|R.I.P., Coach Summitt|
If you read the prequel, you now know how I ended up, instead of at my uncle's tennis camp, at Pat Summitt's basketball camp on the campus of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Soon after the plane touched down in Knoxville, the flight attendant charged with handing me off to the responsible party or parties looked around until she located two very young women -- one fair-skinned with braided blonde hair, and the other light African-American with straightened hair -- wearing T-shirts with University of Tennessee Lady Vols logos who looked as though they could be basketball players at the baggage carousel. They seemed impossibly tall. They had been waiting for awhile, as they had dropped off campers leaving the previous session of camp a couple of hours earlier. Neither of them was Pat Summitt, not that such would be surprising to anyone. She had flunkies for such tasks. My uncle didn't transport tennis campers to and from airports or trains stations, either. The flight attendant checked the identification of the assistants, and bid me farewell. The girls who drove me from the airport to campus may have been recent university graduates who did not yet have full-time employment. I don't think the NCAA allowed its athletes to work for compensation at summer camps or similar venues. Some may have volunteered, though.
I waited until my pink suitcase came into view on the baggage carousel. I had been briefly concerned that the basketball coaches or camp counselors or whoever they were would think my pink luggage was too frilly, but they didn't seem to give it a second thought. They didn't seem to give my luggage much thought, period. The two of them stood back, leaning against the wall of the baggage room, casually conversing.
There was some sort of an amateur women's bowlers' convention happening in addition to Ms. Summitt's basketball camp and whatever else might have been taking place in Knoxville that week. The baggage claim area was positively packed, mostly with larger-than-life ladies wearing shirts tackier than you could probably imagine. Were the shirts not so clearly identified as bowling shirts, I would have thought I'd met up with participants from a roller derby competition or perhaps a women's wrestling federation's local tour event. I recall a lady with a shiny purple shirt that read, "Gutterlicious Bowlin' Babes" on the back, and her apparent first name, Arlene, on the front. Another woman wore a neon pink shirt displaying, on the front, bowling pins colliding with human female breasts, along with "Madge," which, I would assume, was the woman's first name. On the back, boldly emblazoned, in black letters, was "Strike Out Breast Cancer!" It was a noble if slightly tacky depiction. "The Gutter Girls" were also represented among those waiting at the carousel for their luggage. Another woman's shirt said succinctly "Shut the fuck up and BOWL!" Probably the single most unique shirt showed a bowling ball making contact with the central portion of a set of nude human buttocks. Beneath this graphic illustration was the similarly creative caption, 'The Bowlin'oscopies." Though I had initially staked out my spot along the baggage carousel next to Colma Jean, once I saw her tough and unpleasant expression and noted her "Bowlin'oscopies" shirt, I found another spot not as near the area where the luggage first came into view, but a considerably safer distance from Colma Jean.
As the baggage appeared, my large pink suitcase was among the earlier luggage pieces to come into view, but as I lunged forward to reach for it, I was knocked to the ground by Arlene's's bowling balls as Arlene hoisted her bowling ball carrier off the carousel and right into my chest without so much as a "Pardon me, little girl." I picked myself up from the hard linoleum airport floor and mentally prepared myself for round two of the game of attempting to retrieve my luggage from the carousel when what seemed like every bowler east of the Mississippi who weighed in excess of 180 pounds appeared to be competing against me. The second time I saw my pink suitcase approaching, I found what appeared to be a safer vantage point from which to grab the large piece of luggage. Just as I reached for it, Madge of the "Strike Out Breast Cancer" team hip-checked me (though her hip met me at shoulder-level) out of her way and grabbed my suitcase herself. "How sweet!" I thought. "She's getting my suitcase for me!'
Then Madge took a closer look at my suitcase and cursed. "It ain't mine, dammit! All pink suitcases look alike."
Just as I said, "It's mine. I'll take it, please," Madge threw my suitcase so hard in the direction of the carousel that went all the way across the empty space of the U-formation of the baggage carousel and onto the other side. "Strike!" one of Madge's friends hollered. I tried chasing it to get to it before it went through the back area again. The miscellaneous passengers were letting me through, but the bowlers weren't budging. The suitcase again disappeared from view.
As the suitcase made its third appearance, my keepers seemed to have decided they were going to be stuck in the airport for a long time if they didn't come to my assistance. I don't know how tall they were -- back then anyone over 5'7" looked practically Amazonian to me -- but their height and possibly (I hate saying this, but there may have been truth to it) the ethnicity of one of them were sufficient that even the lady bowlers allowed them through to grab my suitcase.
The suitcase finally in my possession, we made our way out of the airport. I tried telling the girl carrying that my suitcase that it had wheels, but she was insulted that I would think she would need them. I had to jog to keep up with them on the way to the van. "Could you believe the pink-haired bitch that threw her suitcase?" one said to the other.
"Language," the other girl said as she made a head gesture in my direction. I would liked to have shared with them that my dad regularly said in front of me words that may not even have been in their vocabularies, but I had the impression that they weren't terribly interested in anything I had to say.
When we reached the university van, the girl carrying my suitcase hoisted it into the seat directly behind the driver's and shotgun seats. I climbed into the very back row.
'Don't you think that's a little rude?" the girl who didn't throw my suitcase into the van, who has assumed the driver's seat, said.
I thought at first that she was speaking to me. "I'm sorry," I quickly said though I had no idea for what I might be apologizing.
"Not you. Her," she corrected me. She got up from the driver's seat, circled the van, and removed the suitcase from the middle row of seating. "Move up," she told me as she pulled the suitcase from the middle row of seating. The suitcase was blocking the exit from the back row, but she had told me to move forward. Not sure of what else to do, I climbed over the back of the middle seat, scooted over to the side next to the window, and fastened my seatbelt. Both of the counselors laughed.
"What else was she s'posed to do?" The front passenger said to the driver. "You told her to move, then blocked the exit with the suitcase."
"I like your style, kid," the driver said to me.
The two counselors or instructors chatted casually, occasionally aiming a question or comment in my direction, to which I mostly offered one-word responses. One of them eventually said, 'How old are you, anyway?"
"Eleven-and-a-half," I answered.
"No shit?" the blonde girl responded.
"Language!" the other girl again reminded her.
"I'm sorry. It's just that you look like you're about seven." (This was a bit of hyperbole. I looked eight easily, and could possibly have passed for nine.)
"The minimum age for campers here is ten."
"I know, " I told her. "I brought copies of my birth certificate and passport just in case there were any issues."
"That was probably smart," the other one said.
We arrived at the campus dorms, parked, and headed inside. There was no line for registration because I was a day early. I doubt that parents have the luxury of sending kids a day early to many camps, but the price my parents offered for an extra day of babysitting must have been right.The driver stood by as my registration was processed. The lady processing registrations said to her, "You can go now. I'll take it from here."
The girl who drove me said, "I'm gonna carry her suitcase when she gets a room assignment."
The woman behind the counter said, "We let the campers take care of their own luggage."
"Look at her," the driver said to the woman.
Nothing more was said about it. I was given a lanyard that held my ID and room key and a slip of paper listing meal times and the time of the first meeting. Because I was there a day early, a few other girls and I would be essentially on our own for the next day. The woman behind the counter told us where we were allowed to go and what we could do, and pointed out a few older girls -- the few counselors on duty that day -- we needed to check with before leaving the immediate area. Two of the three girls were the ones who picked me up at the airport.
I made it into my dorm room. As I recall, most of the girls would night arrive until about twenty-four hours later, just before or after dinner the night before the basketball portion of the camp would start. I survived the first night with no roommate, and eventually made it to the first official part of camp. We stretched. The leaders did some sort of motivational spirit-type stuff [that I hated at the time and still hate] so that the level of excitement in the gymnasium would be such that we would all practically be speaking in tongues when the important people made their appearances. First the returning Lady Vols team walked in to the screams of the little girls in attendance. Then Pat Summitt herself entered the gymnasium. It was almost as if either Jesus or Justin Bieber had entered our presence at the first sighting of Ms. Summitt. I tried to find a happy middle ground -- I wanted to appear sufficiently enthusiastic that the leaders wouldn't single me out as a trouble-maker, but, in later times of my life, I didn't want to have to look back at myself at that moment and cringe with embarrassment.
Once the hoopla silenced itself and Pat Summitt began to speak, the only sound that could be hear in the gymnasium was Summitt's voice. 'Welcome, future Lady Vols, " she began. You'll be almost as shocked by her next words as was I. "How many of you young ladies made your beds this morning?" she asked.
I tentatively raised my hand. I only saw a few other hands raised. "Ass-kisser" a girl behind me whispered in my direction. One of Coach Summitt's assistants must have heard the comment as well. She motioned the girl aside. I have no idea what she said to the girl. At that moment I didn' t know if I was grateful to my mom for reminding me to make my bed or mad at her, though I probably would have made the bed regardless just from sheer force of habit.
We heard other words of motivation from Ms. Summitt, most of which I don't even remember. The only thing of substance I do remember hearing from her that morning was something to the effect that not everyone could be the very best basketball player, but that anyone could be the hardest-working.
It soon became very clear to Pat Summitt that I was far more mature and just cooler in general than was any other girl in attendance. Each evening when Ms. Summitt left the facility, sometimes with a few co-coaches, to down a cold one at her favorite bar, she took me along with her, and didn't even object that I turned down the real thing in favor of root beer. The two of us obviously had so much in common that it was utterly natural that she would treat me less as a camper and more as a peer.
The preceding paragraph is, of course, 100% bullshit. Pat Summitt was far too professional ever to have treated any camper in such a manner, and even had she done so, it would not have been I that she singled out. I was neither cool nor mature. I was not her peer then, nor would I be her peer now were she still among the living. I'll probably never be quite the person who could rightly have considered herself Pat Summitt's peer. Such individuals are few and far between.
I should interject at some point that I am not, nor have I ever been, a basketball player. I have the eye-hand-coordination to dribble decently, and I am quick, but even now, I can barely reach the rim of the basket when shooting from the free throw line. As an eleven-year-old, the prognosis was even more grim. I was both fast and quick and could dribble well with both hands, as my dad practiced with me once we knew I would attend basketball camp, and could make reasonably accurate short passes, but I lacked the physical equipment to shoot the ball in any capacity.
I had limited interaction with Ms. Summitt. I had a great deal of practice at being knocked to the floor during my time at camp. It seemed to me that the best response would be to jump up as quickly as possible. During one of such occurrences, Ms. Summitt was standing nearby. She stepped closer and told me that while in practice, getting up quickly when knocked down was the right thing to do, in an actual game situation, it would be harder to draw a foul if I jumped up too quickly. While I didn't need to pretend to be injured if I wasn't, it might be a good idea to count to five inside my head before getting up, and not to jump up too quickly when I did eventually get up. Another time when I was totally and unnecessarily leveled by a rather aggressive ten-year-old as Coach Summitt happened to be nearby, she picked me up off the floor.
One time for some unexplained reason, during a brief break time between conditioning and drills, when most of the campers had wandered outside because something mildly interesting (possibly related to the football tem, but I'm not really sure) was happening, Ms. Summitt noticed a cluster of musical instruments that had been inexplicably left in the corner of the gym. She picked up a violin with two fingers and held it up by the neck. "I wonder who thought we would need a fiddle. It's not good for much of anything in here." She paused. "That is unless someone here knows how to play " 'Rocky Top.' "
Already having gotten a drink, I was standing nearby. "I could probably play it,'' I volunteered.
She handed the violin to me. "Give it a whirl, kid." I walked a few steps to retrieve the bow, which she hadn't picked up when she grabbed the violin.
The violin wasn't all that far out of tune. Someone had probably played it recently, although it's still a mystery as to what any of the instruments were doing in the corner of the gym. After a few quick twists of the fine tuners, it was playable. I quickly played each string with the bow, then went into a quick rendition of "Rocky Top," which my dad had so painstakingly taught me a couple of weeks before. He hadn't taught me to play it on an instrument, but I can play both piano and violin by ear and could then as well.
"I am impressed," Ms. Summitt complimented me. "I woulda sung along if you hadn't played it so darned high."
"I can play it in a lower key," I offered, and went into "Rocky Top" in the key of G, which was more suitable to Ms. Summitt's vocal range. She sang enthusiastically and encouraged the few others present to join her.
"Music Camp is that way," she pointed in the direction to the doors of the gymnasium as she took the violin from me and placed it back in the corner. I walked in the direction she had pointed to me. "Get back over here!" she hollered at me. "Your parents paid to send you to basketball camp. They probably figured you already know enough about music."
Tyler Summitt, Pat Summitt's son, was around quite a lot as I recall. I remember him asking me roughly once each day how old I was. After the first time, it was supposedly some sort of joke to him. I didn't find it especially funny. A lot of the girls swooned over him. I didn't see in him quite what they saw, but he was a nice enough guy, lame jokes notwithstanding.
We received the vast majority of attention and instruction from the assistants, though Coach Summitt was there most of the time as I recall. On the final day, the campers were allowed to tour the Lady Vols' locker room, and Ms. Summitt and most or maybe all of the Lady Vols were available to chat with campers and to autograph our camp T-shirts or anything else we might have wanted autographed.
I approached Coach Summitt to have her autograph a copy of one of her books that I had brought along for the purpose of having it autographed. "Oh, it's the fiddler," she smiled as I handed my book and T-shirt to her for autographing. She asked me a little about my musicianship -- if I read music, if I had ever practiced "Rocky Top" specifically or was playing it for the first time when I had played it in the gym earlier in the week, how I even knew the song, what other instruments I played; in retrospect, it impresses me now that with the 300 or so girls in attendance and with our limited contact, that she was even able to recall the simple detail that I had been the child who played the violin days earlier. From what I've read, she was known for connecting with people in ways such as that and for remembering seemingly inconsequential details about people that others might forget, which makes the idea that it was Alzheimer's that ultimately took her seem all the more cruel. She then asked me my real name in order to personalized the autographs. After autographing the T-shirt but before autographing the book, she asked me, "Just how serious about basketball are you?"
I was unsure of how I should answer. "You can give me an honest answer," she told me.
"I'm not very serious about it," I admitted apologetically, looking at the floor as I answered.
"Look at me when you're talking to me," she commanded, though gently. "Basketball may not be a very big part of your life, but you came in here every single day and worked harder than almost anyone here. If you decide you really want to be a basketball player, you can keep working, and you'll get better. You're probably not going to be very big, so basketball might not be your best sport. but the important thing is that you know how to work, and you pay attention to everything the coaches tell you. Whatever you end up doing, if you put into it the same level of work and attention to detail that you have this week, you will succeed, Alexis."
I thanked her and collected my autographed belongings.
I left basketball camp as not the very worst player there, but certainly among the weakest. Neither God nor the mysterious workings of DNA apparently were thinking "great basketball player" when my body was designed. Still, basketball camp, as flukish as the circumstances creating my appearance there were and as ill-suited as my body was and still is to the sport, turned out to be far more of a positive than a negative life experience.
My life was not altered dramatically as a result of my five days spent at Pat Summitt's basketball camp, but I came away with a few pieces of wisdom I carry to this day. Know what your strengths are, but don't allow that knowledge to keep you from doing anything you really want to do. Hard work usually helps a person to succeed, whatever the endeavor. Eye contact is important. And if you get knocked down, get up, but maybe don't get up too quickly.