Nikki McCray-Penson, who helped lead the famed 1996 Olympic team that started the United States' current run of seven consecutive gold medals, has died at the age of 51, it was announced Friday.
McCray-Penson starred for the Lady Vols in the 1990s in her native state of Tennessee before playing in the ABL and WNBA and later becoming a college basketball head coach.
She served as an assistant women's basketball coach last season for Rutgers, which confirmed her death. The cause of death has not been announced. McCray-Penson and her husband, Thomas Penson, have a son, Thomas Jr., who turned 10 in February.
McCray-Penson was diagnosed with breast cancer in November 2013, during her tenure with South Carolina, where she was an assistant to her close friend and Olympic teammate Dawn Staley. She was part of Staley's staff as the Gamecocks won the 2017 NCAA championship. Soon after, she took her first head-coaching job, with Old Dominion.
"Thank you my little sister, my friend, my foxhole partner, my teammate, my fast food snacker, my basketball junkie, my fellow Olympian, my gold medalist and now my angel," Staley posted to Twitter along with a statement. "... Suffer no more Nik Nik."
In all, including last season at Rutgers, McCray-Penson had 16 years of college coaching experience, serving as head coach at Mississippi State and ODU. After consecutive 20-win seasons, she left the Monarchs to take over the Bulldogs, who went 10-9 during the COVID-19-impacted 2020-2021 season. In October 2021, before the start of what would have been her second season at MSU, she stepped down to focus on her health.
"Heart hurts like crazy over this one," two-time WNBA MVP and Las Vegas Aces standout A'ja Wilson, star of South Carolina's 2017 title team, wrote on Twitter. "Such a fighter and a warrior with the sweetest gentle soul! Coach McCray you've helped me in many, many ways and you were a true gift from God! Truly will be missed! No more suffering, no more pain! God got a good one."
Heart hurts like crazy over this one! 💔 such a fighter and a warrior with the sweetest gentle soul! Coach McCray you've helped me in many many ways and you were a true gift from God! Truly will be missed! No more suffering no more pain! God got a good one 🤍 #oranges pic.twitter.com/zRCu4zXXdv— A'ja Wilson (@_ajawilson22) July 7, 2023
"Nikki had a big smile and an even bigger heart," Washington said in a statement provided by Rutgers. "She was full of life, 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, and still gave all of herself to everyone in the program. We will miss her dearly but will keep Nikki's memory alive in our hearts."
A native of Collierville, Tennessee, McCray-Penson helped the Lady Vols win three SEC regular-season championships and two SEC tournament titles. They also made a women's Final Four appearance in 1995, when Tennessee fell in the championship game to Connecticut.
"Our hearts are broken as we mourn the loss of a beloved Lady Vol," Tennessee coach Kellie Harper said in a statement. "We also 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."
After college, McCray-Penson was named to the U.S. national team, which trained and toured together from fall 1995 until the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta. That U.S. team's popularity and success was seen as the springboard to the launch of the WNBA in 1997, and was chronicled in the ESPN 30 for 30 special "Dream On," which was released last year.
"Our hearts are heavy as we learn of the passing of Nikki McCray-Penson," the WNBA said in a statement. "... Our thoughts and prayers are with Nikki's family and loved ones at this time."
McCray-Penson was a three-time All-Star during her nine years in the WNBA and won gold medals with Team USA in the 1996 and 2000 Summer Olympics.
"We are heartbroken to hear this news," Indiana Fever general manager Lin Dunn said on Twitter. "Nikki was a part of our first Fever playoff team; our thoughts and prayers go out to her family."
McCray-Penson also led the Columbus Quest to the 1997 ABL championship, as she played in that league before moving to the WNBA. She was the ABL's MVP in 1997.
"Nikki was a tremendous competitor," Brian Agler, who coached McCray-Penson with the Quest, told ESPN. "She could dominate a game with her defensive abilities and her aggressive offensive style. She had such a tremendous work ethic. I know her Columbus Quest family, friends and fans respect her and will miss her."
McCray-Penson was inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2012.