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    Friday, September 29, 2023

    Embrace heard round the world

    UConn coach Geno Auriemma visits with Tennessee coach Pat Summitt at the Pepsi Center in Denver on Saturday. Summitt, who is suffering from health difficulties, stopped by the Final Four's open practice sessions that were taking place and was greeted by fellow hall of famer Auriemma.


    Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walked into this one. This was Saturday afternoon at the Pepsi Center, site of a moment nobody saw coming that suddenly necessitated someone hit the cosmic pause button. So we could stop and appreciate, stop and think.

    It was on a nondescript piece of real estate just off the court that Pat Summitt and Geno Auriemma shared a long, meaningful embrace. Fans watching practice day in the arena applauded. Cameras clicked. Folks scrambled for their phones to capture it.

    It was a moment that provided us all … a moment. Two of the game's Gatsbys, perpetual adversaries, making the past a duller ache with a touch of humanity.

    How fitting, indeed, that as we endure Summitt's battle with early onset dementia that this scene - at this time in this Final Four - underscores how deeply women's basketball has affected our own humanity in the last 25 years.

    We don't often have the time, patience, or opportunity to ponder the "what does it all mean?" question. But one heartfelt embrace provided a rare, inspiring, legitimate occasion.

    For many of us in Connecticut, the emergence of women's basketball has only changed everything. It's changed how we watched sports. How we view women. How we spend our money. What we look forward to. How we went from comparative sporting hermits to traveling the country.

    Women's basketball has engendered relationships of both genders. It has created lifelong friendships. It has changed our culture. It has changed lives. The UConn beat alone has produced two marriages, including my own.

    And the two people most responsible for the glorious, residual effect hugged each other here Saturday. If we didn't know better, we might have dismissed it as unwitting congratulations for changing so many lives.

    This has been a hard season to watch women's basketball. Its matriarch, known for her icy, penetrating stare, bears a more vacant look. It's not Pat Summitt. And when Summitt went to shake Kim Mulkey's hand at the conclusion of the Elite Eight game last week, I found myself oddly emotional, as if watching the end of such an important era in my life and so many others.

    "Pat Summitt, to me, has impacted every woman of my generation," ESPN analyst Doris Burke said Saturday. "Not just college athletes. Women across the board."

    This is the Final Four that most closely coincides with the 40th anniversary of Title IX. No other piece of legislation is more responsible for a cultural shift that has delivered women deeper into the mainstream. And no other woman represents Helen Reddy's "I Am Woman" ideal better than Summitt.

    She is Pat.

    Hear her roar.

    "Title IX is one small piece that has helped change how society views women," Burke said. "Pat Summitt changed the view. I feel indebted to her."

    Burke is not alone. And that's why our powerlessness to halt Summitt's illness produces an overwhelming sadness.

    "Watching Tennessee this season, on TV or in person, you feel emotional," ESPN's Rebecca Lobo said. "It touches your heart. People want us to talk about whether she'll be back. That's not the important part. The important part is the personal part, what she's going through and what her family is going through."

    It has been through much soul searching that the answer to making some sense of Summitt's illness is to keep trumpeting the virtues of women's basketball and to learn more about her disease. Take, for example, the message of Damien Barling, now an alumnus of the New York Marathon. He ran it for the Alzheimer's Association, raising awareness and raising funds for the disease last November.

    "Kara (Lawson, Barling's wife) and I have spent the last several months learning about it. It's scary," he said. "There are a whole lot more people affected by it than I could have ever imagined. When people have donated, it's often been 'in memory of my mother' or grandmother. We've found it incredible how widespread it is.

    "It's the seventh leading cause of death, but the most underfunded disease of all those. It gets associated with older people and I think people don't care about it as much. Cancer freaks people out more, for instance, because young people can, and do, get it."

    Barling and Lawson remain close to Summitt. They lived in Knoxville the year before they came Connecticut, "maybe 100 yards from Pat's front door." Barling said he was more nervous meeting Summitt than any member of his wife's family.

    "The first time I met her I stood up and said, 'Hello Miss Summitt.' She said, 'Oh, no, honey. It's Pat.'"

    Summitt and Auriemma have carried the game. They carried the day on Saturday, too, sharing an embrace all fans of the game would like to share.

    "She told me that she was doing great, that she is getting the best care possible, being taken care of by the best people," Auriemma said of their post-embrace chat. "It was just for a few minutes, but I told her that I was certain that after the NCAA tournament was over that we'd have a chance to sit and talk."

    This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.

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