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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

During mom's fatal illness, Nikki McCray-Penson was grateful for ODU's compassion

By Harry Minium

This is a sad story that revolves around the death of a mother who doted on her children and grandchildren and was always there when family or friends needed her.

But it's also a love story between a mother and daughter, as well as a tale of compassion that makes me proud to say I work for Old Dominion University.

We'll start six years ago, when Nikki McCray-Penson was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her mother, Sally Coleman, had been treated for breast cancer five years before and provided moral support as she went through a year of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.

McCray was coaching at the University of South Carolina when she was diagnosed. Her mom often made the long drive from Collierville, Tenn., a Memphis suburb, to be with her.

She was her daughter's rock.

"She was so supportive," said McCray, who's entering her second season as ODU's women's basketball coach.

"She knew what I was going through. She kept my spirits up. It was so good to have her there."

McCray's treatment was successful; she's been cancer-free for five years. But sadly, in April, Coleman's breast cancer returned, and it was a particularly aggressive form of the disease.

She was told she had months to live.

McCray knew she needed to be by her mom's side. But she had nine newcomers who would enroll in June, an almost-new coaching staff, camps to run and recruiting to do.

When she told ODU athletic director Wood Selig about her mom, he told McCray to get on a plane.

ODU's coaches are expected to work hard and to win, yet family - and life and death - are more important, Selig said.

"When Nikki told us about her mom's illness, we knew it might be somewhat lengthy," said Selig, who'd lost his mom a year earlier.

https://pilotonline.com/sports/college/old-dominion/article_dc3a0a9a-35bb-5428-a11c-e6bf2f2d99c7.html

"But I also knew, just having lost my mom, that any time Nikki would spend with her mom would be more important to her than anything else she would ever do.

"She had the confidence and comfort knowing that no one was standing in her door with a time clock."

McCray left in April and, though she flew back and forth from Norfolk to Memphis several times, she didn't return full-time until July, shortly after her mom passed.

"Everyone here was so supportive," McCray said, adding that included President John R. Broderick. "He said for me to take as much time as I needed."

"I knew Nikki was a competitive person who would not just drop everything," Selig added. "I knew she was going to find a way to juggle both, even if it was from a distance."

McCray said being with her mom was wonderful - and arduous.

"I'm so glad that I had that time with her," McCray said. "That's something I can never replace.

"But at the same time, she's in a much better place now. She's not in any pain. I've never seen people suffer. You hear about it, but to finally see it, you don't want that for your loved ones."

McCray prefers to remember her mom when she was healthy. One of 13 children, Coleman was surrounded by dozens of family members in Tennessee, and she cooked for them all.

"Around the holidays, people would ask, 'What's Sally going to make?' She made fried corn, pound cakes, spaghetti, dressing, potato salad. She made everything," McCray said.

"She was such a harder worker. She was my hero. I got so much of my strength from her. She was a wonderful, wonderful human being.

"At her funeral, church members talked about her spirit, when they were around her how good she made them feel. If my mom was mad, you never knew it."

It's been a particularly difficult couple of years for McCray. Her father died two years ago and her grandfather died in October. She was recently in Collierville for the funeral.

The former Tennessee All-American, Olympic gold medalist and WNBA star has also been trying rebuild ODU's program. In addition to her new recruits, she hired two coaches in the offseason and is trying to bring the Monarchs back to national prominence after years of mediocrity.

"It was hard leaving my players, but our staff did such a great job when I was gone," McCray said.

"I'd recruited all of those kids for a year, so I knew them. While I was at home, they were always calling me and texting me. It was never about them. It was always about me. They wanted to make sure I was OK."

When they were reunited for good in July, the team made a trip to Costa Rica. ODU opens with a home exhibition game Nov. 2 against Christopher Newport.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, and the Monarchs have participated in several events, including the Komen Tidewater Race for the Cure in Virginia Beach and the annual Breastival Walk at ODU.

McCray said being around breast cancer survivors has been therapeutic.

"It reminds me that I'm not alone," McCray said. "I met a woman who said after 20 years, her cancer came back. But she was lucky. They caught it early.

"Everything is not all sad at those events. It's a way to honor the survivors and everyone who has been affected by cancer."

McCray said "I thank God every day" that her cancer hasn't returned but knows it could.

"As a survivor, you can't think about that because if you do, it consumes you," she said. "So I just try to put my energy into my family and my team.

"You spend as much time as you can telling people that you love them because you never know."

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