Big Time, Big Bucks Nikki McCray was looking out for herself when she bolted the ABL for the WNBA

July 26, 1998

There is greed working here, and don't be so foolish as to argue
otherwise.

Greed hypnotizes people, chews up their souls, spits out the
remains. It makes them forget what's important, what's really
important. So you, Mr. High School Basketball Coach, don't start
with that "Nikki is a God-loving person" stuff. We know she
is--who'd argue? And you, Ms. Washington Mystics PR Enforcer, no
more "Nikki's done so much for the community" blather. There's
no reason to doubt you. None.

Nikki McCray may be the nicest person since Mother Teresa, but is
she also a greedy capitalist? Why, yes. She is.

Look at it this way. When McCray, arguably the world's best
female basketball player, left the American Basketball League
(ABL) after one season, she did so to join a rival entity, the
WNBA, that has oodles of TV exposure, oodles of marketing savvy
and oodles of glitz, flash and funk. The ABL was nice and cute;
heck, McCray's Columbus Quest went 31-9 and won the inaugural
championship two seasons back. But--and McCray admits this--the
league didn't promote.

The WNBA--me, me, me, me--promotes. So here we are. Two leagues,
two teams and a star basketball player recalling the famed
Gordon Gekko maxim: Greed is good.

McCray, a 5'11" off-guard with distinctive braids, crooked
dimples and an easy-rider smile, is in her first year with the
expansion Mystics. The team is 2-14 and is experiencing the
growing pains associated with a new franchise. No matter.
Throughout our nation's capital, McCray's presence looms. On
posters in subway stations her glowing grin says, C'mon, buy
season tickets. In Modell's Sporting Goods her number 15 jersey
sells next to those of the NBA Washington Wizards stars Rod
Strickland and Juwan Howard. On TV commercials, she sings to us,
Join in.... Join in.... Join in.... Join in.

All of that, McCray eagerly attests, is what she wants, what has
"made me the happiest I've ever been." McCray has a three-year
contract worth around $200,000 a year with the Mystics. She has
her own Fila sneaker. "The Nikki McCray shoe," she says,
bubbling. "It's large."

Everything about McCray is large. Large family (two brothers and
two sisters). Large fan base. Large game. "People can say what
they want about me," says McCray, uttering a familiar sports
refrain. "But I try to present myself in a positive way. I had
to make the best decision for me, and that was joining the WNBA.
It doesn't have anything to do with money."

It has everything to do with money. But once again, is greed
good? Or, to put it another way, is greed so bad?

Between the familiar bromides and yawn-inducing quotes that
McCray usually offers in an interview (she eternally just wants
to be a part of the team and hopes she can do her part), there
are traces of a history that ties things together. Born 25 years
ago in Collierville, Tenn. (pop. 14,427), near Memphis, McCray
grew up never knowing big loot or, for that matter, small loot.
Her mother, Sally Coleman, works on an assembly line making
microwave ovens. Her father, Bobby Albright, works on an
assembly line making air conditioners. It is a 9-to-5, punch-in,
punch-out sort of life that McCray grew up observing. "And I'd
probably be doing the same thing, too," she says, "if I wasn't
playing basketball."

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.

Uhhhh...Nikki?

"I had to put it in a business point of view," says McCray.
"When it comes to something like that, you can't let emotions
interfere. It's all about business. I'm a loyal person, but when
I have roots. In Columbus the roots weren't that strong."

At least not as strong as she wanted. McCray said she would
re-sign for no less than $450,000 a season, triple what other
top players were making. This was a bad omen for the Quest. Then
she started talking up the WNBA's economic virtues to friends.
ABL officials started having that queasy feeling. Then--just
like that--McCray signed with the WNBA in September 1997, left
Columbus and hasn't returned.

The Quest was not happy. "Whatever happened to loyalty?"
complained Valerie Still, a Columbus forward. "Nikki got what
she thought was best for herself. That's the point we've reached
these days. Isn't there something to be said for caring about
other people? How can she forget that the ABL sacrificed a lot
to get this league started? They took a chance on all of us, and
then to get this type of treatment...."

McCray, aware of the scorn, shrugs. Is she a greedy person? "I'd
say no," she says. "But sometimes you have to look out for
yourself first. Business is business."

Maybe so. After all, her picture is in subway stations. Her
jersey sells for $39.99. She is in commercials, singing
gleefully. The Columbus Quest are two-time ABL champs, the
Washington Mystics are 2-14, and Nikki McCray is happy.

Greed? What's so bad about that?

COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA On posters in Washington subway stations her glowing grin says, "C'mon buy season tickets." [Nikki McCray shouting in game]

"I had to make the best decision for me.... It doesn't have
anything to do with money."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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