Nikki McCray-Penson, Former WNBA All-Star and Two-Time Olympic Gold Medalist, Dead at 51

Nikki McCray-Penson, a former WNBA All-Star who also won two Olympic gold medals during her basketball career, has died. She was 51 years old. The cause of death has not been confirmed, but McCray-Penson was battling pneumonia, according to USA Today Sports (per The Tennessean). Additionally, McCray-Penson was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013. Before her death, McCray-Penson worked as an assistant women's basketball coach at Rutgers University. 

"Today is a deeply sad and emotional day for everyone who knew and loved Nikki," Rutgers head coach Coquese Washington said via the university's news release. "Nikki had a big smile and an even bigger heart. 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."  

McCray-Penson played college basketball at the University of Tennessee, where she was named SEC Player of the Year in 1994 and 1995 and was a two-time All-American. During her time with the Lady Vols, McCray-Penson led the team to three SEC regular-season championships, two SEC tournament titles in an appearance in the Final Four in 1995. 

"Our hearts are broken as we mourn the loss of a beloved Lady Vol. We also offer our love and sincere condolences to her family, friends and colleagues across the country," Tennessee coach Kellie Harper said in a statement. "Nikki had a bright and loving personality and touched the lives of everyone she met. Her kind and genuine spirit will be missed." 

McCray-Penson was a member of the U.S. women's basketball team and won gold medals in the 1996 and 2000 Summer Olympics. The team also won a gold medal at the 1998 World Championship. 1998 is also the same year McCray-Penson joined the NBA after spending two seasons in the now-defunct American Basketball League. She played in the WNBA from 1998-2006 and spent time with the Washington Mystics, Phoenix Mercury, Indiana Fever, San Antonio Stars and Chicago Sky. McCray-Penson was named an All-Star three consecutive seasons when she was playing with the Mystics. 

Following her playing career, McCray Penson became a coach and started as an assistant at Western Kentucky. In 2008, the Tennessee native became an assistant at South Carolina and worked with former teammate Dawn Staley who is currently the head coach. In 2017, McCray-Penson became the head coach at Old Dominion and posted a 53-39 record in three seasons. She then was named head coach at Mississippi State in 2020 but resigned in October 2021 due to health issues. 

McCray-Penson is a member of the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame, the National Federation of State High School Associations Hall of Fame and the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame. She is survived by her husband Thomas and son Thomas Jr.