Nikki McCray-Penson, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and three-time W.N.B.A. All-Star point guard for the University of Tennessee women’s basketball team, died on Friday. She was 51 years old.
Rutgers University, where she was set to begin her second season as an assistant coach for the women’s basketball team, reported her death.
The school did not indicate where she died or what caused her death. In 2013, McCray-Penson was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“Dawn Staley, the women’s basketball coach at the University of South Carolina, where McCray-Penson served as an assistant coach for nine years, expressed her gratitude to her beloved sister, friend, foxhole partner, teammate, fast food snacker, basketball enthusiast, fellow Olympian, gold medalist, and now, her angel,” Staley tweeted.
McCray-Penson was a two-time all-American and three-time Southeastern Conference first-team selection during her career at Tennessee. She was crucial in helping the Lady Vols to three straight regular-season conference victories and two conference tournament titles.
She started off as a defensive specialist, but she eventually became an attacking powerhouse.
“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 breakthrough season as a junior, when she averaged 16.3 points per game.
“She wanted to create the entire game, and she has.”
“I had to learn to respond when being criticized and learn from mistakes,” McCray-Penson stated in the same piece. Pat is not going to inspire you.”
“You have to come out with an attitude about yourself,” she remarked, “and that comes from maturity.”
Summitt and McCray-Penson have a particular relationship, according to Sally Jenkins, a sports journalist who worked with Summitt on three books. “Pat glowed when Nikki came to visit,” she said.
“There were a lot of players who came to Tennessee who were like 15-story buildings, but the elevators only went to the tenth floor,” she said.
Some youngsters discovered a way to get to the top and fulfill all of their potential. Nikki was one of those people.”
McCray-Penson joined the United States squad that won the gold medal at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta after graduating from Tennessee in 1995 with a bachelor’s degree in teaching.
After an early-round win against South Korea in which McCray-Penson led the squad with 16 points and nine rebounds, she said, “We want to be the best basketball team in history.”
She scored 9.4 points per game in the tournament and contributed to the suffocating defense that kept opponents from scoring. McCray-Penson averaged 5.1 points for the United States team that won gold in Sydney, Australia, four years later.
She had become a professional by that point. She averaged 19.9 points per game for the Columbus Quest of the short-lived American Basketball League, which predated the W.N.B.A. as a women’s league, led the club to the league title in 1997, and was awarded the most valuable player.
She didn’t last long with the A.B.L. After one season, she joined the Washington Mystics of the Women’s National Basketball Association, which was founded 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.
She played with the Mystics for four seasons beginning in 1998, averaging 15.4 points per game, and was selected for three All-Star games. She had less success in the next five years, playing in Indianapolis, Phoenix, San Antonio, and Chicago. She left the company in 2006.
She swiftly transitioned into teaching, serving as an assistant women’s coach at Western Kentucky University for two years before heading to South Carolina in 2008 to join Staley, her Olympic colleague from 1996 and 2000.
After assisting South Carolina achieve its first N.C.A.A. women’s basketball championship in 2017, McCray-Penson was appointed as the head coach at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.
Over three seasons, she guided the club to a 53-40 record; in the 2019-20 season, she led the Monarchs to a 24-6 record and was awarded Conference USA coach of the year.
She was hired as head coach at Mississippi State University in 2020, however, she resigned due to health concerns after a 10-9 record in her only season there.
Rutgers hired her as an assistant in 2022.
“Simply put, Nikki is a winner,” Rutgers coach Coquese Washington, a former player 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.”
In 2012, McCray-Penson was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Tenn.
Nikki Kesangane McCray was born in Collierville, Tennessee, on December 17, 1971. Her husband, Thomas Penson, and her son, also called Thomas, survive her. Sally Coleman, her mother, died of breast cancer in 2018.
“We know there’s no cure,” McCray-Penson told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger in 2020. “We put up with it. You don’t let it define you every day.
You experience life. You make each and every day count. That’s what I saw my mother doing.”