Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The passing of giants

The hits keep coming, one after another. Mortality never loses, sadly. It conquers even the unconquerable.

And so, a month ago, we said goodbye to Muhammad Ali, the most famous man of his time. And today we say goodbye to Buddy Ryan, who built the most fearsome defense in NFL history, and Pat Summitt, who in large part made it OK for women to sweat and strive and stand as tall and as proud as men.

That two such indomitable personalities should pass at roughly the same time has an odd, sorrowful symmetry to it, because neither ever gave any quarter. Ryan, bluff and gruff and unrepentantly insubordinate both personally and strategically, put together a Bears defense that flouted convention by recklessly attacking rather than waiting to be attacked. The Bears won their only Super Bowl because of it, and the players made famous by it -- Mike Singletary and Richard Dent and Dan Hampton; Otis Wilson and Doug Plank and Gary Fencik -- loved him unreservedly for it.

And Summitt?

She died peacefully this morning at the age of 64, family and those she loved and who loved her close around her. It came as no surprise, really. This day had been coming since 2011, when she announced she had early-onset Alzheimer's. In that form, this unutterably cruel disease takes you down fast. Pat Summitt -- steely-eyed, unconquerable Pat Summitt -- lasted five years against it.

In passing she leaves more than just sterile numbers, the 1,098 career victories and eight national titles and 38 seasons on the sideline at Tennessee. She leaves a breathing legacy that will live as long as women play basketball, because it was Pat Summitt who opened the door for them, Pat Summitt whose uncompromising toughness and demand for excellence built a culture that insisted the women's game should adhere to the same rigid standards as the men's game.

If the men could do it, the women could, too. And should. Without apology and without deference.

Certainly Summitt never deferred to anyone. She had a presence about her that transcended gender, as commanding as any and all of her male counterparts. When she walked into a room, people stopped in their tracks as readily as they did when Bob Knight or Mike Krzyzewski or Dean Smith walked into a room. When she showed up at a prospect's high school game, the awe was as palpable ("Oh my God, it's Pat Summitt!"), the sense of occasion as pronounced.

She was a giant among giants, a Mount Rushmore figure, and she made it possible for her contemporaries -- the Muffett McGraws, Kim Mulkeys, the Geno Auriemmas -- to be regarded as giants as well. Because of her, they are regarded as great basketball coaches, not great women's basketball coaches. Because of her, the women's game is a companion piece to the men's game that nonetheless stands on its own, that has its own distinct and wholly legitimate merit.

No greater monument to her -- not even the statue of her that stands in Knoxville -- could possibly exist.

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