In Milledgeville, Baldwin aims to honor the late Tasha Butts with a championship

Butts was an assistant coach at Georgia Tech until leaving for Georgetown
Baldwin High's Madison Ruff goes up for a shot against Griffin defenders in a regional final last week. Photo courtesy of The Union-Recorder.

Credit: Photo courtesy of Union Recorder

Credit: Photo courtesy of Union Recorder

Baldwin High's Madison Ruff goes up for a shot against Griffin defenders in a regional final last week. Photo courtesy of The Union-Recorder.

MILLEDGEVILLE — The last time that Baldwin High girls basketball coach Kizzi Walker spoke with Tasha Butts was in July. Walker was on her way to Kentucky with two team members for an AAU tournament.

Butts, who had launched herself from earning All-American honors at Baldwin to three Final Four trips at Tennessee, reaching two seasons in the WNBA and then a coaching career that saw her earn the head job at Georgetown in April, was in the midst of recruiting but made the time to see Walker and her two Bravettes players in Atlanta.

“I gave her a hug, and I told her I was proud of her and I would see her do great things,” Walker said. “And then that tragedy struck.”

In October, Butts came to the end of her fight with breast cancer, dying at the age of 41, just months after ascending from her assistant coaching position at Georgia Tech to Georgetown. Her death reverberated in Baldwin County in Middle Georgia and in Milledgeville, its county seat.

Said Walker, “She’s like a legend around here.”

Butts achieved basketball stardom and a career that took her far from home, but she never forgot her roots.

When Walker took the Baldwin job in 2017, Butts reached out to her to offer her support and followed through by sharing her knowledge, sending encouraging texts and stopping by when she could.

“We all looked up to her,” said Walker, herself a former Baldwin star who was four years ahead of Butts. “We were happy somebody from our community was able to make it because we always would have to look at somebody else from another town, from another state. But we didn’t have to do that. We had Tasha here.”

Walker and her team are resolved to honor Butts with a most meaningful tribute. The Bravettes, the state’s top-ranked team in Class 4A, are bent on winning the state championship for a number of reasons, most significantly to gain redemption for their heartbreaking defeat in last year’s state title game. But the chance to bring home to this city of about 17,000 what Butts could not in her decorated career – a state title, which would be the team’s first – adds to the motivation. Walker still can remember Butts crumpling up on the floor of the Macon Coliseum after her team fell short against Beach in the 2000 Class 4A state final in her senior season.

“I want to make sure that we follow through with what they didn’t do her senior year,” Walker said. “That would be a great tribute to her for us to win the state championship this year.”

Walker has assembled a well-rounded team equal to the mission. At Baldwin’s core are six seniors who have grown up together from elementary school, learning to play in recreational leagues and then advancing through middle school before reaching high school. Point guard Madison Ruff, a Mount St. Mary’s signee, recalled playing with her eventual high-school teammates in the third or fourth grade.

“That’s when everybody probably just started learning basketball,” she said. “It was just a fun experience, being around each other.”

Baldwin High's Kassidy Neal (left) and Madison Ruff  after their first-round playoff win over Southeast Bulloch High Wednesday. Tasha Butts’ jersey number (23) is inset in the logo of their shirts.

Credit: Ken Sugiura

icon to expand image

Credit: Ken Sugiura

Ruff and her fellow classmates made the state semifinals as sophomores and then the title game last year. Ahead by four points with a little more than a minute to play, the Bravettes came undone. Region-rival Griffin snuck away with the championship by a 51-47 score.

“That game, we had it the whole time, but basically, we fell apart at the end,” forward Kassidy Neal said. “That’s really all it is.”

It’s not a memory they like to revisit, but it’s always there to summon as fuel.

Said Neal, “Never want to feel like that again.”

After demolishing Southeast Bulloch in the first round of the state tournament Wednesday in Milledgeville, the Bravettes (25-2) play No. 10 Trinity Christian School (19-9) at home Saturday with a spot in the quarterfinals on the line. (The boys team, ranked fifth in Georgia, also will be at home, against Riverdale.)

The Bravettes are an easy team to pull for, a group of young women who have thrived together in a community devoted to basketball.

“Just watching them blossom and just stay together and work together and to come to this point, they have improved along the way a lot, and they have grown together,” said assistant coach Yuri Haynes, another Baldwin alumna who was a teammate of Butts’. “They have very good chemistry.”

Speaking with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Wednesday after their win over Southeast Bulloch, Ruff and Neal came across as respectful and bright. Ruff someday wants to be a physical therapist or to work in sports management. Neal’s ambition is to be a counselor.

“I like listening to people and being a safe space for them to come to,” Neal said.

In a city short on entertainment options, they create their own fun, like venturing en masse to Walmart.

“Probably go in the toy section, throw a little football around, something like that,” Ruff said.

Neal was one of the team members who met Butts last summer. She was struck that the mythic figure whose legend she had learned as a child was actually a regular person who was nice to her and whose personality did not revolve around basketball. That only enhanced her stature.

The Bravettes’ tradition is cherished in Baldwin County, Neal said, “so being able to say that I am what Tasha once was, it just makes me feel honored to be in a spot that she was once in some years ago.”

A banner with Butts’ No. 23 jersey hangs in the Baldwin gymnasium behind one of the baskets. When the Bravettes played their home opener against Central High of Macon – a team whose coach also played with Butts at Baldwin (Tamara Bolston-Williams) – the team honored Butts by re-retiring her jersey with her family in attendance. The event packed the gym. Walker, who keeps in contact with Butts’ family, wants to make it an annual occurrence. Coincidentally, Butts will be inducted posthumously Saturday in the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame.

A group of girls with redemption on their minds aspire to deliver another tribute, one that would earn them their own place in the collective memory of a community that holds basketball dear.

The jersey of Tasha Butts hangs on the way of the gym at Baldwin High,

Credit: Ken Sugiura

icon to expand image

Credit: Ken Sugiura

Georgia Tech associate head coach Tasha Butts acknowledges applause at Tech's game at N.C. State Feb. 7, 2022 in Raleigh, N.C. Butts was honored at halftime of the game, which was a fundraiser for the Kay Yow Cancer Fund, for her own fight against breast cancer. “I never thought I’d be standing here and battling this, but you guys give me so much hope,” Butts said during the ceremony. “This game right now is against two teams, but at the end of the day, there is something more important that we’re all fighting, and there’s so much more that they’re playing this game for.” (Chris Downey/N.C. State)

Credit: Chris Downey

icon to expand image

Credit: Chris Downey