‘It’s hard to believe she’s actually gone’

Maria M. Cornelius2MCsports

Nikki McCray-Penson, a native Tennessean and legendary Lady Vol basketball player, passed away July 7, 2023. A memorial service will be held this Saturday, July 15, at Mt. Olive Baptist Church in Knoxville.

Before Tennessee played Ohio State in 1993 in a matchup of top 10 teams, Mickie DeMoss gave Nikki McCray a challenge she knew would provoke the competitive Lady Vol.

“It was in Jackson, Tennessee, and I think that’s when Pat won her, it was a milestone, I don’t know if it was her 500th victory or 600th. It was one of the hundreds,” said DeMoss, then an assistant coach for Pat Summitt who was on the sideline for a lot of those milestones. “Nikki was matched up with Katie Smith. And I said, ‘Oh girl, how many points can we go ahead and put down for Katie today? Is she going to get her average of 30 or is she really going to bust it wide open.’ ”

Nikki McCray

DeMoss said she got the desired response from McCray who bristled. She even boosted Smith’s scoring average as it was closer to 20 points then, but Smith could light up a scoreboard at any time.

“She said, ‘She won’t even come close to her average. She won’t get more than six points on me.’ I said, ‘Nikki, come on, she’s good.’ ”

It was the season opening game for Tennessee on Nov. 21, 1993, in the inaugural State Farm Classic, and it was being held in Jackson – just 80 miles from McCray’s hometown of Collierville – because at the time the city was intended to be the location of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.

The Lady Vols were ranked No. 1 and Ohio State, led by Smith, was No. 8 in the country. Smith’s No. 30 jersey would eventually be retired at Ohio State, after she scored 2,578 points, breaking the Big Ten scoring record for career points in men’s and women’s basketball. Smith went on to average 22 points a game in 1993-94, but McCray had no intention of being lit up. Smith ended up with six turnovers and five points.

“I said, ‘I know you’re a good defender, but there is no way you are going to hold Katie Smith under six points,’ ” DeMoss said. “And she did. I’ve never seen a defensive performance quite like that.”

Tennessee won the game, 80-45, with Vonda Ward posting 17 points and 11 rebounds. It was Summitt’s 500th career win en route to 1,098 victories. Ohio State was coached by the late Nancy Darsch, who had been an assistant for Summitt from 1978-85.

“We came here for an education,” Darsch said afterwards, “and we sure got one.”

Mickie DeMoss at the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame (Georgia Tech Athletics)

“It was supposed to have been just a dogfight,” said Debby Jennings, who served as Summitt’s media relations chief for 35 years. “Nikki was like, no, we are in Jackson, Tennessee. It was kind of superstitious for (the staff). Do we buy the roses before the game and if we lose – because we expected it was going to be a tough, tough game – do we jinx ourselves? Do we send somebody out at halftime to buy them?”

Summitt got her roses after the game – and Knoxville ended up getting the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.

Debby Jennings and Pat Summitt at the White House. (Debby Jennings)

When sufficient support couldn’t be summoned in Jackson, Knoxville became the target location, and Summitt spearheaded the campaign. No one tells Summitt no, and the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame inducted its first class in 1999. Summitt was in the inaugural class. McCray followed in 2012. DeMoss and Smith ended up in the same class in 2018. Chamique Holdsclaw entered that same year for a star-studded class. McCray, of course, brought up the Ohio State game.

“We would still joke about it even as she moved on to her own career,” DeMoss said. “She would always say, ‘Remember that time you told me Katie Smith was going to light me up?’ Nikki always had a little bit of a little chip on her shoulder, because she wasn’t recruited on a national level. I think she always had something to prove, and I think that motivated her.”

A talent like McCray falling under the radar would not happen now, but McCray, who played at Tennessee from 1991-95, was relatively unknown outside of the Volunteer State. She didn’t play much on the summer circuit – where college coaches traipse about the country to watch AAU teams – and Middle Tennessee State University initially was the only school showing much interest in the Collierville High School player from West Tennessee.

Nikki McCray (USA Basketball)

“When we first started recruiting Nikki she was kind of a hidden jewel,” DeMoss said. “Somebody had called us from the Memphis area and said, ‘Listen, there’s this kid, she hasn’t gotten a lot of exposure. I think the only place she’s been to is Middle Tennessee, and she thinks that’s where she’s going to go.

“We got over there to see her, and we’re like, ‘Oh, no, we need her to come to Tennessee. She is the real deal.’ At that time, I would rate her as one of the top three athletes that we’ve ever had come through that program. She was also a basketball player as well, but she was so athletic. She ran track and sprints and hurdles. She was just a super athlete. I said, ‘We’ve got to talk to her.’

“Coaches in the state of Tennessee were aware of her, but I don’t know that there was a lot of awareness on the national level, not to the degree she should have had. We were able to talk her into coming to Tennessee and so glad we did.”

The news about McCray’s death reached the extended Lady Vol family before social media – not an easy feat now – and the now-retired DeMoss awoke in Florida on July 7 to missed calls that started at 6 a.m. from Holly Warlick and Angela O’Neal. Warlick, who also served as head coach at Tennessee, had shared a sideline with DeMoss when both were assistants for years. O’Neal, a 2000 graduate of the University of Tennessee College of Law, had served as director of basketball operations when DeMoss became the head coach at Kentucky in 2003.

O’Neal was arriving soon for a visit and DeMoss, who had silenced her phone overnight, initially wondered why she was calling at sunrise about a trip that was two weeks away. Then, she saw the other missed calls.

Nikki McCray-Penson and Dawn Staley. (South Carolina Athletics)

O’Neal, who had roomed with South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley while both were in college at Virginia, remained close friends. McCray had served as an assistant with Staley for nine years before becoming a first-time head coach at Old Dominion. McCray and Staley also played together on the 1996 and 2000 U.S. Olympic teams.

Staley learned of McCray’s death early in the morning, called Warlick and asked Warlick and O’Neal to call DeMoss. Then, Nell Fortner called. DeMoss had served on Fortner’s staff at Georgia Tech. Fortner also had coached McCray on the U.S. Olympic team that won gold in 2000. The women’s basketball community is a tight-knit one, especially the coaches who have been in the trenches together for so long. DeMoss realized then the news was terrible.

Nikki McCray-Penson as head coach at Old Dominion (ODU Athletics)

McCray is survived by her husband, Thomas Penson, and their son, Thomas Jr., 10. A graduate of Tennessee and Blount County native, Penson proposed to his future wife after a Lady Vols exhibition game on Nov. 22, 1995, when McCray was playing for Team USA as part of the circuit for the national team before the 1996 Olympics. It was a team of luminaries, including Lisa Leslie and Ruthie Bolton.

“Everybody was in on it at Thompson Boling arena that day, except Nikki,” Jennings said. “Thomas had orchestrated everything, and we all knew what was happening and shepherded the photographers. We had gotten in their ear just before, like don’t run to the back yet, we’ve got something you definitely want to stay for.

“I remember Lisa Leslie’s face. She was so captured in that moment. And Ruthie Bolton. She and Ruthie sung the national anthem before the game. She did everything in that game except take tickets and seat people. All of us that knew Thomas, he was a wonderful guy and wonderful for Nikki, we were all so excited that it had happened. Looking over at Pat, she kind of had her hands clasped up in front of her chest and under her chin like a proud mom and so excited.”

Kyra Elzy was sitting in the stands that day as a recruit – and her favorite player was McCray because of how she defended. The Kentucky native would play for Tennessee from 1997-2001, later serve at her alma mater as an assistant coach and then become the head coach at Kentucky in 2021.

Kyra Elzy (Tennessee Athletics)

Elzy didn’t play at the same time as McCray, but the long orange line is timeless. The connection of former Lady Vols transcends individual Tennessee teams.

“That does not matter with the Lady Vol sisterhood,” Elzy said. “That’s the thing about us Lady Vols. We do stick together. It does not matter what generation you played in for Coach Summitt. We are all one unit. We stand together. There’s no doubt about it.”

Elzy also created a group text thread of former Lady Vols who are now coaching, and Semeka Randall is part of it. Randall, who is now Semeka Randall-Lay and the head coach at Winthrop, played at Tennessee from 1998-2001.

“This business, as well as life, we’re pulled in so many directions,” Randall said. “It was a very nice gesture of Kyra to send those heartfelt words. We’re always like sisters, and we’re connected. It’s no different than when I heard the news about Train, it was devastating.”

Semeka Randall-Lay (Winthrop Athletics)

Train was the nickname of former Lady Vol Daedra Charles. It was bestowed by former Louisiana Tech coach Leon Barmore, who compared her power on the basketball court to Dick “Night Train” Lane on the football field for the Detroit Lions.

Daedra Charles, who became Daedra Charles-Furlow, died in 2018 at the age of 49. She had been diagnosed in 2009 with breast cancer. While the cancer wasn’t the cause of death – she developed heart issues – the treatment and disease can exact a steep toll on the body. Former Lady Vol Melissa McCray-Dukes (no relation to Nikki McCray) died in 2010 at the age of 43 from breast cancer.

Nikki McCray (Tennessee Athletics)

McCray was just 51 years old when she died. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013, recovered fully in 2017 after intensive treatment and then stepped down in 2021 after one season as the head coach at Mississippi State because of what she said then was a reoccurrence of health reasons she thought were behind her. The stress of the pandemic also took a toll on McCray’s health and well-being, and she never publicly discussed her health issues. While breast cancer would be a factor, especially since its weakens the immune system, McCray had been hospitalized with pneumonia at the time of her death. In the last two years, she had become very guarded about her health status.

“She kept that very private,” said Jennings, who has survived cancer. “She said, ‘I’ve got it. I understand the challenge.’ She didn’t say if it came back and how it came back or what it came back as or anything else and especially to those of us who have battled cancer, she basically said, you know the fears of reoccurrence at any time or something along with it, but she never went into any specifics or detail or anything that she was going through.

“It’s almost like she didn’t want to burden anybody else with it and that she was just going to handle it.”

McCray’s extended Lady Vol family knew she had health issues, but the suddenness of her death still blindsided them. Elzy had just sat in a gym with McCray last spring at a recruiting event – McCray was now an assistant coach at Rutgers – and they talked about their sons. Elzy’s son, Jackson, had just turned 7. Thomas was now 10.

“When the Lady Vols get together on the road, we’re talking and laughing and hugging each other and catching up,” Elzy said. “I found Nikki and we were watching recruits, talking, catching up on life.”

After a bit, Elzy needed to watch another player she was recruiting at Kentucky and hugged McCray before she walked away.

“I started walking to the next court, and for whatever reason, on that particular day, I turn back to look because when I hugged her, she did not look like the same Nikki,” said Elzy, who noticed that McCray’s hands seemed frail. “She was looking at me when I turned around and she just gave me that Nikki smile. She was waving.

“That is the last image I have in my head. We were just texting not too long ago and she’s like, ‘Oh, I can’t wait to see you on the road, talking about July, and it’s hard to believe she’s actually gone. She’s gone.”

Jody Adams-Birch

Jody Adams played at Tennessee from 1989-93, so McCray was a teammate. Now Jody Adams-Birch, she is the head coach at New Mexico State. Former Lady Vol Bridgette Gordon is an assistant coach on her staff.

“I was blessed to be her teammate, she made us all look better,” Adams-Birch said. “She was a gifted athlete and basketball player, but that was just what she did, not who she was. I was blessed to watch Nikki grow as a young gal from Tennessee into a person of purpose, to watch her love her family and make an impact in lives of others.

“Nikki was selfless, brave, courageous, an accomplished woman that has left us way too soon, but her light of love for the Lord and others will shine forever. We all need to be more like Nikki and love big!

The day McCray-Penson died, Elzy, Gordon and Tennessee coach Kellie Harper crossed paths in Chicago while recruiting. They leaned on each other for comfort. While all three are familiar with Knoxville, they looked up the exact location of the church that will host the memorial service. Gordon found it online and said, according to Elzy, “Our Lady Vol family is going to take up the whole church.”

“There’s so many people that are going to come out to pay their respects to Nikki because she’s impacted so many lives and rightfully so,” Elzy said. “I told Kellie when I hugged her, ‘I don’t mind coming to Knoxville. I sure dread coming for this.’ ”

Maria M. Cornelius, a writer/editor at Moxley Carmichael since 2013, started her journalism career at the Knoxville News Sentinel and began writing about the Lady Vols in 1998. In 2016, she published her first book, “The Final Season: The Perseverance of Pat Summitt,” through The University of Tennessee Press.


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