Dogs and basketball may seem like a few bounces off the court of comparison, but Tennessee’s head coach and their All-American player think canines can teach them a lot about the game.
Pat Summitt, the iconic coach of the Lady Vols, now in her 33rd season, and Candace Parker, the 6' 5" sophomore All-American who was one of the youngest players to ever suit up for the USA women’s senior national team this past summer, share more than a love of basketball: They are both devoted to their dogs.
For Summitt, a native of Tennessee, it is Sally Sue (Southerners typically give their dogs two names), and for Parker, who is from Naperville, Ill., it is Fendi. Sally Sue Summitt, as the human Summitt says when speaking of her, is a five-year-old yellow Labrador. Fendi is a one-year-old St. Bernard mix that Parker rescued from an adoption center operated by the Humane Society of the Tennessee Valley in Knoxville, a few miles from UT’s campus. Despite her humble beginnings, Fendi is named after an exclusive line of handbags because “she’s high maintenance,” says Parker, a fashion maven off the court.
Summitt, 54, a perfectionist coach who started this season with 913 career wins—the most in NCAA history, men or women—and Parker, 20, a perfectionist player hailed as one who will change the game (and who won a slam-dunk competition against boys while in high school), are both in heavy demand by the national print and broadcast media. But Bark magazine scored a first—neither has ever been interviewed for a dog publication until this fall .
Summitt might accurately be called the alpha dog of the Lady Vols, but she can look to Sally Sue for tips on how to work within a pack. She also draws parallels between training Sally and instilling discipline in her team, though Summitt will give an assist to her son, Tyler Summitt, 16, for teaching Sally.
“Trying to train them to do what you want them to do—that’s a big part of it,” Summitt says of dogs and players. “Of course, I have to give Tyler a lot of credit for training Sally. I’m amazed at how disciplined she is. You figure if you can train a dog to do what you want them to do, you should be able to train a player to do what you want them to do.”
She adds, “Early on, the puppy stages, you have to be patient. If they have an accident, you have to teach them when you’re trying to potty train them. And actually, again, Tyler did a great job. [Sally] only had three accidents.”
For Summitt, patience is an acquired trait. She began coaching at Tennessee at the young age of 22, and—although nobody would say she’s become less intense—she has learned to adjust as both the game and the players have changed. Sally has had a role in Summit’s mellowing out. But the dog also has a competitive streak that was likely learned in the Summitt household, specifically, outside at the pool.
“Tyler taught her to go off the diving board,” Summitt says. “She climbs the ladder like a human. She’s taught me to share because if we’re at the pool, she wants the float. If she beats me to the float, then I let her have it. I have to be competitive to beat her to the float.”
Both Summitt and Parker use the same word to describe their admiration for Sally and Fendi: loyalty.
“They are incredibly loyal,” Summitt says. “Sally is so loyal. They know your moods. She knows when I’m in a good mood. She knows when I don’t feel well—very sensitive and very caring.”
“Loyalty, loyalty to your teammates,” Parker says when asked what specific lesson she has learned from dogs. “My dog Fendi is the most loyal dog ever. She’s always there, no matter what, always happy.” That’s one of the intangibles for dogs and teammates. But there are other qualities that can be measured, such as speed and anticipation.
“We go to the park with my dog,” Parker says. “She is the quickest dog. She can stop on a dime; she can turn on a dime. If I had her quickness … she’s everywhere. She anticipates a lot of things.”
For Parker, anticipation on the basketball court can lead to stealing a pass or beating a defender on a cut to the basket. During those trips to the park in Knoxville, Parker observes that Fendi, while obedient, will also take opportunities to explore her surroundings. “She follows me everywhere I go, she knows commands, but sometimes she goes off on her own, explores things,” Parker says. “So learn from that. You can go off on your own but always come back. She knows I’m always going to be there.”
So how does that translate to the court? Consider the March 2006 Southeastern Conference Tournament championship game. Though Tennessee was the underdog going into the title matchup because their point guard was on the bench with a broken wrist, they made it to the final game against Louisiana State University. With 37 seconds to go at Alltel Arena in North Little Rock, Ark., the Lady Vols were down by one, 62–61.
It took a team effort to get Tennessee that close, as LSU had been favored to run away with the tournament title. But with 17 seconds left in the game, it was time for Parker to go off on her own. The coaches called an isolation play for Parker, and her teammates cleared away from the basket to open up space on the floor and draw the rest of the defense away from the rangy forward. With 17 seconds left, Parker floated in an eight-footer that brought the score to 63–62 and won the game. In the remaining seconds, the team converged and shut down LSU’s attempt to retake the lead. The Tennessee team returned from Arkansas with the tournament trophy; Parker took home the award for most valuable player.
Summitt hadn’t considered the link between dogs and basketball until asked. But once she pondered the questions, she had no trouble drawing comparisons. “If you’re throwing the ball with her or trying to give certain commands, you can tell she’s very in tune, and she anticipates what she’s going to do,” Summitt says—of Sally in this case, not Parker. “I hadn’t thought of it that way because I had been coaching so long when I got her. But I can now that you ask me. I can see a lot of similarities.” They also have another desirable quality: “You know what?” Summit says with a smile; “They don’t talk back. That’s the best thing. They don’t seem to have all the answers.”
Summitt and her players are looking for answers this season. The Lady Vols haven’t won a national title since 1998—a drought by Tennessee standards—and although the 2006–2007 team is talented enough to claim a championship, the players must avoid injury—their nemesis of late—and win with a small pack of 10. And like a group of dogs, they are learning their roles, identifying the leaders and hoping to protect their desired territory, in this case a coveted spot in the 2007 NCAA Women’s Final Four in Cleveland, Ohio, in April.
At least Summitt and Parker know that no matter what happens on the court, their dogs will be happy to see them when they get home.
“Absolutely,” Summitt says. “She hears me before I ever turn down the drive. It’s like she knows my car. She’s right there, excited to see me no matter what. I’ve gotten more attached to her than I probably should. She’s unbelievable—if I come into the house and I’m not feeling well, she won’t leave my side. Anytime I’m going out the door, she wants to go. It’s hard to leave her. She loves to go in the car. She loves to be outside. She likes to play. It’s just fun. It’s fun to go home to Sally and just spend time with her.”
The pressure of playing Division I basketball, performing in the classroom—Parker is a dean’s list student studying business, sports management and communications—and trying to live up to the implicit expectations of being one of the best women’s basketball players ever can wear down even the most grounded person. For a pickup, Parker needs only to go home, where Fendi waits on the other side of the door.
“She definitely lives in the moment, no matter what,” Parker says. “We can learn a lot from them because they are just happy all the time, no matter what is going on. I was telling my mom this the other day. I don’t know where I would be right now if I didn’t have my dog. She sleeps with me every night, and she’s always there when I wake up. She makes me feel a lot better. I don’t know where I would be without her.”