UK Men's Basketball

Appy State's Butts a slimmed-down big man

To ask about Appalachian State big man Isaac "Ike" Butts sparks references to Larry Bird, a football scholarship offer by Georgia, a blob, a teddy bear, military school, an angry coach moved by a giant's kindness to write a note of appreciation, and a rich, delicious self-description: "big-time cheesecake person."

Kentucky might be facing college basketball's most intriguing story on Saturday.

The most recent chapter to this rags-to-riches story came on Dec. 6. After one of Butts' six double-doubles this season led Appalachian State to victory, Wofford Coach Mike Young went home still "mad as a hornet."

His wife then told him of their 5-year-old son, Davis, playing with Butts after the game.

As Butts recalled, Davis approached with some of his friends and told him, "You're really tall."

To which, Butts replied, "No, I'm not that tall. I'm normal height. You all are short."

That playful exchange began several minutes of fun between elementary-age children and Appy State's 6-foot-9 center.

Back home, Davis told his father of a new favorite player: Ike Butts.

For the first time in his 22-year coaching career, Young wrote a note to an opposing player.

"There's something awfully special in taking time for little people," Young said when asked about the note. "I just thought it was an incredible, classy, beautiful thing to see from a college athlete. There's so much of a boorish, selfish attitude that permeates college basketball. ... I just think it's refreshing to see a 6-9 guy, you know, be a kid."

The note may have surprised Appy State Coach Houston Fancher, but not the sentiment. "He can put a smile on your heart," he said of Butts.

Given basketball's bottom-line mentality, Appy State wants Butts to put a beating on the opposition. This he's managing to do — averaging 11.4 points and 11.4 rebounds this sophomore season — despite such a modest pedigree that Fancher's secretary refused to give Fancher's cell phone number to Butts' coach at Georgia Military College Prep.

That coach, Bill Hodges, led Larry Bird and Indiana State to the 1979 national championship game.

"I've got a 6-8 recruit, and I know he'd want me to have his phone number," Hodges told Fancher's secretary.

No dice. "I'm sorry," the secretary replied, "we don't give that out."

Recalling the moment, Hodges said, "I've got his phone number on speed dial now."

Appy State wasn't the only school to spurn Hodges. He called his coaching friends and past rivals. No takers.

"They thought I was just trying to sell them a bill of goods," said Hodges, who now teaches at a high school in Roanoke, Va. "I think they felt like, 'We don't have time to mess around with a guy that's too slow.' "

Butts had been a football lineman good enough to warrant a scholarship offer from Georgia. Alabama also made a recruiting call.

But Butts wanted to play basketball, which he grew quickly to love after belatedly joining the Georgia Military College Prep team as a sophomore.

Butts did not play much until his junior season. The coach abruptly quit a few weeks before school started. Coincidentally or not, no starters were returning as Hodges, the school's athletic director, took the coaching reins.

"Hey, I'm going to put you in and you're going to play every minute," he told Butts. "Get ready."

If anything, Butts was dutiful. He'd been attending military schools since the sixth grade. His single-parent mother scraped and saved and found a way to send all seven of her children to military schools to try to secure them a more promising future.

Butts averaged 19 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks as a junior. As a senior, he averaged 26 points, 17 rebounds and four blocks. He also was an honor-roll student, which should have attracted recruiters.

But Butts looked like a football lineman playing basketball ... only heavier and slower.

That he didn't play on the summer recruiting circuit (he worked to help his family's finances) also made recruiters wary. "Basketball that junior year was just something Coach wanted me to do," he said. "I didn't even try."

Hodges got through to Appy State because one of his former teammates at Edison College in Fort Myers, Fla., was the Mountaineers' director of basketball operations. That man, Dave Funk, persuaded Fancher to go take a look, if only as a favor to Hodges.

"We were blown away with his size and attitude," Fancher said.

Like other coaches (the only other scholarship offer came from Winthrop), Fancher had concerns about Butts' weight. More than once during the recruiting process and before Butts got to Appy State, Fancher asked him how much he weighed. Each time, Butts said he weighed 285 pounds.

When Butts weighed in as an Appy State freshman, he was 340 pounds.

"Ike," Fancher said, "I thought you said you were 285."

It turned out the scale in Butts' home only went to 285 pounds. "I guess he assumed the scale stopped at his weight," Fancher said.

Butts' freshman year at Appy State involved weight loss.

"I call him a very talented eater," Fancher said. "It hurt him to give up some of his pleasures."

As a freshman, Butts did not play much or factor much in games. "He was just a big guy," the Wofford coach said. "A blob. He couldn't play more than a minute and a half without a respirator."

After diet and exercise, Butts said he now weighs 279 pounds. He's lighter and more effective.

Hodges, who attended the NBA's Orlando Pre-Draft Camp at Bird's invitation last summer, could see Butts fitting in.

"If he keeps progressing and works on his footwork, then he's got a chance to play someday in the league," Hodges said.

But right now, Fancher said Butts is not good enough to excel night after night in the Southeastern Conference.

"Eventually, he will be," the Appy State coach said. "He's going to be a pro."

Of more immediate concern is facing Kentucky's heralded big man, Patrick Patterson.

Butts recoiled from the suggestion that he can make a name for himself on Saturday. Instead, he spoke of the excitement that comes with facing "a legendary school in college basketball."

No matter the outcome, Fancher saw value of facing a big-time big man like Patterson.

"He loves contact," the Appy State coach said, "and he loves playing in physical games." Fancher cited Butts' 15 points and 17 rebounds against Charlotte in November.

To know Butts' story and to see him compete against Kentucky might be enough to inspire another note from the Wofford coach.

"He's a load," Young said of Butts. "Now, a load to the Wildcats is going to be different than a load here. ... But he has made himself into a damn good player."

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