Basketball world mourns loss of Nikki McCray-Penson

Published: Jul. 7, 2023 at 10:44 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - The world of women’s basketball lost one of the greats this week. Collierville native Nikki McCray-Penson passed away at the age of 51, it was announced Friday.

Joe Brock, who coached McCray-Penson at Collierville High School in the late 1980s, told Action News 5 that the two remained close and stayed in touch all these decades later.

Coach Brock described her as a great athlete and an even better human being.

Of Collierville’s most decorated student-athlete in history, Coach Brock said, “She was a competitor. She did not like to lose. If you needed a basket to win the game, she said, ‘Give it to me, I’ll take it. I’ll do it.’ And she came through.” 

McCray-Penson became a two-time SEC player of the year at the University of Tennessee, playing for legendary coach Pat Summitt.

McCray-Penson was also a two-time Olympic gold medalist in 1996 and 2000.

The Washington Mystics remembered the three-time WNBA all-star by saying, “Nikki lit up every room she walked in.”  

McCray-Penson spent 16 years in coaching, becoming the head coach of Old Dominion. And in 2020, she took over the top job at Mississippi State.

“I grew up in Collierville, Tennessee. Not too far from Starkville, so I’m very familiar with this region,” she said during her introductory news conference. “The relationships that I still have in Tennessee, coupled with the relationships I formed with players, coaches, fans, and sponsors throughout the SEC is deeply rooted in my DNA.”

MSU President Dr. Mark Keenum said, “Mississippi State University joins the national college basketball community in mourning the sudden passing of Coach Nikki McCray-Penson. 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.

“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.”

As an assistant coach for her friend and former Olympics teammate Dawn Staley, McCray-Penson helped the University of South Carolina Gamecocks win their first national championship in 2017. 

McCray-Penson battled breast cancer in 2013. Coach Brock said a bout with COVID-19 last year and pneumonia more recently took a fatal toll on her body.

He said he’s having a hard time believing the brilliant athlete is gone. But her legacy, he said, will last forever.

”I was just so blessed to be just a small part of her life and to have known her and coached her because she was a once-in-a-lifetime player,” said Brock. “She was a special person. I’m most proud of how she grew up to be a community leader and an idol for all young people. She was a great role model.”

Memphis Tigers head coach Penny Hardaway posted to Instagram, “Nikki, your pure heart and huge smile will never be forgotten.”

Nikki McCray-Penson leaves behind her husband and a 10-year-old son. Funeral arrangements are incomplete.

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