The world lost two Tennessee women's college basketball legends, Nikki McCray-Penson and Tasha Butts, to breast cancer earlier this year. As the Lady Vols get ready to take on Ohio State in the Jimmy V Classic this weekend, Tennessee coach Kellie Harper talked to CBS Sports about their long-lasting impact.
"Two amazing people with big personalities who influenced a lot of people along the way. Whether it was their teammates, their coaches, their players, they had a profound impact, a positive impact in our game," Harper said. "They were much too young. Much too young. So I think it's been a gut punch, I think not only to the Tennessee Lady Vol family, but to women's basketball in general."
Tennessee is taking on Ohio State as part of the Jimmy V Classic. I talked to Kellie Harper about Tasha Butts and Nikki McCray-Penson, two @LadyVol_Hoops legends who died of cancer this year. @GeorgetownWBB’s Butts inspired the #TashaTough social media campaign pic.twitter.com/m96oas2H1N— Isabel Gonzalez (@cisabelg) December 3, 2023
The Jimmy V Classic aims to raise money and awareness for cancer research. The inaugural games took place in 1995 with only men's college basketball teams. Women's basketball started getting involved in 2002.
This year, the women's games take place Sunday with South Carolina at Duke, UConn at Texas and Ohio State at Tennessee. The men's teams will play a doubleheader Tuesday at Madison Square Garden, as Florida Atlantic will take on Illinois while North Carolina battles UConn.
Last year, "V Week" helped raise a record breaking $14.4 million, according to ESPN.
"I think we are still trying to figure this out. We are still trying to beat this. We are trying to beat cancer," Harper said. "Obviously the Jimmy V Foundation, with the approach of finding research dollars, I think has made a lot of headway, but we are not there yet, and we are going to continue to spread that awareness and keep supporting that cause."
Tennessee @LadyVol_Hoops head coach Kellie Harper on the importance of cancer research:— Isabel Gonzalez (@cisabelg) December 3, 2023
"I think everyone has a story, everyone has been touched or influenced by cancer at some point in their lives… We gotta continue to make strides, and I think that's the message." pic.twitter.com/yNTAHxJoIV
McCray-Penson, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and three-time WNBA All-Star, died at age 51 in July. She was about to enter her second season as an assistant coach for Rutgers. Before her time with the Scarlet Knights, she was the head coach at Mississippi State. McCray-Penson was inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2012.
Butts died at age 41 in October, right before starting her first season as Georgetown's head coach. She was diagnosed with advanced-stage breast cancer in 2021. Through her battle, Butts inspired theTeams all over the nation shared videos sending their support and best wishes.
"I think it did inspire a lot of people, and I think it also rallies the community," Harper said. "... There were a lot of programs out there showing support, sending support, sending love to her and her family, and her program and teams during that tough time. I think it's motivational, it's inspirational and it's rallying the troops."
McCray-Penson and Butts stayed close to their alma mater, but the most important thing they left behind were not achievements on the court. For Harper, their love for life and kindness toward others will be the biggest part of their legacies.
"Big personalities. Infectious, big smiles," Harper said. "I think the way they treated people is what you remember. Whether it was getting a happy thanksgiving text, a good luck text, seeing them on the road recruiting, they just made you feel special."
Unfortunately, cancer diagnoses are far too common. According to the National Cancer Institute, roughly two million people are expected to be diagnosed with cancer in the United States in 2023. The hope is that as awareness spreads, there will be more early detection and someday even a cure.
"We have players that have lost family members, parents, to cancer. It's a tough conversation," Harper said. "It's a though thing to go through for anyone, and in particularly young people. I think everyone has a story, everyone has been touched or influenced by cancer at some point in their lives.
"As we a society we continue to progress, move forward, we are innovative with technology. We gotta continue to make strides, and that's the message."