Last August, Nikki McCray watched on national television as the Houston Comets defeated the New York Liberty to win the first WNBA championship. Five months earlier, she had led the Columbus Quest to the first championship of the rival American Basketball League and was named the league's most valuable player. Few noticed. McCray got far less exposure than two of her Olympic teammates, Lisa Leslie and Rebecca Lobo, who signed with the WNBA and were heavily promoted. McCray wondered if she was missing an opportunity. Less than a month later, she bolted the ABL and soon was being propelled by the full force of the WNBA's marketing efforts. As the first player assigned to Washington's new team, the Mystics, McCray's face is on posters in Metro trains and she sings in a television commercial that's part of a nationwide WNBA ad campaign. Now, this ambitious shooting guard with a telegenic smile is getting all the attention she wants. "I put myself in a position that I was very marketable," she said. "And that was because I played so well. So I had to decide which way to go." Her decision made, McCray will try to duplicate the success she had with the Columbus Quest, knowing that she is the public face of the expansion Mystics, on and off the court. It's a role she takes seriously. After being introduced to team owner Abe Pollin, she did nothing short of promise him a WNBA title. "A lot of people don't expect new franchises to do well," McCray said recently. "But that's not my thinking. And I know that's not {Coach Jim Lewis's} thinking. I think he selected a great group of girls who can come in and run the system and hopefully be effective against the teams in the WNBA." McCray, 25, arrived in Washington already familiar with the Mystics' coach, whom she had worked with on select national teams. And while McCray missed all but one day of the Mystics' training camp and both preseason games while playing in the world championships in Germany, she and Lewis spent time together in May before she left the country, discussing Lewis's systems and the kind of plays the Mystics would run. In her regular season debut, she played 35 minutes, finishing with 19 points and six assists in the Mystics' 83-57 loss to the Charlotte Sting. "She looks like she hasn't missed a beat," Lewis said. "It has been so encouraging because she is a student of the game." Despite her absence, McCray was named a team captain, along with 35-year-old veteran Tammy Jackson. "She has made an immediate impact with her leadership ability," Lewis said of McCray. "We know she can play the game. I am so impressed with her as person. I always have been. It's the little things she brings to the table, just the way she carries herself." The oldest of four children, McCray grew up in Collierville, Tenn., population 14,427, about 30 miles outside of Memphis. At Collierville High School, she averaged 27 points and 10 rebounds as a Parade all-American her senior year. "She could run the floor like a deer," said Joe Brock, her high school coach. "Nobody could keep up with her." McCray scored 3,594 points in high school and is No. 10 on the list of all-time high school scorers kept by the National Federation of State High School Associations. She drew the interest of Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt, who watched her and was immediately impressed. "I really felt right then and there, that she was one of the best athletes I had seen at that time," Summitt said. "She wasn't a refined basketball player. ... But, she had a lot of energy. ... And I liked her attitude." Summitt offered her a basketball scholarship and McCray enrolled at Tennessee in 1990.In her four seasons with the Lady Vols, Tennessee went 122-11 and won three Southeastern Conference regular season titles and two SEC tournament championships. McCray helped lead the Lady Vols to the 1995 NCAA championship game, in which Tennessee lost to Lobo and Connecticut. While playing for Summitt, McCray developed into a top defensive player, honing a skill that helped secure her a spot on the squad that played in the Atlanta Olympics. In a 1993 tournament with a select national team, McCray held Brazil national team star Hortencia de Fatima to two points as the U.S. team won the gold medal at the COPABA women's world championship qualifying tournament in Sao Paulo, Brazil. De Fatima finished with 15 points in that game, after burning the U.S. for 37 in a preliminary game two nights earlier. "I think that earned her a spot on the Olympic team," Summitt said. "I would say certainly that {McCray} is one of the best success stories that we have seen in our program, in terms of where she came from and where she is today." McCray and Lobo were the two rookies on the U.S. developmental team that toured during the 1995-96 season and compiled a 60-0 record on the way to winning the gold medal in Atlanta. In eight games at the Olympics, McCray was the leading scorer among the team's reserves, averaging 9.4 points and 3.5 rebounds in 16 minutes a game. "Winning the gold medal was definitely the highlight and turning point in my basketball career," said McCray. "I definitely came into my own. I started to explore {myself} as a player, not only defensively but offensively." Even before the Olympics, plans were announced for not one but two women's professional basketball leagues, something that had been tried unsuccessfully before in this country. Previously, the top women's players, even Olympic stars, went to Europe or Japan to continue their careers as pros. After the U.S. team won the gold medal, McCray said she was eager to join the ABL, which was starting its inaugural season just a few months after the Olympics ended. "The timing was perfect because I didn't have to go overseas to play basketball," said McCray. "The ABL was definitely a platform for women to play in the fall. So I took advantage of it. They paid us well. The competition was great." McCray was one of seven Olympic team members to sign with the ABL in that first season, averaging 19.9 points, 5 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game. Leslie and Lobo went to the WNBA, which began play in the summer of 1997. The average salary in the ABL was $80,000, and McCray reportedly was paid $125,000 to play for the Quest. After her one-year ABL contract expired, she and agent Lon Babby wanted more money and veto power over ABL endorsement deals, and negotiations with the ABL broke down. Although salaries in the WNBA average less than in the ABL, McCray's three-year deal with the WNBA designates her as one of the league's "marquee" players -- along with Lobo, Leslie and Sheryl Swoopes of the Houston Comets -- and includes an endorsement and promotional package believed to be in excess of $200,000 a season. After she joined the WNBA, McCray signed a reported $1 million contract with Fila, the athletic shoe maker that boasts NBA stars Grant Hill and Chris Webber among its endorsers. When McCray's signing with the WNBA was announced last Sept. 16, a Columbus Dispatch columnist ripped her for being greedy and opportunistic and ABL officials questioned her loyalty. "It was not a moral decision, it was a business decision," said Babby, who also represents Hill and NBA rookie of the year Tim Duncan. "People in this country often change jobs for better opportunities and that's all she did." The decision to switch leagues and sign with the WNBA was a difficult one for McCray to make but she feels she made the right choice. "I was very excited about how the WNBA did their first year," she said. "They just really attracted a lot of fans. It was a great atmosphere for women's basketball in the summer. I was surprised. I didn't think there would be that much. ... {The championship game} was amazing. That was something that I wanted to be a part of." CAPTION: Nikki McCray has been on the move, jumping from the American Basketball League to the WNBA and going straight from the world championships into the Washington Mystics' first season. CAPTION: Nikki McCray: "A lot of people don't expect new franchises to do well. But that's not my thinking. And I know that's not {Coach Jim Lewis's} thinking."