A physically and emotionally drained Taber Spani retired to her Knoxville, Tenn., apartment the evening of Aug. 23, 2011.
Spani, a Lee’s Summit native, was just starting her junior year with the Tennessee women’s basketball team.
Earlier that day, the Vols’ legendary coach Pat Summitt called a team meeting and dropped a bombshell — she’d been diagnosed with early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type.
The world found out a few hours later and Spani spent a chunk of the afternoon talking with local reporters about the still-raw emotional toll of Summitt’s revelation.
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“Out of the blue that night, she (contacted) me,” Spani said. “I was thinking, ‘Coach, why are you, when the world is demanding your time and answers, texting me and reaching out to me, wanting to know how I was doing?’ That was so remarkable to me and I’ll always remember that. She was so selfless. That’s where her Christian faith showed so much in her actions and her words.”
Spani returned to Knoxville for the first time since she graduated in May 2013 last weekend to visit Summitt one final time after receiving an urgent call Saturday from a former Tennessee staffer.
She was joined by dozens of other former Vols and well-wishers.
“We had a time where we got to see her and I got to pray for her, be with her and be with the family,” Spani said. “That’s time I will forever cherish. Was it hard? Absolutely, but I’m so thankful I was here.”
Spani took solace in grieving with so many others who’d also experienced Summitt’s profound impact.
“Every single person has their personal stories with Pat,” Spani said. “It’s not generic either. It’s a real, intimate relationship that she had with each and every person. I’ll have stories with her that I’ll treasure forever. The 160 other athletes that played for her have their own stories and her staff. That’s a gift, the gift to love well and to live fully. That’s why, for us, it hurts so much.”
Spani hadn’t been able to visit Summitt in recent years, but the two spoke often by phone using Skype or FaceTime and she tries to practice Summitt’s “Definite Dozen” principles, sort of a cheat sheet for the coach’s keys to success, in her life every day.
“The times I’ll remember are just the one-on-one conversations when she recruited me,” Spani said. “I remember her singing her birthday rendition on my home voice mail. We had those voice mails for so long. That stuff, that’s just who she was. She was real. She wasn’t this statue that no one could reach or untouchable. She was constantly touching people’s lives.”
Tennessee noticed Spani — who played high school ball for Metro Academy, a sanctioned homeschool team coached by her parents, former Kansas State/Chiefs star Gary Spani and his wife, Stacey — on the AAU circuit and Summitt made a special trip to watch her play.
“To see her on the sideline for the first time and knowing she was interested, it was an overwhelming honor,” Spani said. “The fact that they pursued me and gave me a scholarship, I feel so blessed. It was a gift.”
Summitt — who won more games as a coach than anyone else in NCAA Division I basketball, men’s or women’s — also trekked to Legacy Park Community Center in Lee’s Summit for an individual workout with Spani.
“I remember that I was trying to make the workout so intense, because I felt like I had to show who I was,” Spani said. “I’m a very hard worker, which was instilled in me by my parents, but I remember thinking I just had to go, go, go. I was just so amped up that she was watching and I wanted to impress her.”
That awe was quickly replaced with deep admiration for Summitt’s “Christian faith, integrity, character and huge heart,” Spani said.
“She had an absolute gift of making everyone that she met — whether it was (university) presidents, faculty, coaches, top business leaders, down to her players and fans — feel like they were never a stranger,” Spani said. “So, actually, I was never in awe of her, because the way she carried herself was so real and so genuine. It was incredible to me and it was a joy to learn under her and be mentored by her.”
Summitt coached one final season after her diagnosis and then retired after the 2011-12 campaign.
Spani, who is an assistant coach at Metro Academy and also works as a personal trainer based in Lee’s Summit, started 15 games that season, Summitt’s 38th and final year as Tennessee’s coach.
“Every single place that we went to on our away trips, she would get standing ovations for minutes at a time,” Spani said. “I remember we were at Rutgers and it might have been a five-minute standing ovation for this woman.
“That was a special season and a special time. I thought I would come here and win national championships and go to Final Fours. That never happened, but the impact that this woman made on my life is something far greater than winning games and having national championship rings.”