PHOENIX – When Isabelle Harrison was called out of class at the University of Tennessee and into the office of Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt one day during Harrison’s freshman year, she knew something wasn’t right.
“I just remember there were a lot of reporters on campus,” Mercury center Harrison said. “And we kind of just went to the office, and she closed the door and she was sitting right next to me. She told me what happened.”
Summitt revealed that she had been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s — a progressive disease that causes problems with memory and thinking behavior and worsens over time.
She died Tuesday at the age of 64.
“I looked at her and asked ‘are you going to be OK?’ ” Harrison recalled of that sad day. “And she told me ‘I’m always going to be OK.’ ”
Playing for Pat
Summitt, a Tennessee native, coached her entire career at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, leading the Lady Vols to eight national championship titles in her 38-year tenure. She also has the most wins in NCAA history of any basketball coach, male or female.
Harrison idolized Summitt even before she went to play for her at Tennessee.
“I think she held each and every one of her players accountable everyday,” Harrison said, explaining the Hall-of-Fame coach’s success. “And it grew into a legacy that the Lady Vols are known for today.”
Harrison’s group was the last class to be coached under Summitt, who retired from coaching in 2012 shortly after that announcement. But Summitt remained active with the program, coming to Harrison’s side when she suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her knee that prematurely ended her collegiate career during her senior season.
Hours after her ACL reconstruction surgery, Summitt visited Harrison in her hospital bed, and the pair talked for hours. She reminded Harrison that while things may look grim, the injury was not too big to overcome.
“ACL is a big injury but not compared to what she was going through,” Harrison said. “For her to be going through what she went through and check on me and my knee … it’s just commendable.”
A legacy to be remembered
After being drafted by the Phoenix Mercury in 2015, Harrison took a year off to continue her recovery. She finally made her WNBA debut with the Mercury in May.
Harrison said that she will continue to keep Summitt’s legacy alive, by using the lessons her former coach taught her about putting in hard work everyday.
“She told me ‘You can’t ever afford to have a pity party, you never know who is looking and needs that leadership from you,’ ” Harrison said.
While people around the WNBA and all of the basketball world mourn the loss of a legend, Harrison said Summitt left a permanent mark on her life, one that won’t be forgotten.
“She’s just been through this whole process with me,” Harrison said. “And I’m blessed to be coached by her.”