At first McCray was, by nature, nurture and choice, a sprinter. She was an outstanding athlete with impressive quickness. In high school she ran the 100 in 11.9 seconds, the 200 in 25.5 seconds and long jumped 19'7". "Track was my first love. I was really into Flo-Jo. She was the hottest thing," she says. "I thought I could be the next Flo-Jo." Then McCray came upon hoops, this magical game that takes future assembly-line workers and makes them superstars. It wasn't until seventh or eighth grade that she dribbled a ball, and the first team she joined was the Collierville High varsity, as a freshman.
"I've felt for a long time that basketball is meant for me," she says, sitting on a staircase at the MCI Center after a recent Mystics practice. "I was never taught how to play, and no one ever really sat down and taught me how to shoot. I never went to camps, and no one explained what a double dribble was. I just learned it all on my own."
She learned fast. By her junior year McCray was one of Tennessee's top high school prospects, a defensive terror who also could post up on smaller players and take larger girls off the dribble. Once, against Memphis's Northside High, she was double-teamed the entire game. Wherever McCray went, two players followed. Collierville lost by one, but McCray scored 35 points, and three opponents fouled out trying to guard her. Another time, versus H.W. Byers, in Mount Pleasant, Miss., she hit for 50 points without playing the third quarter.
"She was the most dominating player I've ever seen," says Joe Brock, McCray's high school coach. "She was so supremely amazing, like Michael Jordan is now. She took control of the game."
McCray went on to Tennessee, where she was the 1994 and '95 SEC Player of the Year. She averaged 16.3 points as a junior and 15.2 as a senior. Most important, she started seeing a future other than putting Gadget A in Machine Z.
"Nikki was the most naive player I'd ever recruited," says Pat Summitt, the Tennessee coach. "She had never left home before; she didn't know the world. To her, Knoxville was this huge place. I said, 'Nikki, where have you been besides home?' She said, ' Murfreesboro.' But she learned so much in a short time."
"When you're young, games are games," adds McCray. "But around my junior year at Tennessee, I started viewing basketball as a business. I could make a living at it and be pretty successful."
This, McCray concedes, was good and bad. The idea of getting paid to play basketball was, she says, "a dream." But for the first time, she was thinking in business terms. She competed on the '96 gold-medal-winning U.S. Olympic team, then hired lawyer Lon Babby and inked a one-year, $150,000 contract with Columbus. "My representation thought signing for one season made sense," McCray says. "It would give me options."
It did. In her year with the Quest, McCray averaged 19.9 points, 5.0 rebounds and 2.7 assists and was named the league's first MVP. The city of Columbus loved her flair and exuberance. So did the ABL, which early on had seen her as a league marquee player. Let's talk new contract Long-term contract. Now. Right now.