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.”