Double Olympic basketball gold medallist Nikki McCray-Penson has died at the age of 51, it has been announced by Rutgers University.

The cause of death was not immediately known, McCray-Penson had been open about her battle with breast cancer after she was diagnosed with the illness in 2013.

McCray-Penson was entering her second season as an assistant coach for the Scarlet Knights, who play in the Big Ten Conference in Division I of the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

She had a 10-year-old son with her husband, Thomas Penson.

“Today is deeply sad and emotional day for everyone who knew and loved Nikki," Rutgers head coach Coquese Washington said in a statement released following her death yesterday.

"Nikki had a big smile and an even bigger heart. She was full of life, energy, and was so much fun to be around. Nikki touched the lives of many because she made it her mission to uplift others and help them achieve whatever dreams and goals they expressed.

“She was so devoted to her husband and son, and still gave all of herself to everyone in the programme.

“We will miss her dearly but will keep Nikki's memory alive in our hearts."

During her career, McCray-Penson also won two Olympic gold medals for the United States - first in Atlanta in 1996 and then in Sydney in 2000.

She was also part of the US team that won the Women's Basketball World Cup in Germany in 1998.

A 5-foot-11-inch guard from the University of Tennessee, McCray-Penson was a member of the Washington Mystics, the Indiana Fever, the Phoenix Mercury, the San Antonio Silver Stars, and the Chicago Sky in the Women’s National Basketball Association (WBNA).

She was named to three WNBA All-Star teams in 1999, 2000, and 2001 and scored 2,550 career points.

Prior to joining the WNBA in 1998, she was a star in the now-defunct American Basketball League. 

While playing in the American Basketball League, McCray was named Most Valuable Player for the 1996–1997 season.

Off the court, McCray-Penson was actively involved in community service and in 2000 was hand-picked by then-US President Bill Clinton to be a member of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.

Tributes poured in for McCray-Penson on social media, including from Dawn Staley, a team-mate on America’s Olympic gold medal-winning teams in 1996 and 2000.

The two had worked together at the University of South Carolina, where McCray-Penson was an assistant to Staley.

“Thank you, my little sister, my friend, my foxhole partner, my teammate, my fast food snacker, my basketball junkie, my fellow Olympian, my gold medallist and now my angel,” Staley wrote on Twitter along with a statement.

"Suffer no more Nik Nik."