August 22, 2023 

‘A wonderful thing to witness’: Washington Mystics induct the late Nikki McCray-Penson into Hall of Fame

Former teammates paid tribute to McCray-Penson as current players absorbed a piece of Mystics history

WASHINGTON — When Chamique Holdsclaw was a teenager in Astoria, New York, she was captivated by a Tennessee guard a few years older than her named Nikki McCray. McCray, who wore No. 23 for head coach Pat Summitt, had blazing speed, so Holdsclaw started running from her home to the local park to try to get faster.

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“I never told her this because her head is too big,” Holdsclaw said on Sunday. “… [But] I used to train and run because I wanted to be as fast as Nikki McCray.”

Holdsclaw went on to wear McCray’s No. 23 at Tennessee and star alongside her for the Washington Mystics from 1999 to 2001. And on Sunday, Holdsclaw helped induct the player she once idolized into the Mystics Hall of Fame.

McCray — who would later go by McCray-Penson — is the fourth player inducted into the Mystics Hall of Fame and the lone inductee for 2023. She joins Holdsclaw, Murriel Page and Vicky Bullett, all of whom played with her in Washington and were in attendance on Sunday. McCray-Penson was inducted posthumously, as she died of breast cancer on July 7.

McCray-Penson came to Washington in the 1998 WNBA Allocation Draft after being named MVP of the rival American Basketball League in 1997. She spent four seasons in Washington and was named an All-Star three times, averaging 15.4 points, 2.4 assists and 2.3 rebounds per game. Recently, Chasity Melvin, a former Mystic and current co-host of NBC Sports Washington’s Mystics pregame show, ranked McCray-Penson as the fourth-best player in franchise history. “Never met a shot she didn’t like,” Melvin said on air. “[She] was electrifying and one of the fans’ favorite.”

In 2002, the Mystics traded McCray-Penson to the Indiana Fever, and she played five more WNBA seasons for four teams. She also won two Olympic gold medals with Team USA, including on the 1996 team that helped grow women’s basketball in the United States and pave the way for the WNBA to begin in 1997.

“To use Nikki as an example and other people of that era … where we are now is thanks to them,” Mystics head coach Eric Thibault said on Sunday, wearing a vintage teal and bronze Mystics T-shirt in a nod to the festivities. “Teams and the league were built on their backs, and my life, my career looks differently because of people like them. … They didn’t have a WNBA to play in, and then all of a sudden, they had a league and they threw everything into it.

“I think Mystics fans, even though they didn’t have necessarily playoff success a bunch in those early years, have really great memories of watching Nikki and Vicky Bullett and Chamique and all those guys play. [They’re] still really ingrained in the fabric of the franchise.”

The Mystics had informed McCray-Penson of her Hall of Fame selection before she passed away, and her husband Thomas Penson and 10-year-old son Thomas Penson Jr. both participated in the ceremony. The pair sat in bar-height chairs at center court alongside several Mystics alumnae and general manager Mike Thibault. As he listened, the younger Thomas swung his legs back and forth at times, nowhere close to touching the ground.

The ceremony was hosted by longtime Mystics play-by-play announcer Meghan McPeak. She recapped McCray-Penson’s accomplishments before a video narrated by Dawn Staley, McCray-Penson’s former USA teammate, played in the arena. Staley talked about McCray-Penson’s “gifts,” including a smile that instantly made people “just know everything is going to be all right.”

Addressing McCray-Penson, Staley added, “You taught us how to be better, and we will. You never let us have a bad day, so we hold on. You showed us how to live fully, so we’ll take every single shot, even if we don’t know if they’ll go in.”

After Staley’s video, Page was the first to speak about the teammate she called “Tricky Nikki.” She squeezed Bullett’s hand, both of them seemingly looking for strength.

“Nikki and I were the OGs,” Page said, using a slang term for originals. “She was the first player allocated to the team and I was the first draft pick. Nikki taught me what it meant to be a pro.”

McCray-Penson’s approach, Page said, was to work as hard as she could in practice — and get her teammates to do the same — so they could show the fans that they were battling. The fans responded to that, lining up outside the team’s arena at the time, the MCI Center, for autographs after practices.

Bullett wiped her eyes during Page’s remarks, just as she had during the video. Holdsclaw took the microphone next, and then she started to cry. “This one hits me, hits the soul,” she said, and Page rose from her chair to rub Holdsclaw’s back.

Holdsclaw talked about admiring McCray-Penson growing up, then playing alongside her and how the two stars always held each other accountable. They’d say what needed to be said, then go get dinner in Georgetown together.

Even as a pro, Holdsclaw said, “I would just follow her.”

As the Mystics legends told a sellout crowd about their late teammate and friend, the current group of Mystics sat in the shadows on their bench, taking it in.

“It was a wonderful thing to witness,” guard Brittney Sykes, who wears the same No. 15 that McCray-Penson wore as a Mystic, said postgame. “… I didn’t get to see her play … So, for me, it was an honor to witness that and see it and understand the history behind this number because it can have a meaning to me, but it means so much to so many more people … So it just is another thing to add on to [my] shoulders to carry and play with.”

Washington Mystics guard Brittney Sykes sits at the podium and pats her No. 15 jersey as she talks to reporters about the late Nikki McCray-Penson, who wore the same number.
Washington Mystics guard Brittney Sykes (left) pats her No. 15 jersey as she talks to reporters about the late Nikki McCray-Penson, who wore the same number. McCray-Penson was inducted into the Mystics Hall of Fame during a halftime ceremony at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 20, 2023. (Screenshot from Washington Mystics’ Zoom recording)

Guard Natasha Cloud, who has been a Mystic since 2015, had met McCray-Penson at Mystics alumni events over the years. Cloud said that alumni often talk about “what it means to be a Mystic” — fighting for one another and the city when you play — at those events. She heard that sentiment again on Sunday, and Staley and Page’s comments about McCray-Penson’s smile also hit home for the jovial leader.

“What her teammates spoke on today is she would do anything to make someone else happy, and that resonates a lot with me,” Cloud said postgame. “I know it resonates a lot with [Sykes] because that’s who we are, too. So it almost re-energizes me to continue to be that person, no matter how hard it is … It really does make a difference in people’s lives.”

Guard Ariel Atkins also reflected on the ceremony in an Instagram post on Monday: “Yesterday taught me that your legacy has little to do with you and A LOT to do with how people feel when they are around you. #thankyou15.”

After Holdsclaw finished, Mike Thibault spoke briefly about McCray-Penson’s coaching career, which included stints as an assistant at Western Kentucky, South Carolina and Rutgers and as a head coach at Old Dominion and Mississippi State. “I’m so sad so many days [about] how her coaching career got cut short,” he said. “… She was on the cusp of greatness as a head coach also.”

Thibault announced that Mystics owner Ted Leonsis had donated $100,000 to establish a scholarship fund in McCray-Penson’s name through the D.C. College Access Program. The funds will support 20 Black female students over the next 10 years.

“To still be having [an] impact on young Black girls’ lives ‘til this day and for years to come, that’s what we want to do. I know that’s what she wanted to do,” Cloud said. “And the fact that we have an owner that believes in that and is willing to put his money where his mouth is, it’s a beautiful thing.”

Thibault then presented both Pensons with a framed McCray No. 15 jersey, and McPeak prepared to unveil the Mystics’ Hall of Fame banner in the rafters, right next to the 2019 WNBA championship banner.

“Thomas Nikson Penson, can you come over here for me?” she asked the younger Penson. (His middle name is a reference to his mother — “Nik’s son.”) “I need your help for this part.”

McPeak asked Thomas Jr. to count down from five, and then the black drape fell, revealing a blue banner with red and white trim and white text listing the Mystics’ four Hall of Famers. The fans rose for a reverent, not ear-splitting, standing ovation, several of them wearing McCray-Penson jerseys and shirts.

After the tears dried, the bar chairs were whisked away, the alumnae took their seats in the crowd, and the players warmed up again, the Mystics still had a second half to play. The pivot felt abrupt, but the Mystics were ready. They put together a 15-9 run, arguably their best stretch of the game, right after halftime before falling to the Dallas Wings 97-84.

That stretch showed some of the passion that McCray-Penson — “the energy lady,” as Melvin called her — was known for. And beyond the ceremony, reminders of McCray-Penson were visible throughout the day.

Rows of empty blue seats at the Entertainment and Sports Arena. Each seat has a black and pink shirt on it in honor of the late Nikki McCray-Penson.
Shirts in honor of the late Nikki McCray-Penson are displayed on every seat about two hours before tip-off at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 20, 2023. (Photo credit: Jenn Hatfield | The Next)

The Mystics players wore small patches reading “Nikki 15” on the left shoulder of their jerseys on Sunday, as they have since Aug. 13. They also wore black warm-up shirts with McCray’s No. 15 in pink, surrounded by an outline of a basketball encircled by a breast cancer ribbon, and every one of the arena’s 4,200 seats had a matching shirt on it. The Mystics staff, as well as Dallas head coach Latricia Trammell, wore the same shirts during the game, and two large floor decals with the design were placed near halfcourt.

“I just love how a lot of [McCray-Penson’s] teammates came back at halftime to celebrate her and her legacy,” Trammell said postgame. “For the Washington Mystics to put her in the Hall of Fame says a lot … so to let her family be here and to experience that and celebrate her life, for former players, for former teammates that are here, it was something that I’m proud to be a part of.”

The Mystics weren’t proud of their performance on Sunday, missing a chance to boost their record to .500 despite several injuries this season. But as they push toward the playoffs, they can think about McCray-Penson’s legacy: how her Mystics didn’t always win but always battled anyway, and how she left such a mark on her teammates that they sometimes struggled for words.

“The impact that Nikki left, you could see it and feel it in the gym today,” Cloud said. “The ability to have an impact on not only players, staff, coaches, former players, but our crowd, fans too, fans from all over the world, that’s a beautiful thing.”

The Next’s Jackie Powell contributed reporting to this story.

Written by Jenn Hatfield

Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.

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