I had a chance to sit down with Nikki McCray. SheÕs a Memphis native and standout alum from the Tennessee program, won SEC player of the year a couple of times, played in the Olympics twice, won a gold medal, and played a year in the ABA before heading over to the WNBAÕs inaugural season. She played for the Washington Mystics and was voted as an All-Star three times. She has recently been traded to the Indiana Fever. Also, McCray is working the TV sideline crews for the Grizzlies as an announcer. HereÕs what she had to say:
Flyer: YouÕve just been traded. How do you feel about that?
I think with the whole trade thing that it was something hanging around since last season, through the middle of the season and at the end. Obviously, itÕs a fresh start for me and a fresh start for the organization. Washington has been great, the fans have been great, and I look forward to the opportunities I will have with Indiana. I prayed about it, IÕm going to a place where I am needed. IÕm a two-time Olympian, an ABA MVP, a three-time All-Star. I want to finish my career out happily, with people I can work with it.
Flyer: What can you bring to the Fever?
ItÕs a young team. TheyÕre looking for some veteran leadership. I wouldnÕt be in this position if it wasnÕt for my scoring, if it wasnÕt for my defense. And I just think my leadership as well, being able to set the example night in and night out of how it should be done. Whether itÕs coming into practice working hard, even when youÕre tired or if its motivating players even when things arenÕt going right. Even for you.
Flyer: You scored a season low 11 points a game last year, and yet that would make you the FeverÕs top scorer. Are you entering this ball club looking to score?
I donÕt even going into it like that. IÕm going into a whole new different thing. IÕm going in with the attitude of, ÔOk, now Nikki is going to be allowed to play her game.Õ When I was in Washington, I averaged 17 points [a game], and suddenly last year, 11 points, 20 minutes.
But [Fever head coach] Nell [Fortner] knows me and the other coaches know me. IÕm familiar with their team, playing with great players like Tamika [Catchings], All-Star Rita Williams, who was traded from Washington whoÕs now in Indiana. I think itÕs going to be great. IÕm not looking to go in there and be ÔAll-World.Õ I just want to come in and do my part.
Flyer: So you wonÕt write a number on the board and say, ÒThis is how many shots a game IÕm taking.Ó
ThatÕs not what itÕs all about. And thatÕs one thing I like about the Indiana team. They play hard. They beat us twice last year and, even though they only won nine games, they were without their best players. ItÕs going to be great to compete with Tamika and Rita.
Flyer: You have had a tremendous amateur career, almost to the detriment of your professional career. What are your goals within the WNBA?
ÒI think I have had, at the college level, a great deal of success. At the Olympic level, I had a great deal of success, and I think that a lot of people donÕt remember that as my first year as a professional I had a great deal of success at the ABL. Since IÕve been in the WNBA, it has been hard for me. My first year at the Mystics, I was the only player to be paired with a player like Chamique Holdsclaw and everyone was like, why canÕt they get it done? But, you have to realize that there has been five coaches in the five years that I have been there, new systems, new schemes, and thereÕs an adjustment period. Something needed to change. You canÕt just keep bringing in coaches, you canÕt just keep trading players. Something needed to happen, and that was me. IÕm not upset about it. It was something that was good for the organization and something that was good for me. My numbers declined last year, I played 20 minutes [a game]. IÕm used to playing 34 minutes a game. Any super-star should be averaging 34 minutes and for whatever reason I wasnÕt. Now, IÕm with a team I can help. I donÕt know how many minutes IÕm going to get with Indiana, but I know itÕs a fresh start.Ó
Ò[With Indiana] IÕm around good people. I know that IÕm around a team that plays like a team. I feel really good about that.Ó
ÒAnd working out. My focus is on getting back to a level of play that I know I can play at. In Washington I lost that. I came out of the Olympics and into a new system, a new coach, not really understanding who I was [on the team], understanding who I was [on the team] to make the team better. Nell knows me. One thing I have always admired about her is that she told me she can depend on me. ThatÕs good when a coach can tell you that, especially at the Olympic level. That makes me feel good.Ó
ÒI worked with her in 1996 and then in 2000. She was the perimeter coach in 1996 and then the head coach in 2000. WeÕve had great success together and thatÕs the great positive that I think about. Every time I have been with Nell, weÕve had a lot of success. Hopefully we can keep that ball rolling.
Flyer: Talking about your off-season. How are you doing with this announcing gig? WhatÕs it like to come back to Memphis and be involved with professional basketball in this city?
McCray: I feel good. I feel that Memphis has embraced this team, though they are struggling right now. TheyÕre playing hard, the players are hurt, and the fans are still coming out. IÕve asked the players how gratifying is it to see these fans keep coming out, and they are like, it is amazing. It makes it fun to come to work. And itÕs all about the fans anyway. You have to play and give your best, but you have to give back to the fans. I like coming home. I never really had a chance with all the traveling. ItÕs great to be back and be able to interact with the fans.
Flyer: At the same time, it has to be an odd experience because as a professional athlete, the NBA players are your peers. But you are a journalist at the same time. ItÕs not like you are a retired athlete, youÕre here and out there playing, but you also have a microphone in your hand. How does that affect your relationship with the players?
McCray: I think, for me, being in this position, I know what kind of questions to ask. Because the fans want to know specific details, so I try to ask those questions. Also, I try to be polite. Some media people are not very polite. That is the truth. And I just try to be professional. I look at my self as a peer of these guys. [WNBA players] do the same things as these guys do, night in and night out with the traveling, getting paid, and they are very professional with me. ItÕs fun. ItÕs a relaxed atmosphere. I feel that I can get more from them than some other people can.
Flyer: ItÕs interesting to me that WNBA players are doing these off season jobs like journalism. You have the same career lengths as an NBA player, but youÕre not going to be pulling down a $50 million for yourself.
McCray: We might, if we pose for Playboy. [laughs]
Flyer: [blushes] Well, thatÕs a different conversation. But seriously, you are in the position where you have to do more than other athletes, because you have to have a second career.
McCray: Well, itÕs new. The WNBA has not been around as long as the NBA. We donÕt have the TV deals they do or the overseas markets that they do. But itÕs coming. ItÕs very refreshing to know that IÕve been a pioneer in this league and in the ABL league. To start out with the money we are making, the amount of marketing opportunities we have gotten, and the amount of support we received from the league, I donÕt have any problem. IÕm very happy where I am, IÕm very happy with my paycheck, and itÕs going to get better. WeÕre making ways for the younger girls to come up and be in a better position than we were.
Flyer: And you are entering a massively male world in sports journalism. IÕll give an example. Tell me if I am wrong about this. After the Houston game, in the Grizzlies locker room, you are trying to talk with Jason Williams. You tell you cameraman to follow you to talk to Coach [Sidney] Lowe, and the technician, said ÒThe director tells him what to do,Ó and then he took the microphone from you and then grabbed you physically into the group of reporters. It seems that you might deserve a little more respect than that.
McCray: It wasnÕt so much that. I think that obviously I am not his boss. HeÕs with his boss in his ear. He has to focus on that. That was something totally different from me, being in the locker room, getting an interview with a player whoÕs not obligated to do interviews. That right there was a true test for me.
Flyer: Do you feel like you are a rookie all over again?
McCray: I do feel like that. ItÕs a learning experience for me. I think you have to be able to get players when you can. I wish I could get players off of the court, but obviously the NBA doesnÕt allow local TV to do that. That would be perfect for me. But I have to be like you guys, get them when you can.