By AUDREY FISCHER
Nikki McCray, team captain for the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) Washington Mystics, kicked off the Library's 1999 Women's History Month celebration on March 3 with a keynote address that entertained and inspired. The theme of this year's celebration is "Women Putting Our Stamp on America."
Flanked by the Rosedale Tiger Cheerleaders, Ms. McCray was greeted by a crowd of enthusiastic fans.
"This is an amazing honor that would not have been possible five years ago," said Ms. McCray, referring to the status of women in sports. "The WNBA also stands for 'women are now being acknowledged,'" she quipped.
In discussing her career in a nontraditional field for women, Ms. McCray acknowledged her debt to those who have paved the way. Women such as tennis great Billie Jean King, Olympic track star Wilma Rudolph and University of Tennessee Lady Volunteers Coach Pat Summit inspired her but did not provide a female figure after which to pattern her game. Instead, she turned to basketball legend Michael Jordan.
"Girls today are fortunate to be spending less energy proving they have a right to play and more energy focusing on their game," said Ms. McCray. "They see women playing basketball on television and see WNBA players in commercials and in their communities. They can buy women's basketball signature shoes, such as my shoe, or those of other marquis players in the league."
Displaying a keen sense of history, Ms. McCray observed, "My timing was fortunate. I was born in 1972, the same year Title IX passed." Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs receiving federal financial assistance. "Twenty-three years later, with the assistance of Title IX, I had the opportunity to play basketball and graduate from the University of Tennessee and gain the exposure to play in the Olympics."
After graduating from the University of Tennessee in 1995 with a degree in sports marketing and education, Ms. McCray played for the 1996 gold-medal-winning U.S. Olympic women's basketball team. In 1997 she was named the American Basketball League's (ABL) most valuable player, having led the ABL Columbus Quest to a league championship. She was a member of the gold-medal-winning U.S. National team at the 1998 International Basketball Federation Women's World Championship in Germany.
Ms. McCray signed with the WNBA in 1998, and was the first player selected for the Washington Mystics that same year. During their inaugural season, the Mystics led the league in attendance with an average of 16,000 fans per game, and two sell-out crowds of 20,000 — the largest number ever to attend a professional women's basketball game in the United States.
"I will never forget what we did here in our nation's capital last summer," said Ms. McCray. "The Washington Mystics put our stamp on women's sports history as the first professional women's basketball team to call Washington, D.C., our home."
Tipper Gore, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala and other notable women were all in attendance during the season opener on June 19, 1998.
Quoting some statistics provided by Secretary Shalala, Ms. McCray reported that regular physical activity can decrease stress and depression, improve body image and self-confidence and improve academic performance and graduation rates. Yet young girls are still twice as likely to be inactive as young boys. On a positive note, the number of females who frequently play basketball increased 73 percent between 1987 and 1997.
"You all better join my favorite season ticket holder, Donna Shalala, and get your tickets now," joked Ms. McCray, who promised an exciting 1999 season. Displaying her characteristic wit and enthusiasm, she said, "Some say we can't win a championship, but I'm about to show them. When a girl today is told 'You can't make that shot, you're a girl,' she will say in return, 'You bet I can, I've got my Nikki McCray shoes on. '"
On a more serious note, Ms. McCray expressed her desire to be the type of athlete who has a positive impact on young people. "If my playing professional basketball inspires a girl to want to play sports, then I know I am making a positive difference."
In closing, Ms. McCray quoted Psalm 40. "Doing God's will sometimes means waiting patiently." She added, "We as women have waited. Now is a new beginning of our glory."
Ms. Fischer is a public affairs specialist in the Public Affairs Office.