Sports

Nikki McCray-Penson, Basketball Star and Coach, Dies at 51

Nikki McCray-Penson, an all-American point guard for the powerhouse University of Tennessee women’s basketball team, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and a three-time All-Star in the W.N.B.A., died on Friday. She was 51.

Her death was announced by Rutgers University, where she was about to enter her second season as an assistant coach of the women’s basketball team. The school did not say where she died or cite a cause. McCray-Penson had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013.

“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,” Dawn Staley, the women’s basketball coach at the University of South Carolina, where McCray-Penson was an assistant coach for nine years, wrote on Twitter.

At Tennessee, McCray-Penson was a two-time all-American and a three-time all-Southeastern Conference player. She helped lead the Lady Vols to three consecutive regular-season conference titles and two conference tournament championships.

She began as a defensive specialist, but she evolved into an offensive force.

“It bothered her that she was considered so much of a defensive player,” her Basketball Hall of Fame coach, Pat Summitt, told The Tennessean of Nashville in 1994, late in McCray-Penson’s breakout season, when she averaged 16.3 points a game as a junior. “She wanted to develop the total game, and she has.”

In the same article, McCray-Penson said, “I had to learn to respond when being criticized and learn from mistakes. Pat is not going to motivate you.” She added, “You have to come out with an attitude about yourself, and that comes from maturity.”

Sally Jenkins, a sports columnist who collaborated with Summitt on three books, said in a phone interview that there was a special connection between the coach and McCray-Penson. “Pat glowed when Nikki came to visit,” she said.

She added: “There were a lot of players who came to Tennessee who were like 15-story buildings, but the elevators only went to the 10th floor. Some kids found a way to get to the top and develop all their promise. Nikki was one of those.”

McCray-Penson at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. She was a two-time Olympic gold medalist.Credit…Darren McNamara/Getty Images

After graduating from Tennessee in 1995 with a bachelor’s degree in education, McCray-Penson became part of the U.S. team that would win the gold medal at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. After an early-round victory over South Korea, in which McCray-Penson led the team with 16 points and nine rebounds, she said, “We want to be the best basketball team in history.”

Overall, she averaged 9.4 points a game in the tournament and provided some of the stifling defense that limited opponents’ scoring. Four years later, when the U.S. team won the gold medal in Sydney, Australia, McCray-Penson averaged 5.1 points.

By then, she had turned professional. With the Columbus Quest of the short-lived American Basketball League, which preceded the W.N.B.A. as a women’s league, she averaged 19.9 points a game, led the team to the league championship in 1997 and was named most valuable player.

She did not stay with the A.B.L. for long. She jumped after one season to the Washington Mystics of the W.N.B.A., which had been created by the National Basketball Association.

“I saw what the N.B.A. can do to promote women’s basketball,” she told The Associated Press in 1997.

Starting in 1998, she spent four seasons with the Mystics, averaging 15.4 points a game and was chosen for three All-Star games. She had less success over the next five years, when she played in Indianapolis, Phoenix, San Antonio and Chicago. She retired in 2006.

McCray-Penson in Norfolk, Va., in 2017, when she was the women’s basketball coach at Old Dominion University there.Credit…Steve Earley/The Virginian-Pilot, via Associated Press

She quickly moved into coaching: She was an assistant women’s coach at Western Kentucky University for two years before moving to South Carolina in 2008, where she joined Staley, her teammate on the 1996 and 2000 Olympic teams.

After helping lead South Carolina to its first N.C.A.A. women’s basketball title in 2017, McCray-Penson was hired for her first head coaching job, at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. She coached the team to a 53-40 record over three seasons; in the 2019-20 season, she led the Monarchs to a 24-6 record and was named Conference USA coach of the year.

In 2020, she was named the head coach at Mississippi State University, but she resigned for health reasons after a 10-9 record in her only season there.

In 2022, Rutgers hired her as an assistant.

“Simply put, Nikki is a winner,” Coquese Washington, the Rutgers coach, who was a teammate of McCray-Penson’s with the W.N.B.A.’s Indiana Fever, told The Associated Press. “She has excelled at the highest levels of our game.”

McCray-Penson was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, in Knoxville, Tenn., in 2012.

Nikki Kesangane McCray was born on Dec. 17, 1971, in Collierville, Tenn. Her survivors include her husband, Thomas Penson, and her son, also named Thomas. Her mother, Sally Coleman, died of breast cancer in 2018.

“We know there’s no cure,” McCray-Penson told The Clarion Ledger of Jackson, Miss., in 2020. “We live with it. Every day, you don’t let that define you. You live life. You make every day count. That’s what I saw my mom do.”

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