Journalists normally avoid or downplay any disclosure of their relationships to their subjects, which made Sally Jenkins's disclosure in her article revealing Pat Summitt's Alzheimer's diagnosis all the more intense. "Full disclosure: It is the measure of Summitt's large-heartedness that she could call any of a half-dozen people her closest friend. This writer has only one: her. 'I would rather drive stakes through my own hands than write this story,' I said," Jenkins wrote.
"There a certain detachment that exists in great champions: a combination of detachment and deep burn."
The story announced to the public that college basketball's all-time winningest coach, who at the time had coached the University of Tennessee's women's team for 38 seasons, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Jenkins and Summitt had been friends since they were paired to write Reach for the Summit in 1997, which was followed by Raise the Roof: The Inspiring Inside Story of the Tennessee Lady Vols' Historic 1997-1998 Threepeat Season.
Summitt always joked about writing a third book after she retired in which she'd hold nothing back; she'd call it Sum It Up. While she got her wish for the title of her memoir, which dives much deeper into Summitt's personal life than the two earlier books, the book's production was accelerated in order to document her memories before they were gone.
Gelf recently spoke with Jenkins to learn about her friendship with Summitt, now Tennessee's head coach emeritus after her 2012 retirement; and Jenkins's love for hoops, which dates back to before she used to dribble a ball to high school in order to work on her left hand. Jenkins also discusses her experiences with two of sports' most polarizing figures, both of whom she has worked with: Lance Armstrong and Joe Paterno. The following interview, which was conducted by phone, has been edited for clarity.
Gelf Magazine: How did your relationship with Pat Summit begin?
Sally Jenkins: It was the summer of 1997, right after she won her fifth championship. Pat got a book deal and we were put together by agents and lawyers. She was giving a corporate speech in New Jersey and the publisher Broadway Books asked me to go out and meet with her for an interview. On the way my taxi broke down and the cab driver didn't know how to change a flat, so I had to help him. I made it out to the corporate speech with grease all over my hands. I explained to Pat what happened, she gave me a once-over, and looked at me approvingly because I had changed a tire.
When I first went to Knoxville, I dreaded it. I was afraid I wasn't going to be able to get a drink in the Bible Belt. I was afraid she'd be as serious as she was on the sidelines; I thought she'd be humorless. Then I got down there and she was wonderful, funny, and easyshe loved to laugh and loved a cocktail.
You get to know somebody incredibly well while co-authoring a book. You wind up either loving them or hating their guts. Fortunately, Pat and I ended up friends.
In 1998, while she was in the process of going 39-0, I pitched a second book deal to the publisher and they bit for it. So we talked on the phone almost every day for two straight years.
Sally Jenkins: I do with my old friend John Feinstein: We get in so many huge arguments. He can be so insulting, and he rejects anything I say out of hand.
However, the overall audience is growing. It's just not the Deadspin audience. The numbers in the NCAA Final Four are huge: There have been Tennessee-vs.-Connecticut Final Four games that were the highest-rated basketball game on ESPN of the year. The quality of the game is gripping.
The problem is that the audience is not the same audience that watches the NBA on a Wednesday night, so people are perplexed by that. There is no question that women's hoops fans skew younger and older. My father is the greatest women's fan on Earth. When I ask my dad why he loves it, he tells me it's because its the game he grew up playing. It's purer. A lot of older people love it because it looks like something they can relate to.
The WNBA is a different category. People love women's basketball at the Olympics. They love it at the community level in college towns. But with the WNBA, the dilemma is that, are people really willing to watch Detroit play Indianapolis on a Wednesday night? If you look at the history of the NBA and how long it took it to grow into the monstrosity it is today, it took damn near half a century, so for the WNBA, we're still at an early point in history.
Gelf Magazine: What's Exhibit A in why men, or anyone, should watch women's hoops?
Sally Jenkins: There are many reasons: It's the purer game in the sense that the athletic scholarship is still meaningful. It's the better game because you can develop relationships over four years. You can watch the players come in as little freshmen and watch them grow into Skylar Diggins. I consider it the more beautiful game. Guys have gotten so athletic, that it's to the point that they distort the game.
Gelf Magazine: What started the genesis of the most recent book?
Sally Jenkins: Simply, it was her Alzheimer's diagnosis. We always joked that we were going to do a third book and we'd call it Sum It Up. Whenever she got pissed or overjoyed, she'd say, that's going into Sum It Up. She wanted to tell the whole truth about everything.
And then she got this diagnosis and we stopped laughing, obviously. To her, it became necessary to get it done for her son, because we didn't know how long her memory was going to be decent enough that she could do it. It gained an urgency.
Gelf Magazine: If you don't mind my asking, how did you first learn of her diagnosis?
Sally Jenkins: I knew something was wrong with her for about six months before she told me. She was on these very tough medications for rheumatoid arthritis and I always thought it was the medications that were causing memory lapses. Later she went to the Mayo Clinic and she called me from there and told me she had dementia. I asked if it was reversible. And she said, "It's a possibility but
At first she wouldn't even use the word Alzheimer's, because she didn't like it and it frightened her too badly. I was with her for the weekend she had to tell the university and go public, and it was so intense. Her lawyer flew in and told her she needed to brace herself that the university might force her to retire immediately.
I don't know how she got through it. It was terrifying to watch her go through it. I was the one who was going to write the news story and it was going to make the paper. I was going to publish it as soon as she told the administration and her team. I remember being in her car, saying, "Pat, you have to promise me that you're not going to let this story affect our friendship, because if you think there is even a chance that it would and you don't want me to do this, then I'm not going to do it." She told me that I was the one she wanted to write it. Honest to God, it's the single worst moment in my life.
The truth of the matter is that you're prepared for certain things in life. You're prepared for your parents to get older and pass. There are certain things in the natural cycle that you brace yourself for. And there is absolutely nothing that can prepare you for something that is this out of step and out of time.
I told her I will accept this when I have to, but not a moment before. I'm not prepared to lose my best friend and I don't intend to until I absolutely have to. And that's her attitude about the disease. She's accepting it strictly on a need-to basis, but not a moment earlier.
Gelf Magazine: Switching gears into your relationship with Lance Armstrong, with whom you wrote It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life in 2001: Did you find any similarities between Lance and Pat?
Sally Jenkins: People don't want to hear this, but they all have a little in common. The impulse to be a champion comes from a well of ambition and drive that, no matter who we're talking about, comes from a very cold and tense place. There is a certain detachment that exists in great champions; it's a combination of detachment and deep burn. In that sense, Pat and Lance are alike. They operate from a sense of deficit, of deep need. For Pat, it was growing up in a house of all men, wanting to win opportunities. For Lance, it was about growing up without his father. He had to fight his way out of every corner.
Gelf Magazine: Are you still friends with Lance?
Sally Jenkins: Lance is still my friend. We had a couple of very brief conversations after the Oprah interview. Our friendship was never based on what he did on a bike. My respect was never based on what he did on a bike. My enjoyment was based on his softer, funnier side that people rarely see. I got the very best of Lance. I never had to race against him or be his adversary; obviously my Lance is his very best side. I'm not happy that I was deceived by him, but he's apologized in a very heartfelt way and I accept it.
Gelf Magazine: Onto your next polarizing figure: Looking back on it, was there anything you would have done differently in your interview with Joe Paterno?
Sally Jenkins: No. I wish I could've changed it so I would've had more time with him. But there's not much I could've done about that. It was a difficult interview. The circumstances were difficult. How do you balance pressing him for answers with the fact that he's dying in front of his family? Plus the fact that his lawyer and media-crisis manager are also sitting at the table.
You always have a feeling of, "I wish I did that" after an interview, and I wish that when he said, "I never heard of 'rape' and a 'man,' " I wish I had pressed him more. It sort of laid on the table. I think everyone there kind of just looked at him, and that was the moment I should've said, "Come on, you studied the classics; you know your Virgil. How can you say that?" But I didn't because I was focused on my master list of questions, but I should've been more responsive.
I don't regret doing the story. I do think I pressed him on the most important thing of all: his timeline and his chronology. To get him on record saying he knew absolutely nothing of the previous investigation of 1998, that was really important in establishing how we need to view him. Because the Freeh Report suggested that he did know and he was aware.
There's no question in my mind that he did not level with me. No question. I am very sure on that point. A lot of people at Penn State want me to be unsure, but I'm positive. I know exactly what he was telling me that day. He was denying in no uncertain terms that he ever heard anything about Sandusky and little boys.
It's possible that Paterno was lying to himself, I really do think that's a possibility. There's a good chance that when he was lying to me, he was also lying to himself.
Gelf Magazine: In your last Gelf interview in 2007, about your book The Real All Americans, you said you hoped the Redskins would change their name. Do you think you'll still be hoping the Redskins change their name six years from now?
Sally Jenkins: It all depends on how desperate the NFL gets to regain the public's opinion after the tidal wave of toxic concussion litigation leaves the NFL a broken business. That's one potential scenario. The league doesn't appear to have a great track record of doing the right thing without a damn good reason.
Gelf Magazine: In response to your article highlighting the lunacy of the Redskins organization defending the team's name, one reader suggested that the Washington Post stop using the term Redskins and simply call them "Washington's pro football team." What are the odds of this happening?
Sally Jenkins:Trust me, we've all brought this up with our bosses, and the answer is categorically no. The editors say this is the name of the franchise, we're the newspaper in town, and we have to refer to them by their name. Personally I wish we could do it, but I was told in no uncertain terms that it's not going to happen.
Gelf Magazine: Do you think if Robert Griffin III, or any franchise player, went against the name that it would change?
Sally Jenkins: That's wishful thinking. NFL players don't have that power. You're talking about 31 billionaire owners. You're talking about OPEC. One NFL player isn't going to alter anything policy-wise in that league. This is a decision that has to be made at the ownership level, at the management-council level, because they are the only people who can force another owner to change anything. Even then, you still don't get results. These are incredibly stubborn wealthy men who are very hard-headed about their businesses or anyone telling them how to run their businesses. Not only that, but they confuse wealth with intelligence. They think that because they're rich, they must be smarter than everyone else. That's not true of all of them, but it's true of many of them.