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Vol. 49, No. 3 March 2012 .pdf version
Most Courageous honors go to Summitt, Florida State's James
By DANA O'NEIL / Third Vice-President
One stood up for his country.
The other stood up for herself.
Both, however, stood tall, not just defining courage but exemplifying it.
This year, the USBWA honors Florida State's Bernard James and University of Tennessee coach Pat Summitt as recipients of the 2012 Most Courageous Awards, two people who defined the word differently but lived it fully.
James is the most unconventional of high school dropouts, a kid who grew disenchanted with the social hierarchy of school yet would head to Barnes & Noble to read on the days that he cut.
After receiving his GED, he followed footsteps of his stepfather, a career military man, and at the age of 17, James enlisted in the Air Force.
It is one thing, of course, to join up when the military offers a chance to simply see the world. It is another to sign on when the United States is at war. James went in with eyes wide open, nonplussed when he was deployed to the Middle East, stopping in Qatar and Iraq. There he witnessed both the terrifying realities of war a mortar round landed just 75 feet from him, knocking him off of his feet and the simmering seeds of hate directed at Americans abroad.
Armed with nothing more than pepper spray and rubber bullets, James served as a prison guard, with nothing more than a fence between him and the terrorists he was charged with containing.
"You get a real clear view that there are people out there who want to hurt you just because you're an American," James told Basketball Times. "That was big to me and it gave me a much greater appreciation for what we have here."
The grand plan wasn't terribly grand. James figured the military life would be his for eternity, a 20-year commitment that would get him through adulthood.
Like it so often does, life had a different plan. Drafted to the intramural basketball team, James partnered a five-inch growth spurt with his newfound confidence and found a new direction. With a renewed purpose, James pursued basketball, rising up the military basketball ranks to the Air Force all-star team.
James turned enough heads through the international competition that he changed course, enrolling at Tallahassee Community College so that he could transition to Division I as a full qualifier.
A year later, James arrived at Florida State, a literal man among boys in both age (he's now 26) and life experiences.
Pat Summitt has experienced life more fully than most of us. With more wins than any other coach in basketball history man or woman and eight national titles, Summitt has achieved unparalleled success yet hasnever sacrificed her own dignity or grace.
She is fierce and tough, yet respected and loved.
She's also never been afraid of a fight, which is why, when she was diagnosed with early onset dementia, Summitt did what she always does she attacked it head-on.
"It is what it is," she told the Washington Post. "I've got to face it."
She could have faced it privately, of course. If Summitt had simply told her assistants and perhaps quietly delegated some of her responsibilities to them, no one would have been the wiser.
Ducking and hiding are not in Summitt's genes, and so she took her battle public, confronting her own fears and reminding others they are not alone.
It is a bold and daring move, especially in a profession where the opposition is always looking for an edge or digging for a weakness. If the Lady Vols lose, certainly someone will attribute it to Summitt's illness.
But buoyed by the unfailing support of her administration, Summitt resolved to keep coaching for as long as she's able.
Those who know her well were hardly surprised.
"Everyone has always wanted to know what Pat's really like," her longtime assistant Mickie DeMoss told the Post. "The word I've always used is resolve.' Pat has more resolve than any one I've ever known. She has a deep, deep inner strength."
That inner strength has now been pushed outward, with Summitt serving as an inspiration for others suffering from Alzheimer's. Opposing teams now sport We Back Pat T-shirts on the benches, raising awareness for Alzheimer's research.
The most courageous thing the coach did, however, was walk into the locker room and explain her diagnosis to her players. A woman who has spent a lifetime doling out life lessons amid the scribbles of X's and O's offered the most important advice of all.
"I just want them to understand that this is what I'm going through, but you don't quit living," she told the Post. "You keep going."
Dana O'Neil is a national college basketball writer for espn.com.
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