Lady Vols back at practice after break

The Lady Vols returned to practice Monday evening – all 13 made it back despite snarled air travel in parts of the country – and had a typical first session after a holiday break as it took awhile to get in gear. The coaches took the court with heavy hearts, and Pat Summitt pointed to the 1987 and 1989 national title banners in remembrance of Melissa McCray-Dukes, who passed away Monday morning.

Melissa McCray Dukes, who played for Tennessee from 1985 to 1989, was the starting guard on two national title teams in 1987 and 1989. One of her teammates, Shelley Sexton Collier, came to practice Monday evening with her young daughters to see Pat Summitt and Daedra Charles-Furlow, offer support and seek consolation.

"It's been an emotional day because of who Melissa was," said Collier, who hosted McCray-Dukes on her recruiting visit before she joined the team for the 1984-85 season. "We just hit it off. I have so many special memories of her. I felt like I needed to be here and hug Daedra's neck and hug Pat's neck and check on the team.

"She was such an inspiration and such a great leader for this program and was very dear to me personally."

Collier was a senior when McCray-Dukes was a sophomore on the 1987 team – the first to ever hang a national title banner in Tennessee Lady Vols basketball history. Both married, started families and settled in Knoxville. Collier is the head coach of girl's basketball at Webb School and McCray-Dukes was the longtime client services and marketing director for the law firm of Lewis, King, Krieg & Waldrop, P.C.

McCray-Dukes survived her first battle with breast cancer in 2006 and when it returned in 2009 she vowed to not surrender without another fight. Despite her weakened condition McCray-Dukes came campus two years ago – Sexton picked up her friend and former teammates – to speak to the Lady Vol players, who were undergoing one of the worst seasons in program history, and she reminded them about the importance of the fight and what it meant decades later to have worn orange.

"Her spirit, I don't know many people like her who would give even when they didn't have a whole lot to give," said Charles-Furlow, who played with McCray-Dukes on the 1989 team. "Coming to talk to this team she was going through chemo, sick, tired, but she thought enough of this program, of Pat, of this team, to come and talk to them at a time when she should have been at home.

"If you couldn't see through her eyes and listen to the words that she spoke on that day about being a Lady Vol and what it meant to her and the lessons she learned going through this program and how it prepared her for where she was, if they didn't get that, I don't know if they ever will. It was unbelievable, and it was all true.

"Emma has always been straightforward. This is how it is. She didn't sway one way or the other. If she said it she meant it. We can all learn lessons. I've learned lessons from her. Shelley and I talked about her being so focused and honest."

The name "Emma" arose when a teammate mentioned that McCray-Dukes reminded her of a maternal relative named Emma, and the nickname stuck.

"She was known as the Mother Hen of the team," Charles-Furlow said.

McCray-Dukes died at the age of 43 and is survived by her husband, the Rev. Johnny Dukes, 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. Other survivors are sisters Sharon Perez and Kim Williams and brother Charles McCray Jr. Funeral arrangements are pending at this time.

"She was such a wonderful mother," said Collier, whose sister is a guidance counselor at Chandler's school. "Stephanie has been over a couple of times and she is a strong young lady. I would love to be there for them in any way and their family."

Collier, who was at practice with her young daughters, nodded when it was pointed out that she was too young to have lost a teammate.

"Absolutely," said Collier, whose soft voice and teary eyes underscored how tough the day had been. "I have mixed emotions. I am just wishing that she was here, hating that she had to go through all that she went through. I know that the good Lord is ready and waiting on her because she had strong faith. That's what set her apart and made her so special was her faith and trust in the Lord.

"She was always positive even when things were bad, always thinking of others. I know that she's in a better place. That I am grateful for and thankful for, but it's still hard to not have her here. I just miss her."

Monday was the team's first practice since the Christmas break and despite travel issues across the country because of major snowfalls and inclement weather, all 13 Lady Vols reported on time.

"We were fortunate that we all got back and ready to practice," Summitt said. "You always worry about that when they have this break."

Summitt started the session by telling the players about the death of McCray-Dukes and pointing to the 1987 and 1989 national title banners that hang with the six others in the rafters of the arena.

Despite the sad news, Summitt conducted practice as usual, but she became emotional afterwards when talking to the media.

"It was tough," Summitt said. "Melissa has been so important to our Lady Vol family. .... To get that phone call I'll be honest with you I've had a hard day. I've heard from almost all the players. Everybody is heartbroken, but she's in a better place, and we have to remember that."

Summitt last saw McCray-Dukes two weeks ago, and she had a goal for the new year.

"The one thing she wanted to do this year was get well enough to come and talk to this team," Summitt said. "I wish she could have done it. She has had such an impact on every team or every individual she has ever talked to one on one about investing and being committed and holding people accountable."

Charles-Furlow, who is now the team's director of character development, also spoke about her teammate's spirit. Charles-Furlow has spent the past year battling breast cancer, and McCray-Dukes was always willing to answer questions and provide inspiration.

"Emma, what can I not say about her?" said Charles-Furlow, who smiled as she remembered that just a week ago McCray-Dukes was asking how she was doing. "She helped me through a tough time with my cancer. She wanted to be there.

"It was always about how the Lady Vols were doing. It was never about her. That was Emma. She never complained or would of, could of, should of. That's never been her way of life. It's always been, ‘What can I do to help you?'

"She was at peace. She just wanted to make sure everybody else around her was OK."

The Lady Vols website has information about the career of Melissa McCray-Dukes, whose connection to Tennessee is tied to Coach Doug McBee, the father of current Vol basketball player Skylar McBee.

For her career, McCray-Dukes, a defensive stalwart, scored 874 points, grabbed 376 rebounds and handed out 289 assists in 139 career games with 87 career starts.

"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," according to the Lady Vols website.

Former Lady Vols often mention the long orange line, and both Collier and Charles-Furlow said McCray-Dukes would be forever connected to the Tennessee legacy. Her memory survives within the arena, with the banners that Summitt pointed to at practice and every time they or any Lady Vol walk on the court.

"It's still surreal," Charles-Furlow said. "The thing that went through my head is she is finally at peace. Even though we don't want our loved ones and friends to transition to the other side because we'll miss them in the flesh I thought, ‘'No more suffering.'

"She is at home in the kingdom, and I was relieved for that. But very sad. Very, very sad today, not just for myself, but for her family, friends, coworkers, teammates, coaches."

"If you talked to any of her teammates right now they would say the same thing that I am saying about her – strong willed, strong faith, strong leader," Collier said. "It's a very sad day but at the same time it's a lot of celebration because of where she's at now."

"I can hear her words coming out all the time," Summitt said. "We're going to miss her, but there is no doubt she's in a better place."

VIDEO COVERAGE: Practice clips from Monday evening, and Pat Summitt discusses practice and the passing of Melissa McCray-Dukes.

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