Nikki McCray started playing basketball at age 13 with her older male cousins in Collierville, Tenn. As a Parade all-American in high school, she averaged 27 points and 10 rebounds her senior year. At Tennessee, she helped the Lady Vols win three Southeastern Conference titles and two conference tournament championships. In 1995, the Lady Vols advanced to the NCAA championship game, losing to Connecticut. After winning a gold medal as a member of the 1996 U.S. Olympic basketball team, she played in the inaugural season of the now-defunct American Basketball League, leading the Columbus Quest to the league title. She switched to the WNBA in September 1997.

From Collierville, Tenn., to the Mystics:

l started playing basketball around my ninth grade year. Before then, I ran track. I wanted to be the next Flo Jo. That was my goal. Then one Sunday after church, I was with my cousins. We had a hoop in the backyard. I decided I wanted to go out and play basketball. I was 13. I was like, "Hey, you guys, can I play?" They were like, "No, Nikki, you can't play. You don't know how to play." They were boys, older than me. So I went in the house and I told my grandmother, who we called Big Mommy. I said, "Big Mommy, they will not let me play outside." So she went outside and said, "If she [Nikki] can't play, then none of you all can play."

And then my cousin, Ricky, put me on his team. From then on, I have been playing. What motivated me was them, telling me I couldn't play. When they were not on the court, I would go out and practice on my own. No one taught me how to play. I just had a ball and I would practice shooting, practice dribbling on my own. I practiced every single day. We would get out of school at 2:30. I would grab something to eat and I would go out in the back yard and practice until the sun went down -- by myself. I would pretend like someone was guarding me. And I would just play. I could play for six hours.

I played AAU the summer before the ninth grade. I played on the varsity ninth grade, 10th grade, 11th grade and 12th grade. I started all four years. My team wasn't good like my first two years. But then in my junior and senior years, we went to the state [tournament]. It was the first time it ever happened. That's where Pat [Summitt, Tennessee coach] saw me play.

Pat knew that I was naive and didn't really know a lot. She knew that I was scared. She would really talk to me as a guardian. It wasn't anything personal. She was like "Nikki, yes, you're a great player. I want you to come here." I came on a visit, talked to the team and just really felt comfortable.

When I got to Tennessee I hurt my knee [anterior cruciate ligament tear] and couldn't play my freshman year. I felt like I let Pat down. It kind of broke my confidence a little bit. And then when I rehabbed my knee that kind of gave me a lot of confidence.

I started all four years, which is kind of hard, because when I came in, there was so much competition. I was kind of intimidated. But I knew I could contribute, not just scoring but defensively. I really learned the game when I got there, learned defense, learned how to move without the ball, learned how to score. When I was in high school, I was a post player. When I came to college, I had to become a perimeter player. It was very hard. But it was easy, too, because she [Summitt] worked with me. And I think the edge I had over a lot of the players was my work ethic.

When I came out of college, I was labeled as a defensive player because I made the 1996 [U.S.] Olympic team because of my defense.

When I got to the ABL, I played for a coach that not only believed in my defense, but also believed in my offensive ability and gave me a chance to really score. When I walked into Coach Brian [Agler's] office, he told me, "Our team is going to win a championship, if you do these things. You're going to be the MVP of this league, not on your offensive ability, but what you do every day in practice and how you get this team fired up defensively."

He really taught me a lot of things about myself, about how to make people respect me out on the court. He would take me out of the game because I would be wide open for a three-point shot and I wouldn't take it. So he just kind of helped me to get that confidence, that no one can beat me. We went on to win the championship.

It's just been fun. I'm so grateful for everything. I think I'm still getting better. I still have something to prove to myself. I'm just thankful for the ability that God has given me and I want to take advantage of it.

CAPTION: Nikki McCray, who won an Olympic gold medal in 1996 and an ABL championship while with the Columbus Quest in 1997, hopes to turn around the Mystics' fortunes.