BookBin2011: Raise the Roof

Bit of a nostalgia break this time, denizens. I read Coach Pat Summitt’s book, Raise the Roof, back around when it was first published. I was a student at the University of Maryland at the time, which meant that my transformation into the anti-sports crusader I am today was nearly complete (nothing will turn you against sports, especially college sports, quite like watching the free rides and preferential treatment the athletes receive from some colleges while you struggle to hold onto academic-based grants barely large enough to cover each semester’s book fees).

Still, there was something about Coach Summitt and her Lady Vols that kept me hanging on just a little while longer. I already knew Summitt’s style was anything but the “free ride” variety (one of the many reasons why I continue to respect her). She demands excellence from her players both on the court and in the classroom. You play for Summitt, you go to every class, you sit in the first three rows, you earn high grades, you graduate. Period. I’d seen the HBO documentary, A Cinderella Season: The Lady Vols Fight Back, which followed the UT team through a record-setting low season that ended with them pulling out of their nose dive in time to clinch a second NCAA championship win in a row. Some might think a win is a win is a win. Not Coach Summitt. She refused to have that year’s 29-10 record engraved on their championship rings.

And then the 97-98 season began. Win. Win. Win. Win.

Win.

All the way to very last championship game.

Nothing. But. Win.

You bet your ass Coach Summitt had that record engraved on her team’s rings. Third NCAA championship win in a row, this time with a perfect 39-0 record, with the point differential between teams averaging 30 points in favor of UT. This was one of the finest seasons ever played by an NCAA team, all done with determination, strength, finesse, fire, and quite possibly one of the greatest line-up of players that has ever been brought together to play the game.

Raise the Roof is their story.

Summitt’s Lady Vols that season consisted of only one senior, Laurie Mulligan. The rest were juniors, sophomores, and four of the most audacious freshmen imaginable: Tamika Catchings, Kristen, “Ace” Clement, Teresa “Tree” Geter, and Semeka Randall. Not to be outdone by this foursome, Summitt also had in her pocket two powerhouse juniors: Chamique Holdsclaw and Kellie Jolly.

Holdsclaw will go down in the history books as one of the greatest basketball players to ever run the boards. She is the fifth highest scoring player in NCAA Division I women’s basketball, a first-round pick for the Washington Mystics upon her graduation from UT, and an Olympic gold medalist.

Jolly (now Kellie Harper) spent a year with the Cleveland Rockers right after her graduation and is now the head coach of the N.C. State Lady Wolfpack, obviously a Loba-approved team.

In Raise the Roof, Summitt tells the story of this team’s season-long coalescence, which began even before practices did, during an impromptu pick-up game upon the freshmen’s arrival on campus. I don’t read a lot of sports-related books for obvious reasons, so I don’t have a frame of comparison for this book. I can tell you, however, that Summitt and sports writer Sally Jenkins came together to tell an amazing story. They showcase both the frenetic energy of this team as well as the poetry and passion of the games being described.

I’ve always thought that a top-notch squad of players can rival the beauty and choreography of a ballet when they’re out there on the floor. Summitt and Jenkins capture this essence perfectly, along with insightful character profiles for each of the players and the struggles and successes that brought them together for this perfect team and this perfect season.

Even if you aren’t a sports fan, there is something so inspiring about these hard-scrabble young women and the iron-willed coach who led them to record-breaking victory. Plus, Summitt and Jenkins combined their skills to tell a captivating and eloquent tale that even the sports-disinterested might find enjoyable. I remember loving this book the first time I read it, and I might have loved it even more this time. Don’t think this means I’m going to start watching sports. But even I can recognize that sometimes, some teams transcend the boundaries of all that is negative about sports and elevate themselves to a positive playing level all their own.

Final Verdict: I’m so glad that I’ve finally added this book to my library. I’m just sorry that it was Summitt’s recent upsetting health news that reminded me that it was still missing. Oh, and if you’re wondering, I also recently added Summitt’s book Reach for the Summit to my library as well. I thought that I had read this one, too, around the time I first read Raise the Roof. I was wrong. I’m currently rectifying that. You have been warned…