Of all the female athletes and coaches who have come through the University of Tennessee since Title IX was enacted in 1972, the only one I knew and had lunch with was Nikki McCray-Penson. I had watched her play, of course, and was in the stands the night Thomas Penson proposed marriage.
But when Nikki went to the WNBA, she had money to invest and somebody (not me) sold her a daycare center in Halls. It was on Neal Drive, right down from the trash and recycling center in an industrial park that never quite took off. The area lacked the subdivisions that exist now, and so picking were thin on kids to fill a first-class daycare center.
Nikki embraced that business with intensity rare for Halls – determined to succeed for the kids. Next thing I knew, Mary Lou Horner said, “Nikki is taking her kids to Europe. You ought to do a story.”
Of course, Nikki and Mary Lou were on a first-name basis. They were the most flamboyant women in Halls. “Let’s take her to lunch,” said Mary Lou. We went to the Bel-Air Grill.
I tried to understand why one would take pre-school kids to Europe, and finally pieced together that Nikki had found NBA funding for cultural experiences for kids – a program to get professional players involved with communities. She applied and won the grant – all expenses paid to Europe. She said if the kids were too young to understand what they were seeing, think what the trip would mean to the parents who went along.
Mary Lou lined them up to ride in the Halls Christmas Parade and after Nikki left, she said, “We ought to make her Woman of the Year.”
When I went by the daycare center to take a picture, Nikki had her two Olympic gold medals out and was surrounded by a couple dozen kids, mostly white and all smiling. That day, Nikki McCray-Penson was the happiest person in Halls.
Her obituary said it best: “Whether she was playing or coaching, she embodied a champion’s heart and a winning spirit to succeed and be the best.”
She died of breast cancer at age 51. Her son, Thomas N. Penson, is just 10. You can read her full obituary here.
Nikki’s services will be at 2 p.m. on Saturday July 15, 2023, at Mt. Olive Baptist Church, 1601 Dandridge Ave. in Knoxville. Visitation will be from 1-2 p.m. with the service to follow. Final arrangements were entrusted to Foothills Funeral Home in Alcoa. Marvin West’s tribute is here.