A magical night filled with standing ovations, special guests, and enough orange to fill an arena, was the culmination of a decade of hard work by two University of Tennessee professors who chronicled the story of how iconic Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt blazed a trail for women’s basketball in Iraq in a recent documentary film.
With a sold-out crowd of more than 700 in attendance, Pat: A Legacy of Love premiered at the Bijou Theatre in downtown Knoxville on Sept. 7. Professors and co-directors of UT’s Center for Sport, Peace, & Society, Sarah Hillyer and Ashleigh Huffman filmed and produced much of the documentary during their time as Ph.D. students in sports sociology at UT. They were on-hand for the two-hour event, co-emceed by WBIR anchor Robin Wilhoit and former Lady Vol Michelle Brooke-Marciniak, with a star panel that followed the film screening.
“Coach Summitt was a hero to so many of us on that stage. There will never be another like her. It was an honor for us to tell this story, to remind people of Pat’s legacy, her kindness and generosity, and the essence of her character that made her so beloved by the Knoxville community,” said Hillyer.
The list of special guests who spoke about the impact Summitt made in their lives as women and athletes included former Lady Vol point guard and successful entrepreneur Michelle Brooke-Marciniak, current Tennessee head coach Holly Warlick, former Tennessee women’s athletics director Joan Cronan, and Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame president Dana Hart.
The panel also included one woman who traveled more than 6,500 milesto be in attendance for the evening, Khoshee Mohammed, a woman who aspires to be the Pat Summitt of Iraq and the co-star of the documentary.
A girl’s basketball coach from the northern Iraqi city of Sulaymaniyah, and the first female basketball coach in her country, Mohammed walked on stage and the crowd welcomed her with a standing ovation. During a public Q&A session later, a United States military veteran who served during the Gulf War recounted her own struggles as a woman in Iraq and thanked Mohammed for not giving up against the odds. The two women embraced and the crowd again rose to applaud, wiping away tears.
“To be honest, I think Knoxville needed this moment. To remember Coach Summitt, to laugh and cry together, and to find hope in the next generation of women and girls who will carry her legacy forward. It was a special night and one that I hope inspires simple acts of kindness and healing throughout the world, “ Huffman said.
In 2007, Hillyer met a teenage Mohammed while leading basketball camps in Sulaymaniyah. The young woman dreamed of one day leading her own camps for girls in her community. But, there were only a handful of flat basketballs and a dire lack of equipment and support. As UT doctoral students, Hillyer and Huffman reached out to Summitt for extra basketballs to take back to the girls of Iraq.
Summitt’s response was what Warlick called nothing out of the ordinary for the winningest coach in NCAA basketball history: she emptied the closets, sending basketballs, uniforms, equipment, and a recorded video message challenging the girls to never give up in their pursuit of basketball.
Mohammed watched that message in a hot gym with Hillyer and her team of volunteer coaches. She later joined a group of Iraqi women who were invited to participate in two of Summitt’s basketball camps in 2009. She is now an English teacher and basketball coach to hundreds of girls in Sulaymaniyah.
“This wasn’t planned,” Warlick said at the film premiere. “It wasn’t ‘we’re going to do this and it’s going to have this kind of impact on these kids.’ It was just a simple act of kindness.”
Proceeds from the night’s event benefitted the Pat Summitt Foundation as well as Zhima Path of Life Girl’s Basketball Club in Iraq. Hillyer and Huffman are currently in conversations with Tyler Summitt and the Pat Summitt Foundation to arrange additional screenings throughout the United States as well as making the film available for digital download. Updates on the film can be found at patlegacyoflove.com or any of the Coaching Change social media handles @coachchangexo.