by darren reese
KNOXVILLE - There was a banner raised at Thompson-Boling Arena Monday night.
It read: Pat Summitt, 1974-2012. It recognized her 1098-208 career record and her eight national championships as head coach of the Lady Vols.
The crowd of 13,556 roared as a video tribute played on the scoreboard and the banner made its way into the rafters.
Some of Summitt's former players - namely All-American's Candace Parker, Chamique Holdsclaw, Michelle Marciniak and Tamika Catchings - were in attendance.
But as much as the night highlighted what Summitt meant to the University of Tennessee, it was also reason to celebrate the impact she had on the game of basketball and women's athletics in general.
Summitt didn't just win games in Knoxville. She transformed an entire sport.
She gave women's basketball exposure. She gave it credibility. She gave it an identity.
When the Tennessee men's basketball team was struggling to put fans in the seats all those years, Summitt was filling Thompson-Boling Arena and making going to Lady Vols' games the thing to do.
In the process, she made women's basketball more than just a novelty.
Would women's basketball have so much national television coverage if it weren't for Pat Summitt? Would there be a WBNA without Pat Summitt? Would 15,000 fans show up for a women's basketball game without Pat Summitt?
Maybe those questions are a reach. Maybe they aren't. But one thing is for certain. The opportunities that female basketball players have now are much greater thanks to Pat Summitt.
Summitt's Lady Vols became ambassadors of the sport. They won, they won big, and they did it the right way. And for that reason, fans took interest in the sport.
Teams like Notre Dame - the Lady Vols' opponent Monday night on the momentous occasion - benefited from her.
Summitt won her first national championship at Tennessee in the spring of 1987. That next season, a young coach by the name of Muffet McGraw began her first year at the helm of the fighting Irish.
Notre Dame opened that season with a 67-61 win over Loyol-Chicago in front of 300 fans. Later that season, the Fighting Irish won their first-ever game over a ranked opponent.
Fast forward to present day and McGraw is still the head coach.
As Tennessee won six national championships from 1987-98, the popularity of women's basketball took off. And as a result, programs like Notre Dame began to thrive.
The Fighting Irish won a national championship in 2001 and have won 20 or more games each of the past six seasons. They advanced to the NCAA championship game the past two years, finishing runner-up both times.
Notre Dame has defeated both Tennessee and Connecticut each of the past three seasons, marking the first team to accomplish that feat against the two historical powerhouses.
McGraw admits that she wouldn't be where she is today if it wouldn't have been for Pat Summitt paving the way.
"I think she's impacted every coach who coaches," McGraw said. "She's done so many things with class and integrity."
"The word 'legend' can sometimes be overused in sports, but in Pat's case, that's exactly what she is. Pat has set the bard so high for all of us, not only with the success her teams have enjoyed on the court, but the way she has carried herself off the court with such class, dignity and grace."
When Summitt announced in August of 2011 that she had been diagnosed with early-onset dementia, support poured in from not only the women's basketball community, but from all walks of life.
Miami Heat player LeBron James said, "Love to the amazing Pat Summit. What she did for the game will live forever."
USA Basketball CEA Jim Tooley noted: "Basketball in general, not just women's basketball, owes so much to Patt Summitt."
Summitt has been honored with every award from the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama, to the Naismith Basketball Coach of the Century.
And she continues to make an impact, even after her coaching career has ended. Summitt recently started the Pat Summitt Foundation, which she will use to educate and raise awareness for Alzheimer's, and to offer support for patients and their familes, and for research.
That's what Monday night was really about. Paying respect to someone who not only brought the spotlight to Knoxville, but to so many aspects in life. And gave hope to every young girl who grew up dreaming of playing women's basketball.