McCray, Nikki 1972–
Nikki McCray 1972–
Professional basketball player
Starring on basketball courts in collegiate, Olympics, and professional competition, Nikki McCray has established herself as one of the best players in women’s basketball in the 1990s. Her stellar performances have helped increase the popularity of the women’s game, which at one time struggled to draw fans into arenas. McCray also caused a stir when she defected from the American Basketball League (ABL) to the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) in 1997, after leading the Columbus Quest to the ABL championship. Her move after the ABL’s first season was thought by some to signal the beginning of a war for the best talent between the two leagues, which each had their first season of play in 1997.
While growing up in Tennessee, McCray early on became obsessed with basketball. Her grandmother helped her develop her skills by making sure she wasn’t denied the chance to play with boys. “When Nikki was younger and her male cousins didn’t want to let her play ball with them out in the yard, her grandmother would come outside and declare: If she can’t play, y’all can’t play,’” claimed an article in Seventeen magazine. McCray had no problem with the attention drawn to her as the only girl playing with boys, since she enjoyed being in the spotlight on the court or anywhere else. “I was always being voted Most Popular or Most Cutest or what ever,” she told Seventeen.
After growing to 5’11” and starring as a guard on her high school team, McCray enrolled in one of the nation’s powerhouses in women’s basketball, the University of Tennessee. While there her impressive talent was further advanced by coach Pat Summitt, who remained a good friend and advisor to McCray after she graduated from college. McCray was a key part of her college team, known as the Lady Volunteers, helping them log up a 122-11 record while there. Twice she was named to the All-American team in college, and she was given the honor of College Player of the Year for her conference during those years as well.
McCray’s tenacity as a competitor was made clear in a game versus Stanford University in 1995 when she played with a broken hand and still managed to score 21 points. That season McCray was key to the team’s making the national finals, where they lost a tight game to the University of Connecticut. Eager to demonstrate her variety of talents whenever possible, McCray showcased
At a Glance…
Born December 17, 1971, in Collierville, TN; one of four children. Education: Univ. of TN, 1991-95.
Career: Was star player for national women’s collegiate basketball team, University of Tennessee, 1991-95; missed entire season of action with knee injury, 1990-91; played on USA Women’s World Championship Qualifying Tournament Team, 1993; played for U.S. + Olympic women’s basketball team, 1996; joined Columbus Quest of American Basketball League (ABL), 1996; signed three-year contract with Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), 1997; played in WNBA All-Star European tour, 1997; named to WNBA expansion team Washington Mystics, 1997.
Awards: High School All-America team (Parade Converse, USA Today); Best Defensive Player, University of Tennessee, 1992; College Player of the year (women’s basketball), Southeastern Conference, 1994, 1995; Most Valuable Player, ABL, 1997.
Addresses : Home —Knoxville, TN; Office— Washington Mystics, MCI Center, 601 F Street NW, Washington, DC, 20001..
her voice by singing the national anthem on occasion before several college basketball and volleyball games.
After graduating from college in 1995, McCray became an obvious choice for the U.S. women’s “Dream Team” that would compete in the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. Her dedication to peak fitness for the Games was shown by her extra exercise sessions after basketball practices, when she worked out on a stair master or stationary bike to increase her endurance and strength. Her presence on the court helped the U.S. team beat out a strong squad from Brazil for the gold medal at the Games.
McCray’s timing could not have been better, as her recent success at the Olympics made her a highly desirable player for the new American Basketball League (ABL) for professional women players that had its inaugural season a few months after the Olympics were over. McCray signed a one-year contract with the Columbus Quest for $125,000, according to the New York Times, then wasted no time making the team one of the top contenders in the fledgling league. While taking the Quest to the ABL’s first championship, she racked up per-game averages of 19.9 points, five rebounds, and 2.7 assists en route to being named the league’s Most Valuable Player.
According to the Bergen Record, there were reports that McCray had been looking to triple her first-year ABL salary after her stellar first season. The same source reported that League officials thought her salary demands were too excessive. After the season was over she shocked many fans by deciding to leave a proven winner and accept a reduction in salary to sign a multiyear contract with the WNBA. Her decision was based on the WNBA offering greater potential for endorsements and other commercial opportunities, due to the league’s success at generating fan and corporate support. McCray was helped in making her decision to jump leagues by her former coach, Pat Summitt, who agreed that it made sense for her to make the switch. “I looked at both options,” she told the Bergen Record “I felt the WNBA was the best option for me. It was a tough decision.” McCray agreed to jump leagues without even knowing which team she would play for in the WNBA. It was determined later that she would play on one of two expansion teams being formed in Detroit and Washington.
Upon joining the WNBA, McCray was named to a league team that toured Europe in October of 1997. As part of this team she played in games in Germany and Italy, as well as appearing at the McDonalds’ basketball tournament in Paris, France. Around this time it was announced by the WNBA that McCray would be playing for the Washington Mystics team in the upcoming season. She and Alessandra Santos de Oliveira were the first players named to the new team’s 1998 roster. “This is a great way to begin shaping our team,” commented the team’s head coach Jim Lewis at a ceremony at the MCI Center’s National Sports Gallery in Washington, D.C., according to the WNBA Web site. “To have a player of Nikki McCray’s caliber gives us a strong foundation.” After being officially introduced as a new player on the team, McCray showed her humanitarian side by visiting the city’s Children’s Hospital to talk with patients.
McCray is well-known for her intensive training regimen as a player. “I’m the type of person who’s an overachiever,” she told Sport magazine. After regular practices, she often continues her workout with 20 minutes of shooting, and an additional 20 minutes of aerobic training. According to an article in Sport, McCray’s standard offseason training week consists of 30-minute weightlifting workouts three days a week, which are followed by an hour of running on the track or court and finished with 500 to 1,000 jump shots. On the other two days, she plays two-and-half hours of basketball, undergoes an hour of aerobic workouts and drills in ball handling, and makes shots off the dribble while being guarded by another player. “Whether it’s getting ready for that track workout or getting ready for that court workout, I want to prepare myself,” she confided to Sport
McCray hopes to work in the sports marketing department of a major corporation after her playing days are over, according to the NBC Olympics Web site on the Internet. Before that time, she is planning on a long and successful pro career on the court.
Bergen Record, September 17, 1997.
New York Times, March 6, 1997, p. B18; September 17, 1997, p. C2.
Seventeen, October 1996, p. 70.
Sport, December 1997, p. 22.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from the Lifetime, NBC Olympics, Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), and World Africa Web sites on the Internet.
American basketball player
Power guard and forward Nikki McCray has played basketball with the WNBA's Washington Mystics and Indiana Fever, and the ABL's Columbus Quest. Earning multiple MVP awards, starter for the WNBA East All-Star team, and gold medals in two Olympics with the women's basketball team, "Nikki Mac" has been called a professional and a role model. With a desire to serve her community as well as her basketball teams, McCray has worked with the Boys & Girls Club and was named to the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.
Just Want to Play Basketball
Nikki McCray began playing basketball at age 11 after her grandmother persuaded Nikki's male cousins to
let her play ball with them. She enjoyed the special attention, but she also proved her worth on the court. Although she also participated in track in high school, it was her performance on the school's basketball team that earned her the number ten spot on the National Federation of State High School Associations' list of all-time high school scorers. She worked hard to improve both her defensive and offensive skills.
McCray's high school performance attracted the attention of coach Pat Summitt of the Lady Volunteers women's basketball team at the University of Tennessee, who recruited the young hot-shot. McCray attended the university from 1991 to 1995, eventually earning a degree in sports marketing and education.
It was with the Lady Vols that the 5'11" McCray began a long string of accolades. During her four years at Tennessee, she compiled a 122-11 record. In her junior year alone, she led the team in scoring, averaging 16.3 points per game. Overall, she helped the team to win four consecutive SEC Championships and attend four NCAA Tournaments. McCray was named Best Defensive Player for Tennessee for the four years between 1992 and 1995, Lady Vols Scholar-Athlete for 1993, SEC Player of the Year for 1994 and 1995, collegiate All-American for those same years, MVP of the NCAA Mideast Regionals in 1995, and was a Coach's Award recipient. In addition, she was a nominee for the 1994 Honda-Broderick Award and a runner up for the Naismith Player of the Year for 1994 and 1995.
McCray signed a one-year contract with the American Basketball League in its 1996 inaugural season, joining the now-defunct Columbus Quest team for a reported salary of $150,000. During McCray's tenure, the team attended the 1997 ABL Championship, its first. She was named the ABL's Most Valuable Player for the 1996-97 season, and closed the season averaging 19.9 points per game, 5.0 rebounds per game, and 2.7 assists per game.
National and Olympic Teams
McCray joined the historic 1995-96 USA Basketball Women's National teams that compiled a combined 60-0 record and were named the 1996 US Olympic Committee and USA Basketball Team of the Year. She progressed to the US Olympic women's basketball team that won the gold medal in the 1996 Atlanta games, and repeated that success at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. McCray listed her 1996 Olympic teammate Teresa Edwards as one of her role models.
In 1997, she decided to forego the current ABL season and transferred to the Women's National Basketball Association. She saw some of the world when she served on the 1997 and 1998 All-Star team that toured Brazil and Europe. During this time, she was named one of three finalists for the 1997 Women's Pro Basketball ESPY awards. She also played on the gold medal-winning US National Team at the 1998 FIBA international basketball association Women's World Championship in Germany.
Marvelous with the Washington Mystics
On January 27, 1998, McCray signed on with the WNBA and was the first player selected for the floundering Washington Mystics. The phenomenal forward and guard helped to turn the team around. In her first year, she led in scoring, 3-point percentage, and assists, and ranked second in 3-pointers made, and was third in steals. The Mystics soon led the league in game attendance with an average of 16,000 fans per game and two sell-out crowds of 20,000, the largest number ever to watch US professional women's basketball.
McCray finished the 1999 WNBA season ranked fourth in the league for scoring, was named a starter for the 2000 WNBA All-Star Game, and was leading vote getter among all guards in the Eastern Conference.
In 2001, McCray was traded in the WNBA draft to Indiana Fever for the Fever's first round and third round picks. Her performance with the Mystics ranked her first with 13 consecutive games with a 3-point field goal, second in scoring average, and first in 3-point field goals attempted. In a game against Indiana in July 2001, she scored a season-high 25 points and hit 10 field goals. She has become the sixth leading scorer in WNBA history with 1,921 points and an average 15.8 points per game.
|1971||Born December 17 in Collierville, Tennessee|
|1991||Attends University of Tennessee, joined Lady Volunteers|
|1993||Plays on USA Women's World Championship Qualifying Tournament Team|
|1996||Joins ABL Columbus Quest|
|1996||Signs three-year contract with WNBA|
|1997||Helps lead Columbus to ABL Championship|
|1997||Tours with WNBA All-Star European tour team|
|1997||Signs three-year contract with WNBA|
|1998||Transfers to WNBA Washington Mystics|
|1999||Delivers Women's History Month keynote address at the Library of Congress|
|1999-2001||Named starter to WNBA All-Star team for three consecutive years|
|2001||Is traded to WNBA Indiana Fever|
Awards and Accomplishments
|1992||Earned ACC Player of the Year|
|1992-95||Named Best Defensive Player for Tennessee for four years|
|1993||Named Lady Vols Scholar-Athlete|
|1994||Named Southeastern Conference Player of the Year|
|1994||Named collegiate All-American|
|1994||Runner up for the Naismith Player of the Year|
|1994||Nominated for Honda-Broderick Award|
|1994||Received Coach's Award|
|1995||Named Southeastern Conference Player of the Year|
|1995||Named collegiate All-American|
|1995||Runner up for the Naismith Player of the Year|
|1995||Named MVP of the NCAA Mideast Regionals|
|1995||Received Coach's Award|
|1995||Member of USA Basketball Women's National team named USA Basketball Team of the Year|
|1996||Voted to ABL All-Star team|
|1996||Named ABL Most Valuable Player|
|1996||Member of US Olympic team that won gold medal in Atlanta|
|1997||One of three finalists for the Women's Pro Basketball ESPY awards|
|1997||Named Columbus Quest season MVP|
|1998||On gold medal-winning US National Team at FIBA Women's World Championship in Germany|
|1999||Voted a starter for the WNBA East All-Star team|
|2000||Member of US Olympic team that won gold medal in Sydney|
|2000||Voted a starter for the WNBA East All-Star team|
|2000||Named to President's Council on Fitness|
|2001||Named Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame Female Professional Athlete of the Year|
Committed to Community Service
A powerhouse off the court as well, McCray is noted as much for her community service and excellent singing voice as well as phenomenal basketball playing. She helps in her community by donating time to Boys and Girls Clubs where she talks to kids about sports and nutrition. She has even worked at the Abe's Table soup kitchen sponsored by Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin. McCray is spokesperson for the Wizards and Mystics Pick & Roll reading incentive program that enrolls 3,500 area students.
As captain of the WNBA Mystics, McCray delivered the 1999 Women's History Month keynote address at the Library of Congress. At the presentation, she was lauded as a "wonderful role model for young people" by the Federal Women's Program manager. In 2000, McCray was also named to the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, which advises the President and Secretary of Health and Human Services on improving American's participation in sports and physical activity. The Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame named McCray Female Professional Athlete of the Year in 2001.
Possessing a fine singing voice, McCray sang the national anthem at an NBA game. Wowing them in her hometown of Collierville, Tennessee, as well, a park was recently named for her. McCray is married to Thomas Penson, who proposed to her in the middle of the basketball court after a game.
|AS: WNBA All Stars; CQ: Columbus Quest; IND: Indiana Fever; VOL: University of Tennessee Lady Volunteers; WAS: Washington Mystics.|
Ever since playing basketball with her cousins when she was in grade school, Nikki McCray has proven that girls can be as good as boys. Helping the Washington Mystics host a Girl Power! night on the Web, McCray said, "This is a great time to be a girl. Just look around at all the things that you can achieve—from playing in the WNBA to being an astronaut to being President. Find something that you like to do, whether it is a sport, school, music, or something else, give it your best effort, and you will succeed—that's Girl Power!"
"Nikki McCray: In Another League" Sport 88 (December 1997): 22.
"WNBA's Nikki McCray Named to President's Council on Fitness" Jet 97 (February 28, 2000): 50.
African American Publications, http://www.aftricanpubs.com/Apps/bios/0424McCrayNikki.asp?pic=none (December 15, 2002).
All Sport, http://www.allsports.com/cgi-bin/showstory.cgi?story_id=18636 (December 15, 2002).
Girl Power!, http://www.girlpower.gov/girlarea/gpguests/mccray.htm (December 15, 2002).
Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/today/pr/1999/99-028.html (December 15, 2002).
USA Basketball, http://www.usabasketball.com/bioswomen/nikki_mccray_bio.html (December 15, 2002).
Women's National Basketball Association, http://www.wnba.com/playerfile/nikki_mccray (December 15, 2002).
Women's Sports Network, http://www.wsnsports.com/brochuresite/athletes_nikkimccray.html (December 15, 2002).
Sketch by Lorraine Savage