Pat Summitt’s Toughest Opponent Yet: Early Onset Dementia

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Head coach Pat Summitt of the Tennessee Volunteers talks at a press conference after the game against the George Washington Colonials on December 2, 2008 at the Smith Center in Washington D.C

Pat Summitt is the winningest coach in the history of college basketball, men’s or women’s — she has 1,071 of them. When she announced that she had been diagnosed with the early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, on Tuesday, a sense of sadness swept across the sports world. Few people who have come across Summitt over her 39-year-coaching career (this reporter included) don’t admire her honesty, accessibility, and down-to-earth nature. Summitt may be a Hall of Famer, but when you spend time around her, she’s the one who asks questions. She’s big-time, but not a big-timer.

Summitt has created so many memories for women’s sports. When she began her coaching career in 1974, as she told TIME on the eve of her 1000th victory back in 2009, her team would crash in the opposing gym the night before, on sleeping bags. No athletic departments would ever splurge on a hotel for a women’s team. Now, women’s games are a national television staple. The women’s Final Four fills up NBA arenas, in large part because of Summitt and her Tennessee teams, who have won eight national championships.

(MORE: Q&A With Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt)

Now, Alzheimer’s may erase all these memories for Summitt. But once you move beyond the unfairness of this news, a brighter outlook unfolds. You realize that Summitt is about to embark on a historic journey, one that could leave a legacy as lasting as her Tennessee titles. Summitt is going to keep coaching. “There’s not going to be a pity party and I’ll make sure of that,” she told the Knoxville News Sentinel. No higher profile sports figure has ever been diagnosed, and gone public, with such a debilitating mental disease and kept doing his or her job.

Performing her duties won’t be easy. Just watch Summitt’s interview with Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins, who co-authored Summitt’s 1999 book, Reach for the Summitt and remains a close friend. Summitt says that she decided to get checked out at the Mayo Clinic because she was drawing blanks. She’d get up in the morning to go to the office, and forget what time she was supposed to be there. “I can remember trying to coach, trying to figure out schemes, and it just wasn’t coming to me,” Summitt told Jenkins.

If Summitt can survive this season and any more in the future, she could serve as a real inspiration for Alzheimer’s victims. She can raise more awareness, and draw more research dollars, for the disease. She might be the biggest story in college basketball this season. In order to make things easier, Summitt has already indicated that she will delegate more responsibility, including play-calling duties, to her assistant coaches.

You could argue that Summitt shouldn’t coach. Her players have worked their whole lives to achieve the dream of playing college basketball. They deserve the highest possible level of instruction; they only get one shot at college hoops.

But you can’t ignore the emotions. Summitt’s players will surely support her. They’ll know that Summitt’s fight is bigger than themselves. And no one will fight this disease better that Pat Summitt.

Sean Gregory is a staff writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @seanmgregory. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.