“And then I fought and fought and fought until I beat him, and then he wouldn’t play me again,” Butts said.
“I've always fought. I've always had to fight for something. And that's just the mentality that I wake up with every day now, is that my treatment is a part of my life. My medication is a part of my life now. My limitations may be a part of my life. But I'm going to deal with it; I'm going to fight through it. I can't allow it to hold me back. That's not who I am."
- Georgia Tech assistant coach Tasha Butts
It led her to being named the state player of the year at Baldwin High in 2000 and earned her a scholarship to Tennessee playing for the legendary Pat Summitt, where she had to fight for playing time among the slew of high school All-Americans and helped the Lady Vols to three Final Four trips. And it has been fuel in her successful coaching career.
You just do what you have to do.
Butts has summoned that spirit for a battle of an entirely different order, fighting back against metastatic breast cancer. To Butts, there are two choices – crawling under a rock or coming out swinging. You can guess which option Evelyn Butts’ only daughter selected.
“I’ve always fought,” Butts told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I’ve always had to fight for something. And that’s just the mentality that I wake up with every day now, is that my treatment is a part of my life. My medication is a part of my life now. My limitations may be a part of my life. But I’m going to deal with it; I’m going to fight through it. I can’t allow it to hold me back. That’s not who I am.”
To tend to her health, Butts stepped back from her duties on coach Nell Fortner’s staff. Butts continues to serve the team but has handed over her coaching responsibilities to Mickie DeMoss, who has been Fortner’s chief of staff. Butts attends practice, but as a health precaution usually watches games from home or from the Callaway Club at McCamish Pavilion.
“So now she’s more just supporting the players, supporting the coaching staff and things like that,” Fortner said.
She’ll be front of mind Thursday, though, when the No. 16 Yellow Jackets will play No. 19 Notre Dame at McCamish Pavilion in Tech’s annual Play4Kay game. It is a fundraiser for the Kay Yow Cancer Fund, established by the late Yow, the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame coach at N.C. State, to fight women’s cancers and honor survivors.
Fortner’s team committed to raise $100,000 in Butts’ honor for the fund, which in turn will make a $150,000 grant to Northside Hospital to provide cancer health care for underserved women in metro Atlanta. Pink T-shirts bearing the fitting motto “Tasha Tough” will be given to fans. Butts also is expected to speak at halftime.
“What Tasha says to us is, it’s really important for her to be able to give back and be able to use her platform in a really positive way that would help other women in their fight against cancer,” said Stephanie Glance, CEO of the Kay Yow Cancer Fund. “She’s definitely doing that, and it’s really powerful, very impactful.”
Butts was diagnosed in November at a routine checkup, she said. She turned 39 the previous March, making her an anomaly. Women at the age of 30 have a 1-in-209 probability of being diagnosed with breast cancer in the next 10 years, according to American Cancer Society research.
“It took me a while to even be able to just talk about it because I just had to wrap my head around it, like what was really happening, what was going on?” Butts said. “I still have my moments.”
Fortner arranged for Butts to tell the team after an early-season practice. Players had dinner and gathered in the locker room, and Butts had the floor.
“It was emotional, but it’s life and we deal with it, we talked about it,” Fortner said. “They could ask questions, and now, on the road to recovery.”
Butts undergoes treatment once a month and has appointments three to four times a month. She doesn’t have many side effects, thankfully.
“You have to continue with all of your scans, and continuing to check things, but right now, everything is going well,” she said.
Family, friends and former teammates, particularly her parents, Evelyn and Spencer, have come through with support as Butts has been physically limited, particularly with back pain from where her cancer has spread. Butts’ parents have made frequent trips from Milledgeville (about 45 miles northeast of Macon) to help with laundry, cleaning and other chores. Butts called them “rock stars.”
“I have a great support system of people, and our staff has been great,” Butts said.
Players have responded with compassion and support.
“When they see me when I come to practice, they’re always going to come to me and hug me like they haven’t seen me in a while,” Butts said.
She does miss being with the team, which has built on its run to the Sweet 16 last season with a 19-6 record and an unyielding defense.
“When you kind of go through things like this, it definitely opens your eyes,” Butts said. “I did tell Nell that I do have a different appreciation for coaching. When something is taken away from you and it’s not when you want it to be, there’s a struggle there.”
She has been drawn to the profession since her senior season at Tennessee (2003-04). When a season-ending injury to a teammate required Butts to move to point guard, it changed her perspective on the game. She met daily with the legendary Summitt, watching game video together and trying to be an extension of her on the floor. At the end of the season, Summitt invited her to be a grad assistant, a role she took on after one season in the WNBA. She continued to play professionally after that but transitioned to coaching full time in 2007. She began at Duquesne, then took jobs at UCLA and LSU before Fortner made her part of her first staff in 2019.
Fortner knew her through her playing career and later reconnected with her during Butts’ eight seasons as an assistant coach at LSU. Butts, she said, was one of her first calls upon taking the job.
“Real,” Fortner said of Butts. “She’s just real, solid – strong character. You want the honest truth, that’s who you ask.”
Butts’ plan for her return is to have DeMoss finish the season in her spot on the bench and then switch back when the offseason begins. There will be recruiting, skill development for returning players and preparing for the arrival of the incoming freshman class.
“I just love being on the floor teaching, the player development piece of it,” Butts said.
There are other plans, such as what she has informed her “bestie group” – a circle of former teammates from Tennessee (Shyra Ely, Dominique Redding and Ashley Robinson).
“I just told them, from now on, we’re not putting things off,” Butts said. “We’re going to take our trips; we’re going to vacation together. Because I just think now I have a new appreciation for living for today.”
There are trips to take and players to coach and mentor. Hardly least, there’s also a nephew to help raise. Marquis Butts is the 10-year-old son of Butts’ brother Spencer, a boy she calls her inspiration. With a new appreciation for life and a tough-as-nails tenacity, Butts will fight and just do what she has to do. That’s who she is.
“And so, what drives me is life,” Butts said. “Doing everything I have to do to be here on this earth and to continue to make my mark.”