When the fourth-place Sparks take the court Thursday night to face off against the Phoenix Mercury, they will honor a legendary women’s college basketball coach with the inaugural Pat Summitt Leadership Night at Staples Center.
Often considered the John Wooden of women’s basketball, Summitt was a pioneer during her 38 seasons at Tennessee. She holds the NCAA record for wins in women’s college basketball history with 1,098 and is the second-winningest all-time -- men or women. She is ranked third overall in NCAA history with eight national championships. Summitt retired in 2012 after being diagnosed with early on-set Alzheimer’s in 2011. She was 64 when she died in 2016 from the disease.
“It means a lot to me. This is something that’s been in my mind for the last three years in honoring Coach Summitt’s legacy [and] continuing it on,” said Sparks star Candace Parker, who played at Tennessee from 2004-08, about Thursday night’s event. “It’s one thing to honor it, it’s another thing to carry on her legacy and what she lived for and what she lived every day doing. So, to see it coming to light tomorrow is very special to me.”
Sparks coach Derek Fisher credits Summitt with helping him develop an appreciation for the women’s game.
“I think my early appreciation and value for the women’s game came from watching Pat Summitt and the Lady Vols before Candace,” Fisher said. “She had an ability to sustain excellence and to me that’s what she and her legacy will always represent. Pat always wanted to be the best and wouldn’t let her program rest even after they won. Always pushing people to be better, that’s what we’re trying to do here. She will internally be giving back to the game. All these players wouldn’t be here without what she’s done.
Fisher never met Summitt but sees Summitt’s legacy through coaching Parker, who is one of four active WNBA players to have played under Summitt.
“I didn’t have the pleasure. I feel like I’m meeting her through Candace every day,” Fisher said. “A lot of who Candace is and how Candace sees the game, how driven she is to push her teammates I think a lot of that came from Pat’s tutelage. I’m probably still pretty close to [Pat] by working with Candace.”
Parker will wear custom purple and orange Adidas shoes named HERoics and dedicated to her former coach. Summitt’s 100% graduation rate of players, 1,098 wins and eight national championships will also be featured on the shoe.
“I sat down at the table with my daughter in the beginning of July. We took some crayons and figured out what we wanted the shoes to be,” Parker said about the design. “Fierce courage is something that I wear on my wrist every day. It represents her, it represents Tennessee. ‘Left foot, right foot, breathe, repeat’ is something she lived by every day. ”
Parker hopes that the Pat Summitt Leadership Night will educate the next generation about Summitt’s legacy. She will talk to fans after the game about Summitt’s legacy and impact.
“We’re going to have a great time. I think a lot of people will come and I hope they learn a lot,” she said. “Kids now know Magic Johnson; they know of him. They know he played basketball. Kids who are born now, I want them to know Coach Summitt. I want them to know she was a legendary coach and I don’t want her memory to kind of fade away. So, this is kind of something where there are young kids who don’t know who Coach Summitt is but when they leave, I hope they know.”
Those in attendance Thursday will receive a commemorative poster featuring Parker and Summitt. The Pat Summitt Leadership Group — which, along with Candace Parker Inc., the Sparks and Adidas, is coordinating the event — will be selling a T-shirt with Parker’s favorite Summitt mantra: “Left Foot, Right Foot, Breathe, Repeat.” Proceeds will go to the Pat Summitt Foundation.