Nikki McCray-Penson never wanted to let down anybody, which is what made her one of the strongest women, Dawn Staley says, she has ever known. Relentless on the court as a two-time SEC Player of the Year and two-time Olympic gold medalist, McCray-Penson was as bullish off it, always wanting to prove she could handle anything, that she could win any fight presented to her.
She’s stared at Pat Summitt and the world’s best players and her boss at South Carolina and any prospect she’s been asked to recruit and almost always won (not many claimed a don’t-blink contest with Summitt). There aren’t many faces that can pierce McCray-Penson’s steely hide.
Until she gets home.
Thomas Nikson Penson – “Little Thomas” while dad Thomas Penson is “Big Thomas” – is 4 and likes to watch mom’s team play basketball. He’s starting to read Dr. Seuss and Little Blue Truck and wants McCray-Penson to challenge him when he’s putting up 200 shots a night on the hoop stapled above the door (“Block my shot, Mommy!”). McCray-Penson has also found that Thomas is a big help in recruiting – half the time she’s talking to some five-star wing, the player asks if the team’s baby is nearby.
It’s that face McCray-Penson always loses to. It’s Thomas who she thought of during the longest game of her life.
“He was a newborn, and being able to look at him and it was like, ‘OK, this is what you’re fighting for,’ ” McCray-Penson said. “I want to be around as long as possible to see him grow up, for him to have his mom. I’m fighting for my family.”
The two pink bands on her wrist reflect the battle she and approximately one of every eight U.S. women fight. McCray-Penson was diagnosed with breast cancer in November 2013.
Today she’s cancer-free, part of a national championship team and, most wonderfully, has Thomas’ arms around her. McCray-Penson will never forget the hardships she overcame, the support she received from everyone around her and how hearing “Mommy!” kept her going.
“She never missed a day of work until she had her surgery, then we forced her,” Staley said at the Final Four. “She got out of surgery, and she came to work. God has His hands wrapped around her.”
The day she told Staley about her diagnosis still resonates. There was silence on the phone before Staley asked, “Where are you?” She and associate head coach Lisa Boyer rushed to McCray-Penson’s side.
“They were right there holding my hand from start to finish, from diagnosis to my last treatment,” McCray-Penson said. “I needed that, to stay focused on the task at hand. I needed to have a plan on how to beat this disease.”
Thomas prominently figured into it. Seeing him grow and become part of the team, and always be waiting with a smooch and a snuggle …
McCray-Penson never backed down from a challenge. That’s how she approached cancer, with her child spurring her on.
They were right there holding my hand from start to finish, from diagnosis to my last treatment. I needed that, to stay focused on the task at hand. I needed to have a plan on how to beat this disease.
It’s never easy to leave Thomas’ side, when he asks if there’s a game tonight as McCray-Penson lays out her clothes and if he can come when she’s stuffing her suitcase for a road trip. He’s gone to both of USC’s Final Fours and, in Dallas, got to touch the trophy mom waited so long to get – McCray-Penson was one of Tennessee’s finest players, but her four years came after one national championship and before three in a row.
Normally, there’s a little break after a season, but a title has ramped the daily schedule to ludicrous speed. McCray-Penson’s mother-in-law, Dorthy Penson, has been with the family since just before Thomas was born and loves caring for her grandson. That helps.
McCray-Penson keeps balancing work and family, taking a lesson from Summitt in how to multitask. Summitt gave birth to her son just before McCray-Penson enrolled at Tennessee and often would have him in the office and at practice. Thomas was a regular as soon as McCray-Penson announced she was pregnant.
“I told her about it when we were getting ready to be inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, and (Staley) was like, ‘We’re gonna have a baby!’ ” McCray-Penson said. “She wants him around.”
McCray-Penson tries to be with Thomas as much as she can, FaceTiming before she gets on a plane and when she lands – if Daddy will let him stay up past bedtime. She’ll sing to him via the web and read a story when he toddles downstairs to ask her while she’s in the middle of the Kentucky tape. As much of a hit as he is with recruits, McCray-Penson also tries to separate recruit time from mom time.
“They’re in school the same time. The kids have to talk at a certain time and that’s my son’s time, and I have to choose,” she said. “I have to stay in the car a little bit longer, and he’s looking in the window, saying, ‘Mommy’s going to talk to a recruit.’
“He’s getting older, so we’re doing 15 minutes on Hooked on Phonics and 15 minutes on all the other things he’s learning, and then we’re doing projects with him. It’s hard to miss a lot of that, but the best part of the day is walking through that door and seeing those dimples, seeing that smile.”
Thomas’ jumper continues to develop and McCray-Penson is already teaching him to pump-fake, to get that lead hand out to protect the ball. He always wins, which is OK.
Thomas gave her the best assist of her career.
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