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Ex-Lady Vol Marciniak on Summitt's diagnosis, her future and more

Gary Smith's seminal 1998 'Sports Illustrated' cover story on Pat Summitt opens with a scene eight years earlier of a very-pregnant Summitt sitting in the living room of Michelle Marciniak, then a 16-year-old senior at Allentown (Pa.) Central Catholic High and one of the top prep players in the country. As Smith describes, while sitting with Marciniak and her family, Summitt abruptly announces that she has to immediately leave because of thunderous labor pains. But Summitt isn't interested in going to the hospital. She's heading home. So Michelle and her older brother Steve end up driving Summitt and assistant coach Mickie DeMoss to the airport because the Lady Vols women's basketball coach is determined to have her baby in Tennessee. And she did just that.

Marciniak ultimately became an All-America point guard at Tennessee and led the school to a national championship in 1996. She went on to play in the WNBA, before becoming an assistant coach at South Carolina from 2003-08. For the past three years Marcinak and another former South Carolina coach, Susan Walvius, have been running Sheex, a Columbia, S.C.-based business which provides high-quality bedding made out of athletic performance fabrics. The company was recognized at FortuneMagazine's Most Powerful Women Summit and its products can be found nationally at Bed, Bath & Beyond stores.

Marciniak and Summitt remain very close. So much so that two Saturdays ago Marcinak stayed at Summitt's house when visiting Knoxville. On Tuesday, Marciniak spoke with SI.com's Richard Deitsch about the news that Summitt had been diagnosed with early onset dementia:

This is hard for everyone that knows and loves Pat. It's not only for what she's done for women's basketball, but also who she's been in people's lives. I cried on Tuesday. I took an early morning flight from my home in Charlotte to Atlanta and I had business meetings all day. Finally, around 5 p.m., I was in my car, in the parking lot of my business meeting location when I started to read all the articles on my IPad. I had heard about the diagnosis from people close to the Tennessee program prior to Pat going public about it. I had prepared myself for the news to break. I knew it was coming. But it's one thing knowing, and then another thing to see hundreds of articles written about your coach and a person you love and adore. When the news broke yesterday around 2 p.m., I got flooded with calls, emails and text messages. Yesterday was a very emotional day and I had known about it. I can only imagine how it struck people who did not know before yesterday.

I've been able to spend time with Pat over the past couple of years and, to be honest, I have noticed small changes in her. So I wasn't completely surprised by the news but you also never really know. Pat has had a highly stressful job. In her lifetime, she's had more stress than hundreds of human beings combined. She was dealing with a rheumatoid arthritis situation for the past couple of years and she had some personal changes going on in her life. I thought a lot of it was stress-related. There were minor changes but I did not know what it was from. Now we know.

But what I also know about Pat Summitt is that she's a fighter and she does not take no for an answer. Pat has always been about challenges. She almost had her son [Tyler, now a junior at UT] in my house while she was recruiting me. I mean she told the pilot to continue to fly the plane to Tennessee when she had nature knocking on the door and a baby was on the way. Because of the diagnosis, there are going to be changes. It's a real-life health issue. But this woman is tough as nails. She has the will of a lion and she will do everything she can to prevent things from progressing faster than it should.

People should know that Pat has an army surrounding her, friends and family that absolutely love her. She's always with people whether it's her high school or college teammates, former coaches and players, or her current staff. You can tell how much people love her, especially in the confines of her own home. When I come to Tennessee, I typically stay at her house. Pat's very hospitable and a lot of people stay at her house when they come to town. I loved her cooking as a player and she still cooks for me today. She makes creamed corn, butter beans, spinach casserole, biscuits and fried okra, and there are always pork chops or some kind of steak. She learned to cook from Hazel, her mom. Two nights ago, I made Italian marinated chicken at my home and I thought about Pat because it's her recipe. She taught me how to make that dish. She wasn't just my coach. She has come to be a dear friend of mine.

It's funny, I hear Pat's voice all the time when I'm conducting business. She impacts people that way. You can talk to any of her former players and they will tell you about the voice inside our heads. It's Pat. She always harped on work ethic and I always hear this in my head: "OK, you had some great meetings today, you made some great contacts. So now what?" If you can imagine how much Pat holds her players and staff accountable for excellence, then you can imagine how she holds herself accountable for the same. Her demand for excellence starts from within and why I believe she has achieved so much success. Her refrain of "it's not good enough" is about constant refining and improving, never being complacent and never settling for mediocrity. That's the reason why she will fight her condition with courage and determination. Pat just won't accept what is. She'll create what will be.

Obviously, I had a special relationship with Pat when I played for her -- people know that from the Gary Smith article. I think that piece was compelling for readers because it wasn't just a feel-good story of winning a championship but what goes into it. It was real. It was a love-hate relationship when I was playing for her, but from where I stand in my life now, there are so many life lessons that I learned from her. And our relationship has grown to a whole new level the last couple of years as she's gotten to know me as a businesswoman. A lot of Pat's players get into coaching like I did and it's a tough thing. You love your coach but you have to compete and recruit against her. When I started my own company, I got to know Pat in a different way. I wasn't just about basketball anymore. She has supported my business and has been so proud of me. She let everyone know how I was doing and how much she was behind it.

As for the Lady Vols basketball program, there were minor changes taking place last year so I don't see things changing a whole lot. The program is strong and Pat has always relied on her assistants. She will probably have to rely on them more heavily now to get through some decision-making. The illness may progress but I don't see her stepping away from the game anytime soon. I think she will fight it till the very end. What has changed is that Pat has come forth with her struggle. But that is Pat. Pat is honest, whether you like it or not. She hits you between the eyes with honesty.

So I think unless she physically cannot go on, there is no reason why she won't coach the next three years or beyond. Pat is not your average bird. She is different, and I would not put anything past her. I know this is a very serious disease but I also know her determination. Pat Summitt is going to be around for awhile.

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