KNOXVILLE – Fate has designated a two-week period in June for me to consider the life of Pat Summitt.
The former Tennessee women’s basketball coach was born on June 14. She died almost four years ago now on June 28 after a five-year public battle with early onset Alzheimer’s disease.
The proximity of those two dates has encouraged more reflection on my part, having covering Summitt and her program for three decades.
The 14 days tend to play out in my mind like an extended wake.
More than anything, I remember faces, a gallery of them, and think of people. In this instance, I reached out to former player Alyssia Brewer. Her thoughtful manner is well suited for the occasion, especially considering her circumstances.
“I miss her; I love her for sure,” said Brewer, who lives in Los Angeles and has decided to retire as a professional player after suffering a second ACL knee injury. “It was huge to be able to play for her. She was a pioneer.”
Brewer’s career at UT ended abruptly. When the players convened for the start of preseason practice before her senior season, Summitt announced that she and the 6-foot-3 post player had reached an agreement and Brewer would no longer be a part of the team.
No reason was given and no further comment was offered.
Brewer had played in 87 games and started 20. She was named the SEC tournament’s most valuable player as a sophomore.
It’s probably no coincidence that the surprising move came not long after Summitt announced her diagnosis.
“From my freshmen year until then, it was like a completely different person,” Brewer said. “It hurt to see her like that.
“It for sure was a factor. In that situation, it’s like peeling an onion. There are so many layers. It was hard on a lot of people.”
Brewer transferred to UCLA and finished her career.
I saw her briefly before the Lady Vols played the Bruins later that season in Los Angeles. Didn’t talk to her again, though, until she reappeared here five years ago with several of her former Tennessee teammates. She joined them to protest the university’s decision to drop the use of the “Lady Vols” name for all women’s sports but basketball. She wore a “Save the Lady Vols” t-shirt and spoke her mind on the matter.
“I don’t agree with it,” Brewer said that day, “regardless of whether I finished my tenure here or not.”
The Lady Vols name was fully restored in the fall of 2017.
Seeing Brewer on that June day, just six days after Summitt’s birthday, it felt like she had never left. Certainly her relationships with her former teammates were a reason why. She didn’t even play with former Lady Vol great Candace Parker and yet they are friends.
Still, Brewer’s feelings for her former coach played a part in her presence as well. We didn’t talk much about that then. We talked some more this week.
“We have to continue to tell her legacy,” she said.
With that thought in mind, Brewer shared a story from her sophomore season. Troubled by some personal matters, she was having a bad day at practice. Under normal Summitt circumstances, Brewer couldn’t have picked a worse place to struggle.
But this moment turned out differently. After being confronted, Brewer broke down into tears. She said Summitt immediately took her up to her office for a talk. She left the assistant coaches in charge of practice.
“It went from coach Pat to mom Pat,” Brewer said. “I had never witnessed anything like that.”
It’s an obscure part of the legacy. But it’s worth telling.
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Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri, who covered University of Tennessee athletics from 1988-2019. He can be reached at email@example.com.