Commentary

Gamecocks rally around McCray

South Carolina assistant coach was diagnosed with breast cancer last November

Originally Published: February 14, 2014
By Mechelle Voepel | espnW.com

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Dawn Staley and Nikki McCray were in the coaches' lounge at South Carolina on Sunday, watching the closing minutes of Washington's upset victory over Stanford.

Both expressed empathy for what Stanford's players might be facing the next day in practice with a perturbed coach Tara VanDerveer. They recalled one particularly grueling workout when they were playing on the U.S. national team coached by VanDerveer in 1995-96, when she was displeased with the squad.

"Did I have you on my team that day?" Staley asked McCray about a seemingly endless three-on-three drill. McCray answered, "Of course you did. You knew I wouldn't stop running."

[+] EnlargeSouth Carolina
AP Photo/Mary Ann ChastainThe Gamecocks surprised Nikki McCray with pink "Play for Nikki" T-shirts at a home game Feb. 9. "We have been playing for her," sophomore Tiffany Mitchell said.

Both cracked up at that memory, from when they were still young pros in their 20s, with Olympic gold medals in their future. Now they are colleagues who've worked together building the Gamecocks into the current No. 5 women's hoops team in the country.

And they are dealing with what many women in their 40s have to face: the threat of cancer. This past November, McCray was diagnosed with breast cancer. Supporting her has been a rallying point for the entire South Carolina program.

"It has been really helpful to be busy in our season and get the energy from our team, our staff, our fans," McCray, 42, said. "Beating this starts with getting up every day: being active, watching what I eat, hydrating enough.

"I don't look at this as a negative. This has helped me learn so much and given me a chance to help other people who are facing cancer, too. We're sharing things -- like recipes, stories about how we cope. When they do their chemo treatments I call them, and vice versa."

McCray joined South Carolina as an assistant in 2008, when Staley took over the program. The Gamecocks are 22-2 overall and 10-1 atop the SEC. South Carolina travels to face No. 19 LSU on Sunday (ESPN2/WatchESPN, 3:30 p.m. ET) as part of Play 4Kay, an annual event in memory of legendary NC State women's basketball coach Kay Yow, who died five years ago after a three-decade battle with cancer.

Like so many teams that have direct experience with someone facing cancer, Play 4Kay means something even more to South Carolina.

I have a mentality like I did when played: I'm going to fight this and beat this.

-- Nikki McCray

In November, McCray discovered a lump during a self-exam, and the next day told Staley.

"I said, 'You've got to get that checked out,'" Staley said. "This wasn't something to mess around with."

The diagnosis came, and when she initially called Staley with the news, McCray broke down crying. But she quickly pulled herself together.

"From that day on, she's been great," Staley said. "She has taken it head-on. She said, 'I need to say it out loud every now and then, and not be afraid of it.'"

McCray has had incidences of cancer on both her mother's and father's sides of her family, so she had a genetic test done soon after she was diagnosed.

"I don't have the genetic trait," McCray said. "Once you figure out what kind of cancer you have, you can go from there. I knew my diet would have to change a lot. I try to do more natural foods, and more of a plant-based diet. I didn't think I could do that, but I actually feel so much better.

"I always watched my diet as a player, but once I became a coach ... you think of our lifestyle: the traveling, the long hours. You pick up a burger here and there, and you're careless about what you eat. So this has been a huge eye-opener for me. I have to feed my body the things it needs. I have to exercise. I have a mentality like I did when played: I'm going to fight this and beat this."

[+] EnlargeNikki McCray
Courtesy of South Carolina Athletics Nikki McCray played at Tennessee from 1991 to '95, played in the WNBA for eight seasons, and won gold medals at the 1996 and 2000 Olympics.

McCray has had three chemotherapy treatments, the most recent earlier this week. So far, she said, she has been very fortunate in that she tolerates the treatments well and has been able to keep working without extensive fatigue.

"I rest when I need to," McCray said. "Dawn has been great. She said, 'Your No. 1 priority is your health.'"

Eventually, McCray will need surgery, but she was been told that can wait until after the season. She meets with a support group of cancer patients. She has been flooded with good wishes from her former teammates from Tennessee, USA Basketball and the WNBA.

A native of Tennessee, McCray was a standout for the Lady Vols from 1991 through '95, then played in the ABL and the WNBA. After her retirement as a player in 2006, she began her coaching career as an assistant at Western Kentucky.

McCray was a finalist for a head coaching job elsewhere this past offseason, but instead stayed with South Carolina. Staley is especially grateful for that now.

"She has her family, of course, but we're her family, too," Staley said of the South Carolina coaches, players and administrators. "Everybody in our circle can help her."

McCray has her immediate family assisting her at all times: Her husband, Thomas Penson, and his mother, Dorothy Penson, are always there in helping look after McCray and the littlest one in the family, Thomas Jr.

Nikki and Thomas' son was born Feb. 1, 2013. McCray refers to her mother-in-law as "my angel." Dorothy came to stay with Nikki and Thomas when Thomas Jr. was born and continues to help as a caretaker.

"Knowing he has been in great hands is such a relief," Nikki said. "I think, 'Oh my goodness, if she wasn't here, how would I do it?' There are some times where he wants all your attention. Typically a few days after treatments, I notice my energy isn't there. And she has allowed me to rest and to be a better mom."

Last Sunday, the Gamecocks had their home Play 4Kay game against Arkansas. When McCray came into the locker room before the contest, she was surprised by the team decked out in pink "Play for Nikki" T-shirts.

"We have been playing for her," South Carolina sophomore guard Tiffany Mitchell said. "We've tried to make everything as normal as possible for her. I feel like she's the kind of person to beat this disease. She's a strong individual, and she's helped us so much. She has a great team behind her."

McCray has tried to be all business at work, but she admitted the T-shirts made her emotional.

"I was getting ready to do the [scouting] report, and I burst into tears when I saw those shirts," McCray said. "I had to walk out for a minute. It was so touching to me. I've had great support. We're all in this together."

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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