Brushes with greatness don’t occur often. When they do, they’re unforgettable.
Once while employed by another newspaper company, my assignment for a few days during the summer was to write feature stories from the Nike girls basketball camp in Indianapolis.
No biggie, I thought. Could be fun.
A few moments after entering the facility I noticed writers and camera crews surrounding some of the elite women’s college basketball coaches.
Strangely, in the front row of portable bleachers near one of the temporary basketball courts sat the University of Tennessee’s Pat Summitt.
Made sense. Everyone’s probably scared to approach her.
It’s important to understand that at this point of her legendary career, Summitt’s Volunteers already had won six of the eight national championships that forever will grace her résumé.
And then there was that magazine cover.
Man, that magazine cover.
On March 2, 1998, “Sports Illustrated” dedicated the front of its issue to Summitt with the headline, “The Wizard of Knoxville.” The photograph is best described as a close-up of what the ultra-intense Summitt might look like after watching one of her players dribble the ball off her knee.
My concern at that point was fumbling my first words so bad that she would think I was from another country. In 32 years of writing sports in this state I can honestly say it was the only time my palms bothered to sweat.
But I was going to introduce myself to Pat Summitt.
Extending my right hand (now dry), I introduced myself (in English) and asked if she would mind an interview lasting no more than a few minutes.
Summitt stood up, smiled, shook my hand and could not have been nicer.
Five minutes turned to 10, which eventually became 15. She politely excused herself for a few moments after noticing one of her current Tennessee players, a Nike camp counselor, walk by.
It was then Summitt stood up, walked over to Tamika Catchings and gave her a hug.
She then came back, sat down next to me and the interview continued.
Because of the scowl she was known to display during Vols games — remember, there was no social media at this time — Summitt frequently was perceived to be the female version of former Indiana University men’s basketball coach Bob Knight.
Driven. Stubborn. Demanding.
And a media member’s worst nightmare.
I’ve never met coach Knight, so for me to make personality comparisons is unfair to both parties.
Just know I enjoyed my time with coach Summitt a great deal.
Amazingly, a few weeks later I found myself calling her at her office to get comments for an entirely different story about an Indiana player committed to her program.
After a minute on hold, I hear this Tennessee twang: “Hi Mike. How ya doin?”
Coach Summitt, this iconic hoops figure, even proceeded to bring up some aspect of our conversation at the Nike camp.
Me, not her.
Here we are 17 years later and I never did get the opportunity to talk to Pat Summitt again. Her death Tuesday morning at the age of 64, while incredibly unfortunate and unfair, has everyone telling stories about her.