I have never wanted to play God but I take it personally when really good people die young.
Nikki McCray, 51, had so many reasons to live and so much to give.
In the beginning, back in Collierville, she was a ray of sunshine even on drippy days and a truly outstanding basketball guard. Dynamic is a good word. She may not have realized it but she wasn’t going to Middle Tennessee State. There wasn’t much doubt she was going to Tennessee. She could play.
I remember Pat Summitt saying “She was one of the best athletes I had seen at that time. She wasn’t a refined basketball player but she had a lot of energy. And I liked her attitude.”
Summitt offered a scholarship. McCray enrolled in 1990. This twice Southeastern Conference player of the year and two-time all-American helped that Pat team go 122-11. Nikki was good for 15 or so points per game and a lot of excitement. Those Lady Vols reached the 1995 NCAA finals but did not cut down the nets. Smarty UConn got in the way.
Nikki otherwise made it to the pinnacle on big stages with everybody looking – pro ball, two Olympic gold medals, very successful college coach, Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, wife for 21 years to Thomas Penson, mother of 10-year-old Thomas Junior – she was a champion.
McCray as a coach made an actual impact on basketball. She taught all aspects of the game, fundamentals, grit, joy of winning. It is a shame that so many will miss what she could have done for them.
She twice went to war against breast cancer and, for a time in between, thought she had won. She was the epitome of determination.
She assisted her friend and former Olympic teammate Dawn Staley in a championship time at South Carolina. She built Old Dominion from the ground up. She resigned as Mississippi State head coach for health reasons. She regained enough zest to try coaching again, as an assistant at Rutgers.
She was hospitalized last Thursday. She died late that night. Cause of death has not been announced. It might have been a bad case of pneumonia. Some cancer treatments weaken the immune system.
Nikki was more than just competitive. She was relentless. In her spare time, she was a beautiful person. She even smiled.
A’ja Wilson, star at South Carolina when Nikki was there, twice MVP of WNBA, delivered a sermon in a 15-second response to McCray’s death.
“Heart hurts like crazy over this one… such a fighter and a warrior and the sweetest, gentle soul… a true gift from God.”
Tennessee coach Kellie Harper said “Our hearts are broken as we mourn the loss of a beloved Lady Vol. We offer our love and sincere condolences to her family, friends and colleagues across the country. Nikki had a bright and loving personality and touched the lives of everyone she met. Her kind and genuine spirit will be missed.”
Staley said: “It’s hard to think about Nikki’s passing because all I can see is how fully she lived. From her days as a brash rookie in USA Basketball to becoming my friend and colleague to the way she mentored young players, Nikki did everything with her whole heart.
“Every teammate, every coach, every player who spent time with her knew first that she cared about them as a person, and everything else came from that place.
“Her presence was something you could feel before you saw her because she had such light, such positive energy no matter what was going on. I am heartbroken that cancer has taken that light from us, but I know that she would want us to carry it on in her absence. I pray that we all have the strength to do that for her and her son, Li’l Thomas.”
Rutgers coach Coquese Washington said: “Nikki had a big smile and an even bigger heart. She was full of life and 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. We will miss her dearly but will keep Nikki’s memory alive in our hearts.”
Holly Warlick, former Tennessee coach, spoke glowingly of McCray as a person and player. She also had a “common knowledge” story or two about Nikki, as a student, being clock challenged or even a bit forgetful.
She once went to a high school game without her uniform, had to run home to get it, missed the first quarter and still scored 40.
At UT, “on time” to Summitt really meant a few minutes early. Nikki was not even one tick too soon for a meeting with the coach. Pat was not pleased.
“Do you have a watch?”
“You better get one real quick.”
Nikki’s aunt took off her watch and solved that problem.
Summitt died seven years ago. Warlick visualized the first meeting up above between former coach and former Vol.
“I’m sure Pat’s giving her a hard time about always being late.”
Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Addendum: On Wednesday at KnoxTNToday, women’s sports expert Maria Cornelius will share insight from those who knew Nikki best. Someone may tell you about the time she ran a daycare center in Halls and even about Penson’s marriage proposal after a Tennessee game with 6,500 witnesses.
Nikki is coming home for funeral services on Saturday, July 15, at 2 p.m. at Mt. Olive Baptist Church, 1601 Dandridge Ave. Knoxville. Visitation will be 1-2 p.m. with service to follow. Memorial donations may be made to the Kay Yow Cancer Fund www.kayyow.com in memory of Nikki. Final arrangements entrusted to Foothills Funeral Home. www.foothillsfh.com /.