'It's bigger than me': How Tasha Butts is carrying on Kay Yow's legacy in her own fight against cancer

'It's bigger than me': How Tasha Butts is carrying on Kay Yow's legacy in her own fight against cancer

ATLANTA — Thousands of eyes stare down at Tasha Butts. She has always felt comfortable on a basketball court. But this is unfamiliar.

She’d give anything to be inside the Georgia Tech women’s college basketball team’s locker room, speaking to the Yellow Jackets at halftime. Instead, almost four months after being diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, Butts stands on the court at McCamish Pavilion as 29 breast cancer survivors and patients encircle her. It’s the Yellow Jackets’ Play4Kay event, in which teams across the country dedicate one game each season to raise money for the Kay Yow Cancer Fund.

This is attention that Butts, the associate head coach at Georgia Tech, didn’t want in the first months of her diagnosis. She waited weeks before telling her players, gathering her emotions and preparing to share her life-altering news. She didn’t want it to be about her and avoided speaking publicly. But as she learned more and shuttled through her own maze of appointments and meetings and treatments, she found a voice.

Butts is wearing a pink T-shirt that says “TASHA TOUGH” as she begins speaking to the crowd. She asks for a standing ovation for the women on the court beside her, who she says “are definitely an inspiration for me.” She jokes about how she’s tired of hearing her name. And then she begins to explain.

“My head was spinning. My tears were flowing and I did not know where to turn to, and it was amazing, the team of doctors immediately that I had surrounding me. Everyone doesn’t have that,” Butts said. “What they [ask] you is, ‘How are you doing physically? How are you doing mentally?’

“But sometimes what people fail to ask you is how are you doing financially? That is the part where I want to step in.”

Tasha Butts is in a literal fight for her life. But just like the determined, ever-dependable friend she has always been, Butts is focused on helping others, even as she continues her own battle. And the women’s basketball community is rallying around her mission to advocate for equal access to quality health care for all.

Which led Butts to this moment, on this court, being real about her own situation to try and motivate those around her.

“She’s tough and she’s blunt and she’s loved by so many because of that …,” said Ashley Robinson, Butts’ longtime friend. “She has not lost any of that edge about her, she still has it. That’s the most beautiful thing about her. She’s not a soft woman, she’s a tough woman and I think if anybody’s going to be a good poster child for fighting this disease, she’s it.”

IT STARTED WITH back pain. Butts, 39, was an All-SEC guard at Tennessee who played in two national championship games. A high-level athlete for that long, she knew something wasn’t right with her body.

Butts met with her primary care doctor, who said there were concerning signs and that more tests were needed.

Butts told her immediate family and informed Georgia Tech coach Nell Fortner and chief of staff Mickie DeMoss that she was undergoing tests, but she confided in no one else. Not even her closest friends. Robinson, Dominique Redding, Shyra Ely and Butts — former teammates at Tennessee — have been on the same group text for years and FaceTime almost daily, sometimes twice.

In a tearful FaceTime with the group in September, Redding shared that her mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer. After genetic testing, doctors recommended she undergo tests. So around the same time Butts — telling almost no one — went for her mammogram, so did Redding.

When her results came back negative, Redding FaceTimed the group to share the good news. Robinson and Ely picked up. Butts didn’t, but congratulated Redding by text.

Butts was diagnosed on Nov. 15, 2023, the same day she underwent initial tests. She called her parents, Spencer Butts Sr. and Evelyn Butts, straight away. “This is not something I would be able to fight by myself, so I needed them with me from Day 1,” she said. She also told Fortner and DeMoss.

Butts struggled to tell her friends. As she worked through more scans and appointments and planning meetings, she needed time to process the all-too-common reality of breast cancer, which is diagnosed in approximately one in eight women in the United States.

After a few days, Butts FaceTimed her friends. Redding, who was at work, didn’t pick up initially, but joined when they texted. Get on the call now.

“And that’s when she told us she had cancer,” said Redding, becoming emotional retelling the story months later. “And I just remember going through so many emotions and feeling guilty because I got great news. And my best friend didn’t. And all she could say was, ‘Thank God it’s not both of us.’ Because that’s how she thinks, you know.”

Together, they cried. Ely and Robinson, who are in Oregon, and Redding, who’s based in Nashville, asked what Butts needed. At the moment, it was merely support. Butts told them her family was making the approximately two-hour trip from her hometown of Milledgeville, Georgia, to Atlanta to have one more weekend of normalcy before treatment began.

After a decade of coaching at Duquesne, UCLA and LSU, Butts returned to Georgia to coach at Tech in 2019. Now she’d be home when she needed family most. They cooked and played games.

“It was not a sad moment of all of us sitting here crying, because that’s not who we are, that’s not who I am,” Butts said. “Can’t hold me down too long. Got out my tears and then I enjoyed my family like I always do.”

BUTTS’ FRIENDS KNOW this: If they are in crisis, she will be there for you. When former Lady Vols teammate Semeka Randall-Lay lost everything in a tornado in 2019, Butts’ help was constant. When DeMoss got into a fender bender, she called Butts because she knew she’d be there for her.

When Tamika Catchings suffered a torn ACL during her senior season at Tennessee, Butts and Robinson — then freshmen — moved into Catchings’ apartment for two weeks to cook, clean and drive Catchings around. Sleeping on the couch and floor in Catchings’ one-bedroom apartment in Knoxville, they watched movies, played games and laughed at a time when Catchings needed distraction and routine.

“They were lifesavers,” Catchings said. “They are lifesavers.”

So it was no surprise when, as Butts shared her news with a few others, that they showed up for her. Randall-Lay, head coach at Winthrop, visited while on a recruiting trip. Las Vegas Aces president Nikki Fargas, Butts’ former boss at LSU, also flew in, part of a stream of people looking to help.

Catchings, too, became the support she once received, flying into Atlanta for four days, serving as Butts’ chauffeur while juggling her then-job as the general manager of the Indiana Fever.

Butts was still keeping her diagnosis private. “I really just don’t want people to know,” Butts told Catchings at the time.

“Tasha,” Catchings said. “People are going to know.”

As the intensity of appointments and testing began to hit Butts, DeMoss became an on-court coach while Butts handled more background work. She would stay connected, but she wouldn’t be on the floor, and she wouldn’t travel.

“It was more of a mental thing where I needed to get myself mentally [right] and I was not in a headspace to give anything to anybody else at that moment,” Butts said. “And so I took that time to kind of get my thoughts together, but I was still around.”

Players, friends and recruits were starting to ask questions. It was time to tell the world.

Fortner called a team meeting. As far as the players knew, Butts was dealing with back problems.

“When she told us she had breast cancer, you could hear a pin drop in the room,” said senior guard Kierra Fletcher, who was on the team at the time. “It was just a super emotional time. We definitely were not expecting her to say that at all.”

Two days later, on Dec. 8, the news became public as Butts announced she had advanced-stage breast cancer and would step away from her on-court role.

THE REACTION ACROSS the basketball world was swift: How can I help?

South Carolina coach Dawn Staley, who knew Butts from a distance, got her phone number and started sending daily inspirational messages. She hasn’t missed a weekday text since.

Inspirational videos with the hashtag “Tasha Tough” flooded Twitter. Personal messages from Butts’ vast network in coaching also offered support. The combination of Butts’ personality and the fact so many have been personally impacted by the disease brought people together.

“That’s how impactful she’s been to so many different people,” said Michaela Mabrey, Butts’ former roommate during their overlapping time as coaches at LSU. “She’s so genuine and you can feel it every single time you’re around her. … Her energy is so high. She vibrates at such a high frequency, and when you know that about her, when something like this happens, you want to do everything you can to support somebody like that.”

Butts has good days and bad days. Her close friends, her coaching staff, they’ve seen that. And Butts admits she has had to get more comfortable acknowledging it. As she went through the treatments, Butts’ understanding of the financial realities of the disease grew.

She has a good job, available medical care and good insurance. Not everyone has that. That, she decided, would become her mission, and what she would start speaking about. She’d share her story and raise money. It was part of the Kay Yow Cancer Fund mission, but also Butts’ personal one.

“I know the bills that I pull out of my mailbox and how I feel when I get them,” Butts said. “I can only imagine if you’re a woman battling breast cancer and you don’t have the resources that I’ve been afforded, how are you going to battle this disease?”

The next steps took place in late January with Fargas, who is president of the board of directors at the Kay Yow Cancer Fund. In partnership with the Play4Kay initiative, Georgia Tech’s athletic department committed to raising $100,000 over the next two years, at which point the Kay Yow Cancer Fund will award a $150,000 grant to Northside Hospital in Atlanta — where Butts received her cancer treatment — to bring quality care to women who can’t afford it.

“It’s bigger than me,” Butts said.

So she grabbed the microphone.

It began Feb. 7 at NC State, where Naismith Hall of Famer Kay Yow was the head coach for over 30 years before dying in January 2009 after a decades-long fight with cancer. Butts, who traveled with the Yellow Jackets for the first time since her diagnosis, spoke at halftime of the Play4Kay game among a sea of pink.

“She could have taken her diagnosis and just focused on getting herself better,” Robinson said. “But she stepped up, and she stepped up for a lot of women.”

Butts had seen her Tennessee coach, Pat Summitt, set that example after she was diagnosed with early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, in 2011. Before her death five years later, Summitt fought tirelessly to raise awareness and money toward finding a cure for the disease. Butts said Summitt’s strength inspired her own fight.

“Whatever you can do, you don’t just lay down and let something beat you,” Butts said. “You don’t lay down and let somebody come in and walk all over you. …

“We’re competing. Me and breast cancer, we’re competing. And I’m a competitor. So we’re just going to have to figure it out.”

BUTTS IS STILL a coach. During her on-court absence, she regularly talked and texted with her players. She watched most home games from the stands, and road games on television at home, sometimes frantically texting Liz Ryan, Georgia Tech’s media relations associate director, admittedly nitpicking what she was seeing on TV, her way to stay connected.

“Let me just tell you, I am a lot calmer on the bench than I am at home,” Butts said. “I try to sit in my same spot, but I’m going to end up walking outside, I’m going to end up shutting my computer down, flipping the channel away. … It is a lot of emotions going on over here.”

Georgia Tech heads into the ACC tournament this week as the No. 6 seed, the Yellow Jackets opening play Thursday in the second round. The NCAA bracket — the Yellow Jackets are a lock for an at-large bid should they fall in the conference tournament — will be revealed on March 13, but Butts has another important date this month.

Though Ely, Redding and Robinson asked to visit around the holidays, Butts — with a house full of family — put them off. Now, Butts made it clear: They better be in Atlanta on March 10, the day she turns 40.

“If she wants something,” Ely said, “she’s going to be very direct.”

Their conversations still happen daily, though rarely about cancer. Redding jokes that in retirement the four of them need to move to the same town to open a breakfast restaurant because of their shared love of cooking. Butts has settled into a new normal. The cancer exists, but it has been relegated to the background with her friends, though Ely, Robinson and Redding recently celebrated good test results on a call.

Butts was right. This is bigger than her. She has a mission beyond her battle now.

Stephanie Glance, Yow’s longtime associate head coach who is now the chief executive officer of the Kay Yow Cancer Fund, watched her boss become a reluctant face in the fight against cancer. And damn if those same feelings didn’t come back as Glance witnessed Butts’ halftime speeches at both NC State and Georgia Tech.

“Tasha is humbly and gracefully accepting the platform because she wants to help other people,” Glance said. “And that is identical to why Coach Yow didn’t retire when she was diagnosed for the third time with cancer. That’s why Coach Yow was public with her cancer. And it has helped a nation. …

“And Tasha is doing the same thing.”