Directed by Lisa Lax and Nancy Stern Winters
I must admit upfront that when the lineup of films for the Nine for IX series was originally announced, this one caught my eye, for the wrong reasons. To explain myself, I look first to the director team of Lisa Lax and Nancy Stern Winters. I have only seen one of their films previously, and it happened to be their 30 for 30 film Unmatched. I had plenty of problems with that film, but mostly just the simple fact that it was a boring, uninspired chronicle of the relationship between women tennis players Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert. Their lackluster previous film and the fact that the premise of the new film was a chronicle of the relationship between Pat Summitt and her son made me cringe, yet I still held out hopes that it would be better than my expectations of it.
So as with any other film, I sat. And I watched. And I might have even gotten a little teary eyed. I was very pleasantly surprised by this film about Pat Summitt, the former women’s basketball coach at the University of Tennessee, and perhaps the greatest college basketball coach in the history of the game, male or female (she won 1098 games in her career, more than anyone else). What struck me most about the film was the sincerity and how personal it felt. The technique applied by Lax and Stern Winters worked perfectly for the kind of film they were looking to make. It is as much an homage, a personal message of thanks to Pat Summitt as it is a documentary about her illustrious career in the sport of basketball. It is this personal touch that makes its authenticity and heartfeltness burst off the screen with emotion.
Lax and Stern Winters sent cheap cameras all over the country to former teammates, players and fellow coaches of Summitt. The result is marvelous. Each has their bit to add to the legacy and legend of Summitt. Summitt, who is battling early onset Alzheimer’s, has the opportunity to sit side by side with her now adult son Tyler and reminisce about her greatest moments as a woman, a coach and a mother. The format comes together in the editing room, knitting together these personal moments into a warm patchwork quilt. The film is just that warm. It is not the most incredible documentary put together, and often shows its disorder when jumping around from subject to subject, but it was made as a love letter to a person who is loved and revered by so many. And on that level the film definitely works.
This also means that there is no devil’s advocate, and that the film lavishes in only the most positive and incredible snippets of Summitt’s career, but it does become hard to mount a counter to this approach when almost nothing of the sort exists. The best moments of the film come when Summitt’s softer, more vulnerable sides are being discussed. This is often juxtaposed to an immediate anecdote of her tremendous work ethic, passion, and courage. Take for instance the story of the birth of her son Tyler. While on a recruiting trip to Virginia, she went into labor in the recruits living room. Vowing that the child could absolutely not be born in the state (due to a tournament loss to Virginia the previous year) she jets back to Tennessee after a quickened meeting with Michelle Marciniak to give birth. Summitt and Marciniak won a National Championship in 1996.
When Summitt announced her battle with dementia and Alzheimer’s, the face of women’s college basketball changed. Her impact on every player she has coached, all of whom left the University of Tennessee degree in hand, can never be measured and her legacy never forgotten. The film concludes with a poignant moment between mother and son that reminded me of just how fragile life can be sometimes. Imagine the person you love not being able to remember you. Imagine reminding them everyday of how much you love them, and all the reasons why. That is what Lax and Stern Winters have been able to craft with this film, a document of the love and appreciation of Pat Summitt by the many people’s lives she has affected in the most positive ways. Even those, like myself, who never had the privilege of learning the lesson she taught us in person, but instead from a distance.
*** – Very Good