In a tragic announcement made on Friday, it was confirmed that Nikki McCray-Penson, a Women’s Basketball Hall of Famer and an integral part of the 1996 Olympic team, which kickstarted the United States’ impressive streak of seven consecutive gold medals, has passed away at the age of 51.
Born and raised in Tennessee, McCray-Penson rose to prominence during her college years as a standout player for the Tennessee Lady Vols in the 1990s. Following her collegiate success, she continued to make her mark in the professional leagues, playing in both the ABL and WNBA. Eventually, she transitioned into the realm of coaching, dedicating herself to the development of young basketball talents.
During the last season, McCray-Penson served as an assistant coach for Rutgers, a position that was tragically cut short by her untimely demise. The exact cause of her passing has not been disclosed. McCray-Penson is survived by her husband, Thomas Penson, and their ten-year-old son, Thomas Jr.
McCray-Penson’s journey was not without challenges. In November 2013, she was diagnosed with breast cancer while serving as an assistant coach for South Carolina, working alongside her close friend and Olympic teammate Dawn Staley. Despite her health battles, McCray-Penson played an integral role in helping the Gamecocks secure the NCAA championship in 2017. Following her time at South Carolina, she embarked on her first head coaching position at Old Dominion University.
With a total of 16 years of coaching experience in college basketball, McCray-Penson made significant contributions to programs such as Mississippi State and Old Dominion. After successful seasons, including consecutive 20-win campaigns, she accepted the opportunity to lead the Bulldogs. However, ahead of the 2020-2021 season, she made the difficult decision to step down from her position due to health concerns.
Despite the challenges she faced, McCray-Penson made a comeback to coaching this past season when she joined Coquese Washington’s coaching staff at Rutgers as an assistant. Her unwavering dedication and passion for the sport were admired by many.
Following the news of her passing, A’ja Wilson, a two-time WNBA MVP and star of South Carolina’s 2017 championship team, expressed her deep sorrow on Twitter. Wilson described McCray-Penson as a fighter with a gentle soul and thanked her for the impact she had made in her life.
Nikki McCray-Penson’s legacy as a player, coach, and inspiration will forever remain in the hearts of those who knew her. Her contributions to women’s basketball and her resilience in the face of adversity will continue to inspire generations to come.