A story of international friendship between Pat Summitt, CSPS co-directors Sarah Hillyer and Ashleigh Huffman, and an Iraqi women’s basketball coach was released by sports media giant ESPN over the weekend.
“The network thinks this is one of the incredible stories about Pat Summitt that we haven’t heard before, and it is amazing to be able to share it,” said Lynn Olszowy, a feature reporter and producer for ESPN.
Last week Olszowy was in Knoxville shooting interviews with Tennessee coach Holly Warlick, visiting Iraqi basketball coach Rizgar Tawfeeq, and Drs. Hillyer and Huffman.
In 2007, Hillyer, director of UT’s Center for Sport, Peace, and Society, traveled to Sulaymaniyah in the Kurdish region of Iraq to host the first women’s basketball camp in the country’s history. After learning of the serious need for basketballs and other equipment, Hillyer and Huffman, assistant director of the CSPS, approached Summitt during one of her basketball camps to ask for help.
“We were supposed to be coaching 60 girls with only four basketballs, and we thought, ‘Where in the world are we gonna get 60 basketballs?” said Hillyer. “Then we thought, ‘Who cares more about empowering girls and women through basketball than Pat Summitt?’
“When we asked, she immediately called over her team managers and told them: ‘Anything these ladies need to get women’s basketball started in Iraq.'”
The relationship grew even deeper in 2009 when Summitt invited the girls from Serwane New Sports Club, where Tawfeeq is the head women’s basketball coach, to one of her camps in Knoxville.
“Coming here, you see this huge arena, the big screen and all these parents bringing their kids from all over just for the chance to be with Pat Summitt,” said Tawfeeq. “To me, it meant Coach Pat’s program must be amazing and that women’s basketball is important to this community.”
Tawfeeq was so touched by the reception his team received from Summitt and the Lady Vols basketball team that he credits it for completely changing his coaching philosophy.
“Pat Summitt is like my big sister and I want to be just like her,” said Tawfeeq. “She taught her girls to be better women off the court and, at the same time, on the court they were winning championships. She changed lives through basketball, and I want to do the same.”
After Summitt was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and stepped down from coaching, Tawfeeq organized a We Back Pat basketball tournament in Sulaymaniyah. Hillyer and Huffman traveled to assist with the tournament, where girls wore We Back Pat shirts and created a banner with personal messages thanking the coach.
In addition to the ESPN piece, Hillyer and Huffman are working with filmmakers on a documentary about Summitt’s work to inspire women’s basketball in Iraq, which will be released in April.