Melissa McCray-Dukes faces tough battle

Thirty years ago, when then-Rutledge High School Coach Doug McBee was working one-on-one with Melissa McCray after school, he never could have anticipated that the lessons he taught her to improve as a player would one day help her fight through one of the toughest challenges of her life.

According to Doug McBee, father of current Vol basketball player Skylar McBee, a young Melissa enjoyed practicing in the gym.

"She would want to stay after school and practice, shoot some after school, so I'd stay around with her doing things, and we'd work," McBee said. "She was just one of these kids that wanted to put the time in. She loved the game of basketball. She loved the competition and was willing to do what it took to develop into a player."

Melissa McCray, a Lady Vols guard from 1985 to1989 who is married and now known as McCray-Dukes, faced many tough opponents as she helped Pat Summitt win Tennessee's first two national titles, but none of those could possibly be as tough as her current battle with breast cancer.

"I absolutely cannot put into words what I believe Coach McBee did for me," McCray-Dukes said in a phone interview. "I love, appreciate, and respect him for it."

When asked how basketball has helped her through her fight with cancer, she said, "I needed that toughness, that don't give up (attitude). It's not just about you. It's other people."

On Monday, the Lady Vols will host LSU as part of the 2010 WBCA Pink Zone Campaign to raise breast cancer awareness across campuses and in local communities.

The Lady Vols will wear pink uniforms, and LSU will wear its white ones with purple and pink trim. The SEC granted special permission for LSU to be in white uniforms on Tennessee's home court. Tipoff is set for 7 p.m. Eastern (ESPN2).

According to the American Cancer Society, one woman is diagnosed with breast cancer every three minutes in the United States , and one dies from breast cancer every 13 minutes.

The "sea of pink" in Thompson-Boling Arena on Monday – Tennessee is promoting the event as "Live Pink, Bleed Orange" – will not only promote awareness, but it will also hit close to home as it will symbolize the battles of McCray-Dukes and other Tennesseans. Liza Graves, another former Lady Vol who played from 1975 to 1978, has also battled breast cancer.

McCray moved to Rutledge when she was in middle school. Doug McBee was her high school coach for ninth and 10th grade, but he was instrumental in her development as a player, as well as off the court throughout her stay in Grainger County. He would give her a ride home after school when her parents could not because of work commitments.

"He did all the stuff a parent would be doing," McCray-Dukes said. "Coach McBee was the one who made sure I got home from practice and games. He was the person I absolutely had to have and needed with the right amount of love and toughness."

After her sophomore year at Rutledge, which is now called Grainger County High School, she and her family moved to Johnson City, Tenn., where she attended school at Science Hill. At first she did not want to play basketball there, but McBee would not hear of it.

"You can't quit now," McCray-Dukes remembered hearing from him. "You've worked hard. You can still go to college. You've made all these sacrifices."

"Melissa, God has blessed you with a talent," McBee recalled telling her. "You can pay for an education. God has blessed you with that talent for you to glorify him but also to use it as a means of getting an education and bettering yourself."

Doug McBee talks before a Vols basketball game about the time he spent mentoring Melissa McCray when she was a young basketball player. Photo by Maria M. Cornelius

She remembered thinking that he was "crazy" for suggesting that she could go to college through basketball but followed his advice and enjoyed a successful high school career. She even broke the Tennessee state scoring record for a half, according to Coach McBee. For her hard work and effort, she was rewarded with a basketball scholarship at Tennessee. In her senior year as a Lady Vol, she earned All-SEC Second Team honors, as well as an All-SEC Academic Team nod.

When asked if she had expressed appreciation for all his help, Doug McBee smiled.

"Yes, she sent me a letter," he said. "You know, even at that time, I knew (she appreciated the guidance). At the time we were building a house, and her and her brother would come over, and they would help me in the yard and things like that. We would have cookouts. You could tell by her actions then how much she appreciated, but later on in life she sent me a letter back and told me how much she appreciated it."

McCray, who married a minister and has two children, is still appreciative, using his teachings, in part, to help fight her illness.

"She's at peace with it (the cancer)," McBee said. "She knows that there's something better for her, and it gives a lot of ease. Knowing that she's at peace with it gives peace to the people that know her."

McCray-Dukes was initially diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006, recovered and then had to renew the fight in 2009. She came to campus last year to talk to the Lady Vols, a team dominated by freshmen, about the importance of always fighting. McCray-Dukes maintains that approach daily.

"I would rather live than worry myself sick about something I can't change anyway," she said.

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