KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (utladyvols.com) -- The University of Tennessee Lady Vol basketball family learned on Monday, Dec. 27, that Melissa Ann McCray-Dukes had lost her long and hard fought battle with cancer. McCray-Dukes was 43 years old.
Nicknamed “Emma” by her Tennessee teammates, McCray-Dukes played on four consecutive NCAA Final Four teams (1986-87-88-89) and started as a guard on coach Pat Summitt’s first two national championship teams in 1987 and 1989.
“Melissa was one of the most incredible people you could ever meet,” Summitt said. “She fought cancer with the same determination and tenacity she showed on the basketball court. She went into every single day of her life as a winner. Melissa had incredible optimism but she also knew she was in God’s hands at the end of her fight. She has taught me so many life lessons over the last four years and she will be missed.
Our prayers and thoughts go out to her family and many friends.”
McCray-Dukes lived in Knoxville and remained close to her former teammates over the years. It wasn’t unusual for her to drop by practice.
When she played, her teammates called her the “mother hen.” Said Lady Vol teammate Sheila Frost on Feb. 11, 1989, “She kind of pulls us together as a family,” Frost said of McCray. “We need a core like that. She’s been called the mother of our team since she was a freshman.” In the same interview about McCray, Summitt said, “She exemplifies so much of what I want Tennessee women’s basketball to be all about.”
The biographical sketch in the 1989 Tennessee Lady Vol Media Guide summed up number 35 in a nutshell. “If there was a war, the first person you would want in your foxhole was Melissa McCray…A durable player, she has not ever missed a game…When you think of Tennessee pressure defense, the picture that pops up is Melissa hawking the ball from sideline-to-sideline and all 94-feet of the basketball court…She does the little things that don’t always pop up in an NCAA box score…Her aggressive defensive style of play causes great consternation for her opponents…Usually they are totally denied the ball and if they happen to get a pass there is nowhere to go with it because Melissa is like glue…From the first day of practice of her rookie season, it was apparent that Melissa was special.”
McCray-Dukes was special. Even when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2006, she wanted to fight it privately at first and not “burden anyone” with what she was going through. However, her friends and former teammates coaxed her into revealing her fight and she served as an inspiration to others. She was the guest speaker many times at churches, women’s cancer support groups and at the UT Cancer Institute. When the cancer returned in 2009, she shared the importance of always fighting to the young 2008-09 Lady Vol basketball team – “whether it was basketball or your life, you fight.” She was always the Lady Vol.
She started her foray into the world of hoops at Rutledge High School after her parents moved from Miami, Fla., to East Tennessee when she was in middle school. She was lucky to have Coach Doug McBee, father of current Vol basketball player Skylar McBee, as her head coach. She said the lessons she first learned from Coach McBee about toughness and not giving up served as life lessons later reinforced by Science Hill High School Coach Gary Scheuerman and Lady Vol coach Pat Summitt.
McCray’s family moved to Johnson City after her sophomore year of high school. Melissa didn’t think she wanted to play at Science Hill but she said her guidance counselor and Coach Scheuerman persuaded her to continue the sport. Behind her play, the Lady Toppers fashioned a 28-7 record and made its first appearance in the state tournament. McCray averaged 18.3 ppg and 11.3 rpg and was named the Upper East Tennessee Player of the Year beating out Jefferson County’s Carolyn Peck. As a senior, SHHS repeated at state with a 28-5 record as McCray averaged 19.9 ppg and was offered a scholarship to play for the Lady Vols.
Her teammates voted her as the “Best Defensive Player” for four consecutive seasons at UT. She didn’t throw up gaudy numbers in the box score but she was always the one to get a critical basket or make a game-changing play. She was a member of the first class of players (men or women), to play in the NCAA Final Four all four years of her career joined by Lady Vol classmates Bridgette Gordon and Sheila Frost.
As a rookie at Tennessee, she nailed a bucket against Georgia putting the Lady Vols ahead to stay in the upset win over the Lady Bulldogs in the 1986 NCAA Regional. In the 1987 NCAA Final Four semifinal game against Long Beach State she played lockdown defense and surprised the 49ers with 14 points. As a senior, she unselfishly dished out 10 assists against Auburn in the 1989 NCAA Final Four Championship game in her final collegiate appearance. Always giving, she averaged an incredible nine assists per game in the Final Four in Tacoma, Wash.
For her career, she scored 874 points, grabbed 376 rebounds and handed out 289 assists in 139 career games with 87 career starts. McCray-Dukes was always precise and took pride in the way she played and tried to keep her teammates accountable. It is no surprise that for her career, as a guard, she committed a total of just 164 turnovers in 2,892 minutes of play…an unmatchable statistic.
She graduated from the University of Tennessee with a bachelor’s in political science in 1989 and was a longtime employee of Knoxville law firm Lewis, King, Krieg & Waldrop, P.C., and served as the Client Services and Marketing Director. She also was very active in her husband’s churches, the New Life West (Knoxville) and Faith Temple (Morristown) .
She was the wife to the Reverend Johnny Dukes and mother to daughter Stephanie McCray, 20, and son Chandler Dukes, 16. She was the daughter of Charles McCray Sr., the late Reverend Fred Kyle (stepfather) and Mrs. Clara Kyle. She is survived by sisters Sharon Perez and Kim Williams and brother, Charles McCray, Jr. She was born on Jan. 27, 1967 in Savannah, Ga.
Funeral arrangements are pending at this time.