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How has the legacy of this coach influenced women's basketball today?

“This is a tribute to a person who truly loved basketball,” said Dawn Staley, highlighting the love that two-time WNBA All-Star Nikki McCray shared for the game. For McCray, basketball was etched deep inside her heart from an early age. Attracted by her local basketball team, McCray somehow managed to clinch a spot. But it was just a spark, the actual fire was yet to be ignited. However, the story of this two-time WNBA All-Star remains etched in our historical records as she passed away a year ago. And once again on her first death anniversary, Dawn Staley is in memory of her.

Remembering the bond and love that prevailed between the Olympic medalist and her, Staley penned a heartfelt note. “On this day a year ago, our basketball community lost a great soul @NikkiMccray15. Not a day goes by I don’t think of you. It makes me sad knowing you’re not here to share in life’s most precious thing…TIME. I love you deeply, Nik Nik! Say hi to the big fella and my mom! We got U!

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Since the passing of McCray-Penson at 51, she has remained alive in Staley’s memories. They had first met each other at the 1996 Olympics. It was during their time in Team USA that Staley and McCray’s friendship grew. But it’s not only the friendship that the duo shared but also two impressive Olympic gold medals (1996 and 2000).

After ten impressive years in the league, McCray took up coaching as a career. Little did she know, she would get a job with her beloved friend. McCray spent over a decade as Dawn Staley’s assistant coach at South Carolina. But the worst was yet to come. In 2013, McCray was diagnosed with breast cancer. However, she never lost hope and made a comeback, completely unaware that she would have to fight this battle once again.

Keeping up with friendship

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In 2023, McCray, the assistant coach for Rutgers, once again led a tough fight against cancer. Since this time cancer was accompanied by a bout of pneumonia, McCray struggled even more. Finally, she gave up on life and left her 10-year-old son behind. Probably, she knew there was someone concerned about him after her.

“I did start an educational fund for her son… so he’s got eight more years before it matures, but I just felt like I needed to do more for her to keep her legacy alive. What better way to do it than through her son, who’s probably smarter than all of us at the age of 10,” Staley told Greenville News last year during a fundraiser exhibition.

This simply means Staley not only remembers her friend daily but also is keeping up with her responsibilities. As of now, Thomas Penson, McCray’s husband, looks after their son, also named Thomas Nikson Penson. Besides supporting McCray in her last days, Staley helped a Colombian NGO called In the Middle which provides financial help to breast cancer patients raise funds at the same event. Overall, Staley and McCray’s friendship is truly a bond to cherish.

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