Nikki McCray-Penson, women's basketball Hall-of-Famer and Olympic gold medalist, dies at 51

Nikki McCray-Penson had a tremendous effect on women's basketball for the past two decades. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Nikki McCray-Penson had a tremendous effect on women's basketball for 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 her second season as an assistant coach for the Scarlet Knights.

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 deeply sad and emotional day for everyone 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 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 played four seasons at Tennessee for the late Pat Summitt from 1991 to 1995, averaging 12.4 points per game. She won three consecutive SEC regular season titles as well as two SEC tournament titles. The Volunteers were the NCAA runner-ups in 1995.

The Washington Mystics drafted McCray-Penson with the third overall pick in 1998 after she spent two seasons with the Columbus Quest in the now-defunct American Basketball League. McCray-Penson was the ABL MVP in 1997 after she helped the Quest win the league's championship.

"Nikki was a tremendous 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 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."

McCray-Penson played four seasons in Washington, where she made three All-Stars before stints with the Indiana Fever, Phoenix Mercury, San Antonio Stars (who later became the Las Vegas Aces) and the Chicago Sky. During her 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 move to coaching

Following her playing career, McCray-Penson joined Western Kentucky as an assistant coach in 2006. She went on to become an assistant under Dawn Staley at South Carolina in 2008, a position she held until 2017 when Old Dominion hired McCray-Penson as its head coach.

Old Dominion went from 12th to second in Conference USA in just three seasons under McCray-Penson. She then became the head coach at Mississippi State in 2020 but stepped down midway through her second season in 2021 with the team due to health concerns. McCray-Penson joined Rutgers in 2022.

"I came to admire Nikki's courage and her commitment to her players and this university while she endured significant health challenges during her tenure as our women's basketball coach," MSU President Dr. Mark Keenum said in a statement. "While at Mississippi State, Coach McCray-Penson did her absolute best to advance this university and the State of Mississippi. My wife, Rhonda, and I are deeply saddened by her death and are praying for her family and friends."

Dawn Staley among those to honor McCray-Penson

An outpouring of memories and support for McCray-Penson hit the internet soon after news of her death broke on Friday.

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

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

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