipline.
She had to buy a watch in her first week of college, because Summitt’s rule was to be five minutes early to whatever was planned. McCray-Penson fell into the Lady Vols’ way of basketball and life – if it was good, you said, “Two points.” If not, “Rebound.”
All of the people Summitt affected wanted her to rebound from her debilitating disease, but all were happy that she no longer had to suffer. McCray-Penson broke down once, when talking about the last time she talked to coach.
“I told her how much I loved her,” McCray-Penson said, biting her lip. “I told her how really thankful I was to play for her and how much she meant to me.”
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