In playing for 12 years in the WNBA, winning an Olympic gold medal and developing under Pat Summitt’s mentorship, Kara Lawson learned a little something about basketball and leadership.
Now a coach and groundbreaking television analyst, Lawson embodies the spirit behind National Girls & Women in Sports Day, which celebrates its 33rd year on Wednesday under the theme of “Lead Her Forward.”
Lawson, 37, spends her time leading the U.S. women’s 3x3 basketball team and serving as the primary analyst for the Washington Wizards, just the second woman to hold that job in the NBA.
Even with all of her experience in basketball, Lawson said coaching the 3x3 team has helped her see a whole different dimension of her sport.
“It’s kind of a human interaction course. You have to figure out how to best motivate the players, and get your point across,” Lawson said. “The great thing about working with the young players is that they’re very motivated because they’re just beginning their journey in sport.”
Guiding some of the brightest young Americans starts in the game, Lawson led the U.S. to gold at the 2017 World Cup and then again at the Summer Youth Olympic Games Buenos Aires 2018. The team will head to Mongolia for this year’s World Cup.
“USA Basketball, anyone that you talk to that’s a part of it, as a player or a coach, it’s kind of this utopian environment, because you’re getting the greatest players together that have this incredible drive, and you’re trying to help them blend together to win,” Lawson said.
Coaching came for Lawson after a long career as a player, but women remain underrepresented in the coaching ranks. According to a 2017 report by the University of Minnesota’s Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport, only 43.1 percent of NCAA Division I women’s sports teams had a women’s head coach, down from 90 percent in 1974
Lawson might have had an advantage in that she was able to learn from one of the best.
While playing at Tennessee, Lawson was a point guard and spent hours and hours with legendary coach Summitt. They watched film, discussed the game and talked about everything but the game.
“Playing for her feels like the first time you’re sitting down in a leadership course,” Lawson said. “You’ve heard about it, read about it, watched it on TV, but to actually see it, feel it every day, it’s a different experience. For me, playing point guard for her, which at least from an on-the-court organizational standpoint, there’s leadership that comes with that. She spent a lot of time with me watching film, studying, helping me as a young player learn how to be a better leader, learn how to keep everyone organized, be invested in your teammates.”
Lawson graduated from Tennessee with a degree in finance, but her unofficial double major was in leadership, led by Professor Summitt.
“I would leave my academic classes and then I’d go sit in leadership class for two or three hours a day,” Lawson said. “She had a profound impact on the way I see the game, how I see the world. In a small way, I’m sure it impacts how I coach. Obviously, I have a different personality. I’m not Pat. She’s one of a kind. But when I go out and tried to decide certain things, get certain things across – there are some of her threads.”
Lawson went on to play more than a decade in the WNBA, winning the championship in 2005 with Sacramento, and also helping Team USA to Olympic gold in 2008.
Along the way, she’s also developed into a respected broadcaster, another area in which she’s become a leader among women.
In 2004, Lawson was assigned her first game as a color commentator, covering the Temple-St. John’s game with Dave Pasch. Even with everything she knew about basketball, Lawson realized the hardest part of the job was figuring out the rhythm of commentating with a partner. She compared it to the children’s game of jumping double Dutch.
“You would stand outside the rope and think you were about to jump in, but then the second rope would come around too quick, and you’d think that’s not it, you were trying to find the time you were trying to jump in,” she said. “That’s what I felt like. Getting on the playground, trying to jump in at the right time. I had no idea how to get in, get out.”
After that game, she continued to cover games even as she played for the Monarchs, Sun and Mystics in the WNBA. Then, in 2017, she joined Sarah Kustok of the Brooklyn Nets as the only women serving as primary analysts in the NBA.
She still gets nervous, but she understands how to use that energy.
“Whether it’s you’re anxious before a test, or you’re anxious before a game, or practice, or a tryout, that’s a completely normal emotion,” she said. “I try not to waste energy trying to suppress the emotion. It’s normal. It’s OK that it’s there. Because I have it, it doesn’t throw me off. I just continue to go through my routine, like I had done many times before.”
Maggie Hendricks is based in Chicago and has covered Olympic sports for more than 10 years for USA Today and Yahoo Sports. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.