Steve Jobs and Pat Summitt: legends and mortality

Two big stories today on two legendary figures in business and sports: one man, one woman. Each revolutionized their fields. Each will be studied for generations to come. And both reveal the sadness that greatness does not mean immortality.

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Steve Jobs resigned as CEO of Apple. He has been on medical leave since January, having gone through pancreatic cancer and undergoing a liver transplant just two years ago. His resignation letter was brief:

To the Apple Board of Directors and the Apple Community:

I have always said if there ever came a day when I could no longer meet my duties and expectations as Apple’s CEO, I would be the first to let you know. Unfortunately, that day has come.

I hereby resign as CEO of Apple. I would like to serve, if the Board sees fit, as Chairman of the Board, director and Apple employee.

As far as my successor goes, I strongly recommend that we execute our succession plan and name Tim Cook as CEO of Apple.

I believe Apple’s brightest and most innovative days are ahead of it. And I look forward to watching and contributing to its success in a new role.

I have made some of the best friends of my life at Apple, and I thank you all for the many years of being able to work alongside you.

Steve

It’s clear from this letter that his health is getting worse, but he remains Apple’s chairman.

This is a man who has simply changed the world. When I was a kid, I wondered what the future would be like. Jobs has brought the world beyond my imagination.

Fifty years ago, a computer was a giant machine that took up multiple rooms. Jobs has made the computer a household appliance. The computers used in the Apollo space program to put men on the moon were less powerful than the machine I’m using now to type this post. I’m working on a mini-Mac, something I can carry in a backpack.

Back in the mid-1960s, the most advanced technology offered in television science fiction included a hand held communicator that Captain Kirk would use to contact the USS Enterprise from the surface of a planet. Spock carried a device that could give data at the touch of a button. In comic strips, the detective Dick Tracy had a two way wrist television as a communications device. That’s all those inventions did.

I have an iPhone, and it does thousands of things more than those concepts of the future ever could.

In the “olden days,” people kept thousands of albums that filled bookcases, milk crates, cabinets and shelves, taking up walls of space.

I have an iPod that does the same thing, but I don’t use it much because my iPhone also holds the music that would take up a room.

A little less than a decade ago, Tom Cruise was in a movie where he had a touch screen device that contained data, records, video and could call up any information imaginable.

I have an iPad. It doesn’t predict the future, but really, how far off can that be.

These are products that Steve Jobs brought to the world. More surprising, he did it after the company that fired him asked him to come back.

I haven’t even gotten into how he changed the music industry with iTunes. Or how he revolutionized animation with Pixar.

Walt Mossberg at the Wall Street Journal explains how Steve Jobs is a historical figure here.

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Pat Summitt, the head coach of the Tennessee Volunteers women’s basketball team announced she has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Summitt is simply the greatest living basketball coach today. Her record at Tennessee says it all: 1,037 wins to 196 losses, 18 Final Four appearances; and eight national championships.

Some will dismiss that, saying she’s just a women’s coach, but that isn’t fair. Her success at Tennessee has made women’s sports viable. The Volunteer women constantly sell out their arena. Her program is stronger than the Tennessee men’s program. If you’re a middle-school or high-school girl who’s a star at basketball, there are two places you’d want to go: Connecticut and Tennessee.

Summitt has proved women are competitors, and that influence carries into other team sports: soccer, softball, track and field, even ice hockey. Girls watched Tennessee women tear up their competitors and realized they, too, could excel at whatever sport they chose.

The coach is a legend, and, according to Sally Jenkins at the Washington Post, her encounter with mortality is a painful one:

“I just felt something was different,” she says. “And at the time I didn’t know what I was dealing with. Until I went to Mayo, I couldn’t know for sure. But I can remember trying to coach and trying to figure out schemes and whatever and it just wasn’t coming to me, like, I would typically say, ‘We’re gonna do this, and run that.’ And it probably caused me to second-guess.”

A brilliant basketball mind is being destroyed by an irreversible degenerative brain disease. Summitt’s interview with Sally Jenkins is here.

She’ll still be coach at Tennessee. Jenkins’s story indicates Summitt wants to stick around another three years. It’s possible she’ll win another national championship. That would be great to see.

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We have no immortals. But we have legends. And for now, they’re still with us.