Shortly after wrapping up her college career at Tennessee in 1995, Nikki McCray joined the U.S. Women’s National Team that would go on to win the gold medal at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. It was the first of two gold medals for McCray and the first of five straight for Team USA (with this year’s team looking to extend the streak to six).
WNBA.com caught up with McCray to reminisce about the 1996 team, the gold standard that this year’s team is looking to maintain, her coaching career that saw her reunite with 1996 Team USA teammate Dawn Staley at South Carolina, and the lessons she learned from her legendary college coach, Pat Summitt.
On her favorite memories of the 1996 Olympic team:
“For me, it started in Colorado Springs, we’d all do potlucks, because we knew we were going to be together for a year and a half so we started coming up with creative things to do; some intangible team bonding things. We would do potlucks and just start making dishes and meet up at someone’s apartment and reminisce about practice and what not. So those are some of the fun memories I remember. Obviously in the beginning and as we continued to navigate through the year, just some of the fun games we used to play. We used to play this really fun game called make me laugh. Just crazy stuff. It was a way to just bring us together because we didn’t have cell phones back then, we didn’t have pagers, I mean you had to really, really communicate, and you had to come up with stuff. And we just used to do all types of fun stuff together.
“That group at that particular time, you had a mix of older kids, seasoned veterans in Teresa Edwards and Katrina McClain, then you had that middle class mix of Dawn Staley and Sheryl Swoopes and they you had me and Rebecca Lobo just fresh out of college. So we had a really good mix where we could all still relate to each other and still have a lot of things in common because we competed against each other at one time or another. Just being able to communicate with those players over that year and a half and what we learned about each other. And how we just created this unbelievable sisterhood. That right there will never, ever happen again.”
On reuniting with many of her 1996 teammates and coach Tara VanDerveer earlier this summer:
“That was so much fun. I think a couple players weren’t able to make it. But when I tell you that was the best. It was an awesome, awesome, awesome experience. Just to be able to catch up and talk about the memories. With Tara there, to be able to laugh with her, we could bring up stuff that we couldn’t even bring up when we were with Tara (when we were playing). She was like ‘Oh I didn’t know that happened.’ ‘Uh huh. (laughs)’ we couldn’t get in trouble for those things. It was a lot of fun. Just to see the growth and maturity of everybody and to see where everybody is at this point in their lives, with their kids, coaching and all of that. It was a really, really beautiful weekend.”
On this year’s U.S. Olympic team going for another gold medal:
“With this year’s Olympic team, to go for six straight gold medals is an unbelievable task, but I think this is a group that can do it. We’ve left a legacy of what USA Basketball looks like and the gold medal is the number one priority. And you have a lot of experience on that team with Taurasi, Catchings, and Bird, they’re not going to let them fail. It’s just theirs to take. I’m excited for them. I’m excited to be able to watch them and have them be able to experience this. For some of them this will be their last Olympics and you always want to go out with a bang.”
On the mix of veterans and younger players on this year’s team:
“That’s what they did for us. Everybody was in that situation at one point. Whether it was myself, whether its Diana Taurasi or Sue Bird, the torch was passed along to us. And just like the torch is going to be passed along to like the Breanna Stewarts and she’s going to know the way it is and how you’re supposed to set standards – that gold standard – and what that means and what it feels like. I definitely think USA Basketball is in great hands, you go Delle Donne, Brittney Griner and obviously Breanna – these are first timers and they’re the best at what they do. I’m excited for them and I’m excited for the future of USA Basketball.”
On the WNBA celebrating 20 years after making its debut shortly after that 1996 Olympic run:
“I mean it’s unbelievable. I was very fortunate to be able to come into the league my second year and play for a while there and have an opportunity to impact the communities and the teams that I played for, you can never get that back. To be able to say you were one of the pioneers of the WNBA and to see where it is and the talent that is in the league is unbelievable. All the teams are just loaded with talent at each position and the young players that are coming in are just as talented. I’m really excited about the league and the bright future that the league has.”
On the transition to coaching after her playing career came to a close in 2006:
“I’m enjoying life. Being a mom and having an opportunity to be coaching for 10 years. When I retired from the league, I got right into coaching and it’s just been an awesome experience to be able to mentor young girls and build relationships. And the WNBA taught me that. When I first came into the WNBA it was all about giving back to the fans, we had to do a lot. When I was allotted to the team in DC, we led the league in attendance, we had sell out crowds. That was really fun to see in the nation’s capital, to be able to have that hands-on experience with our fans. And college coaching is just like that; you get a chance to build relationships with these young prospective student-athletes and their families, their sisters, everybody that is going to help them with their decision. And just try to be very impactful in their life and try to navigate them and help them understand how to do things the right way.”
On reuniting with her former Olympic teammate Dawn Staley on the South Carolina coaching staff:
“Dawn is great; anybody that comes in contact with her, you feed off her energy and who she is as a person. Obviously, a great leader and has been a great leader for so many years, not only for USA basketball but now coaching and here at South Carolina with the standard that we’ve set and what we’ve built here. Dawn is a stickler with working with people that she knows, and a stickler for working with people that do things the right way, and that care more about not just themselves, but care about making people better. She wants givers around her. She wants people that are going to invest in things that are bigger than themselves because that’s what she’s done her entire life.”
“She’s very easy to work with because she’s really laid back and she just wants you to do your job and your job is to be a servant to these kids and do things the right way. So that’s what we’ve done here at South Carolina, we’ve been very disciplined and we’ve gotten this program off to a great start and we want to continue to maintain and win some championship along the way.”
On the lessons she’s learned from former coach Pat Summitt and how she uses them in her own coaching career:
“Oh my God, just everything. Who she was as a person, just the discipline, being a communicator, impacting lives, and that’s what coaching is about. Coaching is really about impacting lives and obviously Pat’s legacy was that outpouring of love when she passed and the people that she affected. It was truly remarkable.
“You’ve got to be in coaching for the right reasons; she was just all about that. She was honest, she was caring, she was a motivator, she was everything. The integrity of the game was very important to her. Her players were her life and she got us to do things that we probably didn’t believe in ourselves that we could do. She left a lasting impact on every single player’s life that she coached. I can truly say that. She is truly missed and that’s what you want, you want to be able to have that type of impact as a coach. Whether it’s coaching, whether its through conversation, you want to leave an impact on the people that you’re coaching.”