Nikki McCray-Penson, a former basketball player who was part of the famous 1996 Olympic team that started the United States’ winning streak of seven gold medals, has passed away at the age of 51.
Remembering Nikki McCray-Penson: A Hall of Fame Basketball Star’s Legacy Lives On
Nikki Mccray played for the Lady Vols in Tennessee during the 1990s and went on to play in professional leagues like the ABL and WNBA. Later, she became a college basketball coach.
Last season, McCray-Penson worked as an assistant coach for Rutgers University. Her death was confirmed by the university, but the cause of death has not been announced.
McCray-Penson had a son named Thomas Jr., who recently turned 10 years old. In 2013, McCray-Penson was diagnosed with breast cancer while working as an assistant coach for South Carolina.
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She was part of the coaching staff when the Gamecocks won the NCAA championship in 2017 under her close friend and former Olympic teammate Dawn Staley. Afterward, she took on her first head-coaching role at Old Dominion.
“Thank you my little sister, my friend, my foxhole partner, my teammate, my fast food snacker, my basketball junkie, my fellow Olympian, my gold medalist and now my angel,” Staley wrote on Twitter along with a statement. “… Suffer no more Nik Nik.”
McCray-Penson had been a college coach for 16 years before his last season at Rutgers. He was the head coach at Mississippi State and Old Dominion University. She left the Monarchs after they had two 20-win seasons in a row.
She then took over the Bulldogs, who had a 10-9 season because of COVID-19. Before her second season at MSU would have started in October 2021, she quit to focus on her health.
A’ja Wilson, the star of South Carolina’s 2017 championship team and a two-time WNBA Most Valuable Player for the Las Vegas Aces, said on Twitter,
“My heart hurts like crazy over this one.” “Such a fighter and a warrior with the sweetest gentle soul! Coach McCray you’ve helped me in many, many ways and you were a true gift from God! Truly will be missed! No more suffering, no more pain! God got a good one.”
A’ja Wilson Tweet:
Heart hurts like crazy over this one! 💔 such a fighter and a warrior with the sweetest gentle soul! Coach McCray you’ve helped me in many many ways and you were a true gift from God! Truly will be missed! No more suffering no more pain! God got a good one 🤍 #oranges pic.twitter.com/zRCu4zXXdv
— A’ja Wilson (@_ajawilson22) July 7, 2023
In the most recent season, Nikki McCray-Penson made a comeback to coaching by joining Rutgers as an assistant coach under Coquese Washington.
“Nikki had a big smile and an even bigger heart,” Washington said in a statement provided by Rutgers. “She was full of life, energy, and was so much fun to be around. Nikki touched the lives of many because she made it her mission to uplift others and help them achieve whatever dreams and goals they expressed. She was so devoted to her husband and son, and still gave all of herself to everyone in the program. We will miss her dearly but will keep Nikki’s memory alive in our hearts.”
McCray-Penson was born in Collierville, Tennessee, and she helped the Lady Vols win three SEC regular-season crowns and two SEC tournament titles. They also made it to the women’s Final Four in 1995, but lost to Connecticut in the title game.
“Our hearts are broken as we mourn the loss of a beloved Lady Vol,” Tennessee coach Kellie Harper said in a statement. “We also offer our love and sincere condolences to her family, friends and colleagues across the country. Nikki had a bright and loving personality and touched the lives of everyone she met. Her kind and genuine spirit will be missed.”
After college, McCray-Penson was put on the U.S. national team. From the fall of 1995 until the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, they practiced and went on tours together. The success and fame of that U.S. team led to the creation of the WNBA in 1997. This story was told in the ESPN 30 for 30 special “Dream On,” which came out last year.
The WNBA said in a statement, “Our hearts are heavy as we learn of the passing of Nikki McCray-Penson,” “… Our thoughts and prayers are with Nikki’s family and loved ones at this time.”
During her successful nine-year career in the WNBA, Nikki McCray-Penson achieved three All-Star selections. She also had the honor of representing Team USA and winning gold medals in the 1996 and 2000 Summer Olympics.
“We are heartbroken to hear this news,” Indiana Fever general manager Lin Dunn wrote on Twitter. “Nikki was on our first Fever playoff team; her family is in our thoughts and prayers.”
McCray-Penson was an important player for the Columbus Quest basketball team. She helped lead them to win the 1997 championship in the American Basketball League (ABL). During that same year, she was also named the Most Valuable Player (MVP) of the ABL. After her successful time in the ABL, she went on to play in the WNBA.
“Nikki was a tremendous competitor,” Brian Agler, who coached McCray-Penson with the Quest, told ESPN. “She could dominate a game with her defensive abilities and her aggressive offensive style. She had such a tremendous work ethic. I know her Columbus Quest family, friends and fans respect her and will miss her.”
In 2012, McCray-Penson received a great honor by being inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. It recognized her outstanding contributions and achievements in the sport of women’s basketball.
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