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Vol Is Life: How the Last of Pat Summitt’s Players Are Keeping Her Legacy Alive

This weekend’s WNBA All-Star Game will mark the first in league history that a Summitt-coached player won’t be featured in the contest. But former Lady Vols like Candace Parker and Glory Johnson are passing her values along to the league’s younger generation.

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Candace Parker’s demeanor rarely changes. After tough losses and disheartening performances, Parker sits in front of her locker and addresses the media with the same calm resilience that she carries in victory. The sting of defeat is rarely readable on her face. If anything, you’re more likely to see a wry curling of her upper lip—like she’s plotting, already calculating how she’ll conquer the level that just bested her.

Parker serves as the pace car for the Los Angeles Sparks in good times, but especially in bad ones. She leads not just with her play—which has earned her two MVP awards, five All-Star selections, and a 2016 title—but with how she handles success, adversity, and failure. She sees accountability as the natural predecessor to improvement and demands it from herself and her team.

If the hardwood floor is Parker’s office, then the locker room is her meeting room. And when that door opens to the media after a game, the contagiousness of her disposition is evident. Her fellow stars display the same composed self-evaluation as Parker, and the team’s role players mimic it just as strongly. That attitude has defined Parker’s WNBA career, but it was adopted long before she wore a Sparks jersey.

It’s been more than 11 years since Parker left the University of Tennessee. And it’s been nearly eight years since her mentor there, Pat Summitt, called Parker to deliver some devastating news: The legendary coach had early-onset Alzheimer’s. “I remember her just being like, ‘Don’t throw me a pity party, because you’re gonna be the only one there,’” Parker says.

Summitt died on June 28, 2016. She won 1,098 games and eight NCAA championships in her 38 years as head coach of the Lady Vols, but for Parker, how Summitt handled the final five years of her life are an equally critical part of her legacy.

“It’s easy to act a certain way when things are great,” says Parker, who stayed in close contact with Summitt after leaving Tennessee. “You know those people that are so happy when things are going well ... but the moment something bad happens, everything they talked about and stood for goes out the window? Coach Summitt was the opposite. It was almost to the point where it was like: She was a fighter, and she was built for anything that came for her.”

Visit the Sparks locker room after a loss, and you’ll find that spirit emanating from Parker. And spend a few minutes talking about Summitt with Parker—or any of the hundreds of players she coached—and it’s clear that the Tennessee legend impacted not only the basketball ability of her players, but their personality, resolve, and values.

Parker is one of just four active WNBA players—along with Isabelle Harrison, Glory Johnson, and Shekinna Stricklen—who played their college ball under Summitt. Together, the final quartet is tasked with making sure that the sport never loses the DNA of Summitt, who is considered one of the greatest coaches in basketball history.

On Saturday, the WNBA All-Star Game will be without a Summitt protégé for the first time in league history. But if you look closely at some of the game’s participants—Parker’s teammates Chelsea Gray and Nneka Ogwumike, and Stricklen’s teammates Jonquel Jones and Alyssa Thomas—you’ll still see Summitt’s teachings at work: Selflessness, empowerment, defense, teamwork, caring, and courage.

In a sport where offense earns the Twitter highlights and sneaker deals, those who studied under Summitt are hell-bent on reminding the next generation of players where games are won and lost.

“Pat told us … defense is all about heart and will,” says Dallas Wings forward Glory Johnson, who played at Tennessee from 2008 until 2012, Summit’s final season. “If you can’t do anything else, if you can’t make a shot at all, you can play defense. … So no matter what we do, no matter what team we go to, no matter how bad of a shooting game we have, we’ll play our defense. Because that’s what we were taught.”

That sentiment is echoed by all former Tennessee players.

“You would not have a practice where the word ‘defense’ was not repeated a thousand times,” Isabelle Harrison, Johnson’s teammate then and now, recalls. “Because that’s how it is. It really helps the team rapport, and that’s how you get gritty wins. And I think in this league, if you can carry on that simple asset, defense and rebounding, you’ll go a long way.”

Shots are subject to variance. The ball bounces as it sees fit. But defense and rebounding—the staples that helped Summitt lead Tennessee to 38 winning seasons in 38 campaigns—aren’t prey to as much randomness. They require skill, athleticism, and intuition, of course, but one thing Summitt’s former players preach is that effort and discipline are still the core principles. And effort and discipline are always controllable.

Johnson learned that lesson during a scathing timeout lecture that still reverberate in her ears a decade later.

“[Pat’s] like, ‘Glory Johnson, if you don’t rebound the basketball, you’re gonna walk home,’” Johnson says, smiling at a memory that’s clearly warmer in hindsight. “And this is like a big game. And I was rebounding, but obviously it wasn’t enough. Never enough. So at that point I knew I have to do everything to the best of my ability.”

With half of Summitt’s active disciples on the team’s roster, it’s no surprise that Dallas—which was dealt a brutal blow to its frontcourt in the offseason, with center Liz Cambage’s demanding a trade and power forward Azurá Stevens’s suffering an injury—is second in the league in offensive rebounding rate, and fourth in total rebounding rate. And it’s equally unsurprising that so many young players who are surrounded by Summitt products display these philosophies on a daily basis.

“I’m always talking to the rookies,” says the Connecticut Sun’s Stricklen. “She always stayed on us, especially coming in as a freshman, our first years. Always being disciplined. On the court, off the court, just being disciplined.”

Summitt hammered home other ideas into her players’ heads, too, and some of the most impactful were off-court messages.

The idea of showing up and hooping, with limited obstacles, is every basketball player’s dream. For those in the WNBA, though, it’s rarely that simple. The pay is low enough that the bulk of players head overseas in the offseason to supplement their income, risking injury in the process. The media coverage, while growing, is slim. And, of course, players have to deal with misogynistic online commentary—their feeds are flooded with countless jokes about getting back to the kitchen, each as unoriginal and unremarkable as the last.

As in most walks of life, it’s often an upward battle for women to gain equality on the basketball court. But it’s a battle that Summitt never backed down from—and her strides toward equality are what brought Johnson to her program. A standout at Webb School of Knoxville—where she was classmates with Summitt’s son, Tyler—Johnson’s college choice came down to Tennessee and UCLA. And the differences between the two programs proved stark when it came time to make campus visits.

“When I went to UCLA, they kicked the women’s team off the court so that the men could play pickup. And it was [the women’s] practice time. After that I went to Tennessee, and they were all like ‘This is what it is.’” Johnson says, referring to how well respected the Lady Vols were on campus. “I don’t like being scared to do things. I don’t like getting kicked off the court for men to play pickup. Pickup isn’t something that’s as serious as practice. And [the UCLA women’s team] couldn’t even claim their practice court for their practice time. For me, that’s offensive. Pat’s done so much for the women’s game of basketball that [people at Tennessee] have so much respect, they would never do that. And if they tried to, Pat would cuss everybody out in the gym.”

When Johnson entered the WNBA as the fourth overall pick in 2012, she did so not only with a belief that women’s basketball is every bit as important as men’s, but with the insistence that her teammates never forget that fact. After all, Summitt once rebuffed an offer to coach the Tennessee men’s basketball team, asking university officials, “Why is that considered a step up?” She repeatedly stressed her belief in women, stating at her Basketball Hall of Fame induction, “I think God’s plan for Pat was somehow I needed to make a difference for young women.” She made sure her players graduated. She made sure they knew their potential was limitless. She made sure they passed it on.

“You see comments about a woman dunking, or something like that, and little boys will be like, ‘Oh, that’s nothing.’ Well, you do it,” Harrison says. “That used to be a drill for us at Tennessee. We used to practice dunking. … And I think people need to start respecting that. Coming into the WNBA, and being a Tennessee player, that’s a big thing. That’s a badge of honor.”

Every year, the league grows stronger and more popular—early season broadcast ratings showed viewership increasing by 64 percent year-over-year—while the players that compose its 12 teams increasingly make their voices heard. Summitt helped plant those seeds; now, her players are spreading it to their new teammates and the next generation of women hoopers. In Tamika Catchings’s final WNBA season, for instance, the former Lady Vol led the Indiana Fever as they traded in their warm-up shirts for Black Live Matters shirts, knowing they’d be fined. In total, 37 of Summitt’s players have suited up in the WNBA, guaranteeing that her philosophies and styles are ingrained in the league.

“I think a legacy is only [as strong as] those that carry it on,” Parker says. “I think as Lady Vols, we all understand … the importance of carrying on her legacy.”

Some of the best coaches aren’t those who have the most complex schemes, or the most innovative concepts—they’re those who bring out the most in the people they mentor. And despite Summitt’s notoriously demanding practices and the tough exterior she showed in games, her former players most remember her for the ways she fostered a community on their team and the larger life lessons she instilled when the scoreboard was turned off and the famous orange blazers were hung in the closet.

Promising players have quit the WNBA in years past, citing a lack of bonding and the presence of bullying. Despite her icy glares, Summitt fought to end that element of sports culture.

“I think a lot of people see the hard stare, and the yelling and screaming and the pacing the sidelines,” Parker says. “But when I think of Coach, I think of her jalapeño corn” she made for team dinners. “I think of her homemade ice cream. I think of all the times in her office, talking to her. So I think that’s what makes her special, is that nurturing side. She’s gonna scream at you, but you know it’s coming from a good place.”

And when the nurturing is apparent, the tougher love carries much more weight. Or as Stricklen put it, “I know a lot of people got afraid of her staring, and her eyes, but I wanted that. … It was like a dream come true.”

In late 2015, Johnson gave birth to twins. By that time, Summitt’s Alzheimer’s had become severe, and Johnson’s days at Tennessee were long behind her. But shortly after giving birth, Johnson experienced her most cherished moment with her beloved coach.

“I had premature babies—they were born four months early,” Johnson says. “They had a 20 percent chance of survival. And because preemies are so susceptible to getting sick, I hadn’t taken them out of the house at all. After I heard they moved Pat [to a medical facility], and they told me, I wanted to go see her. I took my babies—and they were on oxygen tanks at this point—I took my babies to see Pat.

“I was holding one, and I gave her to Pat. And [Tennessee strength and conditioning coach Heather Mason] is like, ‘No, no, no, no, no,’ because she’s not gonna remember, and you never know, she might accidentally drop her. And so naturally I gave her to Pat, just to hold her. She can do it. And all of a sudden you see Pat bouncing the baby. And then she starts rocking the baby … and she puts it to sleep. … It was a situation where I trusted her with everything—my life, pretty much. And I knew that I could trust her. I didn’t even care. I needed her to see my babies. I needed her to hold them, to experience what I experienced. … It was the most amazing thing I’d seen in a very long time, and I don’t know what I would have done if I would’ve never got the opportunity. Because she was like a mom to me.”

All four of the players tasked with furthering Summitt’s legacy beamed when asked about their former coach. Each was adamant that they will not only pass along her philosophies to the next generation of basketball players, but hold them close in their own lives too. Summitt grew the game and culture of basketball and women’s sports, but she also changed the way that all of her players lived.

“I wear it on my arm: ‘Left foot, right foot, breathe,’ repeat,” Parker says of the famous Summitt mantra that is tattooed on her right forearm. “And that’s in good times and in bad. At Tennessee, everything wasn’t perfect, especially my freshman year … and especially [in L.A.], my 12 years have been far from perfect. But I work every day, and I wear it on my arm: ‘Left foot, right foot, breathe.’ You put one foot in front of the other, and you keep going.”

Brady Klopfer lives in Los Angeles, where he covers the WNBA and NBA and is a creative writer.

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