Nikki McCray-Penson Bringing Winning Pedigree to Coaching in College and With USA Basketball
The day might come when Nikki McCray-Penson isn’t shooting for something on the basketball court.
But, it’s a long way off.
She already has accomplished so much on the hardwood that it would be tough to blame her if she decided to devote her considerable talent and intellect elsewhere. But, she’s not even close to finished.
She won a national championship in college at the University of Tennessee. She earned four gold medals with USA Basketball playing on nine different teams, including two in the Olympic Games. She was a three-time WNBA All-Star and won the American Basketball League Most Valuable Player award in 1997.
McCray-Penson was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2012.
With those credentials, some might be satisfied with themselves and look beyond the game for challenges. McCray-Penson, at 47, still has a passion to reach higher.
It is that passion that led her to the head coaching role at Old Dominion University two years ago after serving as Dawn Staley’s assistant at the University of South Carolina for nine seasons. McCray-Penson’s fearlessness and desire to compete is also what brought her to Colorado Springs, Colorado, this spring to serve as a court coach during the USA Basketball Women’s U19 and Pan American Games Team trials.
“There are a lot of Olympians that are now in the coaching world, and it’s really good to have a place to come back to where we put blood, sweat and tears into playing for our country and understand what that means to represent our country,” McCray-Penson said.
While coaching some of the best young players in the game was a clear attraction, McCray-Penson said she made sure to pass on to this generation what it means to earn the honor of wearing a uniform with USA on the front.
“It’s like joining a sisterhood or a sorority,” McCray-Penson said. “You come here and have a chance to compete against the best in the nation. And you come together for one common goal.
“You develop lifelong friendships that will last forever and it is an unbelievable bond. It’s something that will never be replaced and you get to learn a lot about yourself and where you are and how good you are. It’s also about where you fit in and how you can make a difference because everybody is good. You find some things out about yourself. You have to sacrifice some things because it’s not about you. It is about America and just winning that gold.”
McCray-Penson is a cancer survivor. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012 and underwent surgery and treatments that lasted a year before being declared cancer-free. She stood by her mother’s side last year as she fought the same disease. Sally Coleman died in July 2018.
McCray-Penson has never been one to shy away from chasing her dreams or to rest on her laurels, but losing her mom and fighting for her own life has taught her once again to make the most of every opportunity.
She said she believes all of her experiences as a player, coach and person have put her in a unique position to guide young women with the same dreams she once had.
“You know, I kind of know what they’re going through,” she said. “You know the anxiety that they feel, and because I’ve been there, I can kind of give them some words of encouragement. It gives you a little bit of credibility because you’ve been where they are. They’re probably a little bit more apt to listen to you because at the end of the day, they want to make the team and they just need to be navigated in how to go about doing that.”
Some college coaches in just their second year leading a program might shy away from taking on responsibilities with USA Basketball, too. McCray-Penson said she jumped at the chance because it’s an opportunity to give back to an organization that helped her develop as a player and a person, but she also has aspirations to coach on the international stage where she excelled as a player.
It’s just a dream at this point, but she acknowledges she envisions one day coaching the national team.
“This is an opportunity for me to jump-start that process,” McCray-Penson said. “Having a chance to be on the court and work alongside these coaches that have to prepare their team to win. I’m all in on that. My job is to help facilitate, to encourage and help prepare these young ladies to go and win. That’s what the job is. It’s not an option to come in second place because that’s the standard.”