Of the many tributes honoring legendary former Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt since her retirement due to the effects of Alzheimer's three months ago, perhaps the most heartfelt came from the most unlikely source.
It was written by the daughter of Summitt's fiercest rival.
Alysa Auriemma, the 26-year-old daughter of UConn women's coach Geno Auriemma, penned a 2,366-word blog post on Friday expressing admiration at everything Summitt accomplished at Tennessee. In the post, Auriemma shares the story of her first contact with Summitt about 15 years ago.
Months after UConn defeated Tennessee in the 1995 national title game to win the first of its seven championships, Summit called the Auriemmas and left a message specifically for Alysa. Geno had apparently mentioned to Summitt that 11-year-old Alysa had been perusing the Vols' media guide and telling anyone within earshot that Tennessee looked like an ideal place to go to college.
"When I heard that famous drawl on the answering machine, I started screaming and could not stop," Alysa Auriemma wrote. "My mom, listening in the next room, howled with laughter. I was paralyzed with fright; not because of Pat, but because of the implications.
"I thought Dad would garrotte me. I felt guilty that she called me. I mean, this was Pat Summitt! Tennessee! The supposed antithesis of everything we were at the University of Connecticut, our 'mortal enemy,' was on my answering machine, addressing me by name, saying in a quite cheerful voice, "I hear you like orange!" Benedict Arnold didn't have anything on me. I began picturing my funeral."
Alysa and Summitt actually met at the 1997 Dayton Regional, an encounter that again left an impression on the younger Auriemma because of how gracious the Tennessee coach was. Chances for future interaction with Summitt dried up as the years went by, however, because she and Geno became embroiled in a mysterious but bitter feud that led to the cancellation of the ongoing series between the two titans of the sport.
While Alysa doesn't use her blog to share any insight into how the animosity between the two coaches escalated or what the status of their relationship is now, she does express disappointment at how the disagreement is covered today. Too often, she says, media in Connecticut and elsewhere will dwell too much on Summitt's spat with Auriemma and not enough on her numerous other contributions to women's basketball.
"How dare you, newspeople and sportscasters and the whole lot of you, make this about an isolated incident that is merely a footnote in the epic, a stone in the glass slipper, a crack in the Yellow Brick Road?" Alysa wrote.
"All of these stories about how it's 'such a shame' that Dad and Pat didn't 'kiss and make up' are forgetting one piece of the puzzle. They had a great conversation and hug in Denver, during Dad's open practice at the Final Four (in April). When I read the recap by Mike DiMauro in the New London Day, I had to walk off to a private area because it was raining on my face."
The end of the series between UConn and Tennessee was a setback for a sport that can't afford to waste chances to generate publicity, but Alysa is correct that it should not overshadow all that Summitt has done for women's basketball.
It's a valid point no matter who said it. That it comes from Geno Auriemma's daughter makes it even more meaningful.
"I would be the world's most ungrateful, insipid, spoiled, solipsistic idiot if I didn't recognize the importance of this woman in the women's rights movement and the game of basketball as a whole," Alysa wrote. "Women's basketball as an institution would be NOTHING without that woman, and I don't think hyperbole exists in this situation.
"Everything my father has done in the world of womens' basketball, Pat Summitt did it first. It's like that episode of South Park "Simpsons Already Did It." Pat Summitt is The Simpsons in this corollary. (Sentences I never thought I'd say.) She got a 39-0 season before UConn did, she got a Championship 3Peat before UConn did, she got the best recruits before UConn did. And she did it with grace and a sense of dignity that you cannot argue."