Women’s Basketball Hall of Famer and Olympic Gold Medalist Nikki McCray-Penson Dies at 51

Nikki McCray-Penson has had a tremendous effect on women's basketball over the past two decades.  (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Nikki McCray-Penson has had a tremendous effect on women’s basketball over the past two decades. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Nikki McCray-Penson, who played and coached women’s basketball for 27 years, died Friday at the age of 51, Rutgers University confirmed in a statement. McCray-Penson was entering his second season as Scarlet Knights assistant coach.

The cause of death has not been announced. McCray-Penson was a breast cancer survivor after being diagnosed in 2013. She had a 10-year-old son with her husband, Thomas Penson.

“Today is a deeply sad and emotional day for all who knew and loved Nikki,” Rutgers head coach Coquese Washington said in a statement. “Nikki had a big smile and an even bigger heart. She was full of life, energy and it was so much fun to be with her. Nikki touched the lives of many because she gave herself to mission to uplift others and help them achieve their expressed dreams and goals.She was so dedicated to her husband and son, and always gave herself to everyone in the program. She will be greatly missed but will keep Nikki’s memory alive in our hearts.

McCray-Penson played four seasons at Tennessee for the late Pat Summitt from 1991 to 1995 where she averaged 12.4 points per game. She won three consecutive SEC regular season titles as well as two SEC tournament titles. The Volunteers were NCAA finalists in 1995.

The Washington Mystics drafted McCray-Penson the third overall pick in 1998 after spending two seasons with the Columbus Quest in the defunct American Basketball League. McCray-Penson was the ABL MVP in 1997 after helping the Quest win the league championship.

“Nikki was a terrific competitor,” Brian Agler, who coached McCray-Penson with the Quest, said in an interview with ESPN. “She could dominate a game with her defensive abilities and aggressive offensive style. She had an incredible work ethic. I know her family, friends and Columbus Quest fans respect her and will miss her.”

McCray-Penson played four seasons in Washington where she made three All-Stars before moving on to the Indiana Fever, Phoenix Mercury, San Antonio Stars (later to become the Las Vegas Aces) and Chicago Sky. During his time with the Mystics, McCray-Penson averaged 15.4 points, 2.3 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game.

During her professional career, McCray-Penson also won two Olympic gold medals for the United States, first in Atlanta in 1996 and then in Sydney in 2000.

McCray-Penson’s transition to coaching

After her playing career, McCray-Penson joined Western Kentucky as an assistant coach in 2006. She became an assistant under Dawn Staley in South Carolina in 2008, a position she held until 2017, when Old Dominion hired McCray-Penson hired her as their head coach.

Old Dominion have gone from 12th to second in Conference USA in just three seasons under McCray-Penson. She then became Mississippi State’s head coach in 2020, but quit midway through her second season in 2021 with the team due to health issues. McCray-Penson joined Rutgers in 2022.

“I have come to admire Nikki’s courage and commitment to her players and this university as she endured significant health issues during her tenure as coach of our women’s basketball,” said MSU President Dr. Mark Keenum said in a statement. “During his time at Mississippi State, Coach McCray-Penson did his best to move this university and Mississippi State forward. My wife, Rhonda, and I are deeply saddened by his death and pray for his family and friends.”

Dawn Staley among those honoring McCray-Penson

A wave of memories and support for McCray-Penson hit the internet shortly after news of his death was announced on Friday.

Staley, who also played with McCray-Penson on both Olympic teams, posted a lengthy personal message for her former teammate and fellow coach.

Others — either teams she played or coached for, players she coached or played with, or even those who knew McCray-Penson — posted heartwarming messages and tributes.

Leave a Comment