The same scene played out countless times.
A young, intrepid yet intimidated reporter stood nearly trembling with an outstretched recorder as the interview subject walked closer. With every step, it became more apparent just how unprepared the neophyte was to deliver the line of questioning he had in mind.
He was out of his element. Then, it all turned on its head.
“Hello,” she said while lifting her arm, seeking a handshake. “I’m Pat Summitt. What’s your name?”
But your name wasn’t enough for the ground-breaking Tennessee women’s basketball coach, who died Tuesday at age 64 after a five-year bout with early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type.
“It’s nice to meet you, Scott Kushner,” Summitt followed. “Where are you from?”
Then we spoke — well, she spoke; I mumbled a few incoherent sentences — about New Orleans, and she mentioned fond memories of Final Four appearances and, of course, Peyton Manning. She then asked what my major was and what my goals were.
Eventually, we got to the interview, where I asked unremarkable questions about her team’s expectations for a season that would end with her celebrating a seventh national championship.
She answered calmly and directly, conveying a level of respect that suggested I belonged in the room with her. When I relayed the story to my colleagues, I heard them tell nearly identical ones from their first meeting with Summitt.
It wasn’t just a good day or a publicity stunt. It was who she was.
Then the grind of practice would take hold. Sitting in the Thompson-Boling Arena stands, I could hear her harshly blow into her whistle and bellow to her Lady Vols to repeat play after play, demanding perfection in spacing, timing and execution.
There were no favorites. There were no excuses. There was no gentility.
The same woman who was so serene off the court was a ferocious competitor on it. She stared and yelled and pushed and prodded her team into getting better every day. It nearly always translated to the scoreboard as Tennessee routinely racked up convincing victories and dominated for the full 40 minutes.
When asked, Summitt occasionally would tell stories of her first decade or two at Tennessee. She initially coached the upstart Lady Vols in the room I was then taking biology class in. She washed the players’ clothes and swept the floors when practice ended.
One night, her team slept on the court of the opponent’s gym because it had nowhere else to stay. She won a national championship while her office was no more than a makeshift closet.
Less than 20 years later, she was routinely filling up a 24,000-seat arena and taking private jets to visit recruits.
Every March, Summitt would host her team, support staff and the media for a cookout to watch the NCAA tournament selection show on TV. Summitt individually greeted media members and genuinely seemed as concerned with her visitors’ comfort as she was in finding out which unfortunate No. 16 seed was in her way to another championship.
Interviews were conducted on bunk beds, deck chairs and at the kitchen table. It was truly a family atmosphere.
One of my favorite moments on the Lady Vols beat was when her alma mater, Tennessee-Martin, came to Knoxville for an early season game. Before tipoff, Summitt entered the visitors’ locker room to give an impassioned motivational pep talk to the Skyhawks — who gave her a standing ovation — before she calmly walked to the other side of the arena and beat them 85-29.
There were so many Pat Summitt moments like that. She possessed a formula of generosity mixed with competitiveness rarely seen. The two sides were distinct and sharp, never bleeding into each other.
In the wake of her death, countless words have been written and read, but none can truly encapsulate all she meant to her players, family, community and the world of sports. Beyond winning on the court, she was a pioneer, a visionary, an icon, an American business success story, an equal rights champion, a mentor, a friend, a mother and everything in between.
And the first thing she did was ask about you.