From West Springfield to Hall of Fame, Lawson keeps competing
Hall of Fame Class of 2017
Kara Lawson won an Olympic gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Games. She was an All-America selection and played in three NCAA basketball Final Fours. She is regarded as one of the top 10 storied players who had the privilege of playing for the late, legendary Coach Pat Summitt with the Tennessee Lady Vols.
Yet, when Lawson is asked about the road to her coming induction to the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame, the Alexandria native references even earlier times than the aforementioned items or her 13-year WNBA playing career.
“I’ve never really like thought of it that way,” Lawson said when asked about putting into perspective where her April 7 induction in Virginia Beach will rank among her accomplishments. “Growing up, I lived my whole life in Virginia. In basketball back then, you only had one or two games on TV, not like we have now, so you watched the Game of the Week, probably from the ACC or the Big East.
“That’s the way I learned how to play basketball, that and going to high school games. That’s what we did, watching a Grant Hill at South Lakes or the really good high school girls’ teams at (James) Madison. I grew up wanting to do that and I got the chance to do that … and it was really incredible.”
The 5-foot-8 Lawson led West Springfield High School to Class AAA State Tournament championships in 1997 and ’99. In the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) High School All-Star Game after her 1998-99 senior season, she scored 20 points and was the game’s MVP.
“We had success at West Springfield and those couple of state championships – that’s as good as it gets,” she said. “And everything that came after that for me was based off that foundation. That type of competition helped me become the player I was, and part of it was wanting to be like those players whose names you saw in the record books, players from the state like Alonzo Mourning, Allen Iverson and La’Keshia Frett.”
At Tennessee, Lawson was a four-time All-Southeastern Conference first team selection and a two-time All-America pick. She scored 1,950 career points with 456 assists and reached two NCAA title games, where the Lady Vols were thwarted by rival Connecticut.
As a 2002-03 senior, the Virginian was awarded the Frances Pomeroy Naismith Award, presented annually to the women’s player who is 5-8 or shorter. Lawson was then drafted fifth overall in the WNBA Draft by Detroit, and it is obvious she carries close to her heart and soul what she took from her collegiate days at UT, where she earned a degree in finance.
Asked about an ESPN story published in June 2016 after Summitt’s death following her battle with dementia, Lawson expounded on what it meant beyond being ranked as the No. 7 player in Summitt’s 38-seasons on the Lady Vols’ bench.
“No doubt, it was special to play for Coach Summitt,” Lawson said. “I recognize that every day, and I miss her every day. She coached what, maybe 170, 180, 190 players over the course of her career? Whatever the number, it’s a small group, and I got to be among them.
“She’s one of the greatest leaders our country has ever seen, not just one of the greatest coaches. And then for me, being a point guard for her, that was the toughest position to play for Coach Summitt. So, one of every five (starters) is the point guard, and then for me to start all four years for her … you can count on one hand how special that makes it, how privileged I was.
“You had to be committed. She took a lot of time to teach me the game, the offense, the defense, what she wanted, the vocabulary, the concepts, the leadership skills. I know I was taught by one of the best in the history of the game … how to compete, how to build a team … and I had that chance every day for four years.
“I miss her every day. We talked regularly. She had other players, too, and she had to help them, but we had a relationship that continued, and I miss that.”
It is the knowledge of the game Lawson learned through Summitt that she has taken courtside in recent years as she built a broadcasting resume while still playing in the WNBA, where she averaged 9.8 points and 2.5 assists in a pro career in Sacramento, Connecticut and Washington. She won a WNBA title with the Monarchs in 2005 and was an all-Star selection two seasons later.
Lawson, 37, retired as a player following the 2015 WNBA season, but she is involved in more games now than she ever has been.
She is the lead analyst for the Wizards’ telecast network on NBC Sports Washington, and is one of only two women who works as the primary TV analyst for an NBA team. Lawson also continues to work WNBA and college women’s basketball for ESPN.
By the end of this season, she will have worked more than 100 telecast games in 2017-18.
“I definitely miss some parts of (playing) the game,” Lawson said, “and then there are some parts you don’t miss, too. But competition always drove me, and I try to channel that into the work I do now, the format I’m in. I want to be the best I can be.
“I don’t look at myself as a pioneer (as a woman working NBA telecasts). I look at myself as a player who has moved into broadcasting. There are a lot of college and NBA players who have moved on to work in television. I’m no different from a Chris Webber, Reggie Miller, Grant Hill. I played the game and played it at a high level. I understand the game, and I approach it from that angle.
“I try to look at it with the same mentality I did as a player. I want to be the best and perform at a maximum level.”
Lawson said when she was a little girl, she “played all sports, a little of everything,” including basketball, soccer, football, tennis, track and field. Once she got to West Springfield, she trimmed the list to hoops and soccer.
She approached basketball with a mindset that she was going to be the best player every time she stepped onto the floor.
“I think I was just a competitive player,” said Lawson, who has two sisters. “My parents always encouraged me to compete, and when the game starts, play with the best effort you can. And when you get your juices flowing, that attitude takes over. That encouragement from my parents about effort was a mindset that served me well.
“One of the hardest things I learned, observing the game and then playing the game, is keeping an edge all of the time. When you lose it, it makes it hard to play – and it’s not as much fun.
“So, it was about maximizing your ability. Giving that effort, wanting to be the best, it was always something I loved to do. I’m still that way.”
Retired award-winning sportswriter and columnist Jack Bogaczyk is a 2017 inductee to the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame. He spent more than 45 years in the sportswriting business, including 27 years at The Roanoke Times.
The 2018 Spotlight Series is presented by Dominion Energy. The Virginia Sports Hall of Fame welcomes Dominion Energy as a proud partner for 2018 Induction Weekend.