Stanford pays tribute to Summitt on this uncharted farewell tour
STANFORD, Calif. -- For almost a quarter century the tradition has stood. Pat Summitt and Tara VanDerveer have had a date to play each other, usually in December, on alternating home courts. No contract has been necessary to keep the annual event going. No personality disputes or conflicting schedules have disrupted it.
Over the course of the rivalry, both coaches were inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame. VanDerveer coached a team to Olympic gold, equaling her friend's achievement. Between them, the coaches have won nine national championships and been 19 Final Fours. The two friends are a walking history of women's basketball.
But now another vein of history is inserting itself into their rivalry. One that threatens to disrupt the tradition forever.
Tuesday night's meeting was different from the 28 others -- including three NCAA tournament games -- that came before it. Because everything is different now for Tennessee since Summitt's diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer's.
When Summitt strode out on the floor a few minutes before tipoff she was greeted by the sold-out Maples Pavilion crowd with a prolonged loving standing ovation. It was a far cry from the wary, boo-tinged "Evil Empire"-type introductions she used to receive. Stanford fans waved red "We Back Pat" towels. A taped message of support from VanDerveer -- who had to take five emotional tries to get it right -- aired on the scoreboard. The Stanford coaches came to the Volunteers bench for an affectionate greeting and photo opportunity.
"It feels so surreal," said VanDerveer. "This is a person I've known almost 30 years. We've been friends for that long. To understand what kind of fight she's in for -- it's hard.
"But that ball went up and it was, like, ballgame."
And the ballgame didn't play sentimental favorites. The night belonged to fourth-ranked Stanford, which won 97-80, the most points any team has scored on Tennessee since 1997. More specifically, the night belonged to senior Nnemkadi Ogwumike, who made a bid for player of the year as she dominated the sixth-ranked Vols, scoring a career-high 42 points and pulling down 17 rebounds.
"She plays with a lot of heart," Tennessee assistant Holly Warlick said after the game. "Her heart and desire carries over to the team."
VanDerveer, who has seen a lot of big-time games, called it "one of the most incredible individual performances I've ever seen on this court." The Cardinal rode Ogwumike's sensational game to its 68th straight game at Maples. The atmosphere was electric -- Andrew Luck and the Stanford football team were high-fiving every three-pointer. The crowd was on its feet through much of the action.
It was a great night for women's basketball, which means it was a great night to pay tribute to Summitt.
"I appreciate what they did when Pat came out recognizing her and her career," said Warlick, who has taken over the role of team spokeswoman. "Pat understands that -- she and Tara, the rivalry they've had and their great friendship -- this is more than basketball. It's about a person."
Things have changed for the Tennessee program. The assistants handle the media, the in-game coaching. The disease is an omnipresent factor. But Summitt and her staff are trying to be as normal as possible, to handle things with humor. According to her biographer,
VanDerveer started the series with Summitt back in 1988 because she had a star player from Tennessee -- Jennifer Azzi -- and thought it might be nice for Azzi to get the chance to play back home. Back then, VanDerveer was just trying to emulate Summitt, trying to build a meaningful program.
She was informed of Summitt's diagnosis shortly before the news became public back in August. This week was the first time she'd seen her old friend since last spring's Final Four.
VanDerveer expressed awe for the courage Summitt is showing.
"I don't know how she's doing it," VanDerveer said.
It is a brave and uncomfortable process. Summitt's every move is under the microscope, analyzed and dissected. She seems more subdued than her past intimidating presence on the sideline. She's wearing flat shoes these days instead of the old power pumps. She often keeps a hand on the scorer's table while she stands in front of her bench. Are all those things signs of diminishing health or normal developments for a 59-year old coach?
A few times on Tuesday night she lit into a referee. But for much of the game Summitt stood with her arms crossed, watching as her team struggled to defend an unstoppable force.
This is all uncharted territory. No one has ever done what Summitt has done, which is why every stop on Tennessee's schedule seems like a premature farewell. Is that unfair? Perhaps. Unreasonable? Certainly not. Every game now has became an opportunity for fans to let Summitt know how much she's meant to the game and how people feel about her courage.
Stanford and Tennessee have held serve at home for the past six years -- bringing some parity to a rivalry that has been lopsided in Tennessee's favor. No one knows what the future holds or how long Summitt will coach.
But, Summitt's legacy will live on. In women's basketball. In the Stanford program.
VanDerveer attributes the sustained excellence of her program to a series between friends that began in 1988. "Pat has made us better," she said.