For the past nine years, I’ve lived in the state of Connecticut, which also means the state of UConn basketball.
Men’s basketball. Women’s basketball. It doesn’t matter.
Hoops is both king and queen here in the Nutmeg State, which is perhaps one of the best things about the state.
That’s also why so many people here are reeling from the death of Pat Summitt, the former women’s basketball coach at the University of Tennessee.
Summitt — who was diagnosed with early onset dementia a few years back — died on Tuesday. She was 64 years old.
Some call her a pioneer. Some call her a game-changer. Some call her simply a legend. Those who knew her best called her coach, mom and friend.
She was all those things and more to those who knew her.
Here in Connecticut, she was called the enemy — which is why her death hit so hard even as we all knew it was coming.
You want to beat your arch-rival as many times as possible and UConn, under Geno Auriemma, did just that, winning 13 of 22 match-ups, including four in NCAA championship games.
You don’t want to lose them in such a heart-wrenching way.
For the last six years, I’ve had the honor of covering the UConn women’s basketball team. I never had the honor of covering a UConn-Tennessee game, however.
Summitt took the rivalry away from all the women’s college basketball fans in the country when she opted to stop scheduling UConn — even though she had actually won the last three meetings.
It was like the Yankees refusing to play the Red Sox. It perhaps even raised the ire against her even more.
My own connection to Summitt traces back to 1988 when I was a 22-year-old sports writer at the Bangor Daily News.
A woman named Trish Roberts was named the new head coach of the University of Maine women’s basketball team, and she just happened to be a Tennessee graduate and one of Summitt’s former players.
Summitt was already a legend back in 1988 — she was the John Wooden of the women’s game way before Auriemma won his 10th and 11th national titles.
Still, when I called her to interview her about Roberts getting the job, Summitt was more than gracious, giving the young reporter all the time he needed to do his job.
The class she had became even more evident three years later when Summitt agreed to bring her top-ranked team to the Bangor Auditorium to play Roberts’ Black Bears.
Usually, to get a big school and big-time program to come to your hole-in-the-wall backwoods gym you need to work out an agreement where you’ll agree to play a couple of road games in the belly of the beast in return.
Summitt said she’d come to Roberts for a home-and-home series to help her further develop UMaine growing women’s basketball. More impressive, though, Tennessee would travel to Maine before the Black Bears ever set their Nikes in the Volunteer State.
It was Dec. 13, 1990, and Tennessee defeated Maine 77-64.
Maine would finish 20-8 that season, but that 14-point loss to the Vols helped boost the team’s confidence and springboard the Black Bears to an eight-game winning streak that carried over into league play.
To me, though, it was proof that Summitt — who once again was gracious and approachable — cared as much about the big picture of women’s basketball as she did her own program.
Who goes to play Maine on the road in the dead of winter with nothing to lose, unless you have to?
Pat Summitt does.
And that’s all I really ever needed to know about her.