July 9, 2023
How the women’s basketball world has reacted to the passing of Nikki McCray-Penson
WNBA teams, McCray-Penson's former teammates remember her legacy on and off the court
Over the weekend, the women’s basketball community paid tribute to the legacy of women’s basketball Hall-of-Famer and three-time WNBA All-Star Nikki McCray-Penson, who recently passed away at the age of 51. Her legacy in women’s basketball will forever be remembered, from her time at Tennessee to her coaching career that spanned more than a decade and a half.
Before the Washington Mystics’ win over the Indiana Fever on July 7, the team held a moment of silence in honor of McCray-Penson, who played for the team for four seasons. Multiple McCray-Penson Mystics jerseys were spotted at the game on Friday.
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Earlier this year, Mystics general manager Mike Thibault informed McCray-Penson that she would be inducted into the Mystics Hall of Fame. A recording of the special moment was played on the video board during the game on July 7. She will be inducted posthumously on Aug. 20.
After the game, Mystics head coach Eric Thibault expressed that McCray-Penson had an immense impact on the franchise and women’s basketball as a whole.
“She’s somebody that’s obviously a huge figure in the history of the Mystics franchise, and there’s a lot of women’s basketball organizations [and] colleges that are really hurting today,” Thibault said. “And it’s a big loss across the women’s basketball world. … I didn’t know Nikki well, but in the instances when she was around the team, it was great. She was still so passionate about the Mystics … it’s just a big loss and weighing heavy tonight, and we’re gonna miss her, the game’s gonna miss her.”
After the New York Liberty’s practice on July 7, head coach Sandy Brondello praised McCray-Penson as a fierce competitor, noting that she had faced off against McCray-Penson when they played for their respective national teams. In the WNBA’s inaugural All-Star Game in 1999, Brondello and McCray-Penson were also teammates representing the Eastern Conference.
Prior to the Fever’s July 7 game, head coach Christie Sides spoke about McCray-Penson’s impact on the franchise.
“She was part of that first playoff run that they made,” Sides said. “I think it was 2002; she was an incredible person. I didn’t have a real relationship with her, just would speak to her in passing and just knew who she was. I have a lot of really good friends who are really close to her. So just an incredible person. It’s a really sad day for women’s basketball.”
On July 7, the Phoenix Mercury tweeted, “We will remember you as a warrior and a friend. Rest easy, dear Nikki McCray-Penson. You will be missed 💜.” McCray-Penson played for the team in 2004 and was honored with a moment of silence prior to the Mercury’s July 9 home game.
The Las Vegas Aces tweeted a statement honoring McCray-Penson, who played for the San Antonio Silver Stars in 2005: “The Las Vegas Aces were saddened to learn today of the passing of Tennessee, ABL, WNBA and Olympic legend Nikki McCray-Penson. A member of the 2005 San Antonio Silver Stars, Nikki was beloved by many as a teammate, coach, mentor, sister, and friend. Her achievements on the basketball court were eclipsed only by her commitment to community and improving the lives of those around her. Nikki’s smile, infectious positive energy and voice may be gone, but her memory will live on in our hearts forever.”
McCray-Penson also played for the Chicago Sky during its inaugural season in 2006, and the team honored her at halftime of the July 7 game.
On July 9, the Connecticut Sun observed a moment of silence to honor McCray-Penson ahead of the team’s game against the Mystics. Sun head coach Stephanie White and McCray-Penson both played for the Fever in 2003.
“When you think about Nikki, everyone continues to talk about her smile, her courageous fight, but just the type of person she was,” White said in a pregame interview with the Sun’s manager of content and strategy, Kayla Pace. “She always made you feel special. She was an incredible human being.”
McCray-Penson also had a decorated career with Team USA — including two Olympic gold medals and a FIBA Women’s AmeriCup gold medal — and a moment of silence was held before the July 8 FIBA Women’s AmeriCup game between Canada and USA in her honor.
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Members of the women’s basketball community also took to social media to pay tribute to her.
South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley, shared a heartfelt message on Twitter in remembrance of McCray-Penson, who was an assistant coach for the Gamecocks from 2008-17 and Staley’s Team USA teammate. Staley highlighted the impact of McCray-Penson’s presence, noting that her positive energy was palpable even in difficult situations.
Aces chief business development officer Jennifer Azzi played on the 1996 gold medal team with McCray-Penson and tweeted a photo of the team, noting McCray-Penson was the best teammate she ever had.
Sports broadcaster Meghan McKeown tweeted a photo of her younger self and her “all-time favorite basketball player growing up,” McCray-Penson, and acknowledged the significant impact that McCray-Penson had on the game of women’s basketball.
Arizona State head coach Natasha Adair tweeted about her friendship with McCray-Penson.
The women’s basketball world will always honor the legacy of McCray-Penson, whose impact on the game will not be forgotten.
The Next‘s Jackie Powell, Jenn Hatfield and Natalie Heavren contributed to this report.
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Written by Aya Abdeen
Aya Abdeen is a student in sports journalism at Arizona State University and has been a contributing writer for The Next Hoops since December 2022. Her work has also appeared on AZPreps365.