Before she was an all-American at Tennessee, an Olympic gold medalist, a WNBA champion and an ESPN star, Kara Lawson was a basketball-mad Alexandria kid who took her cues from the Washington Bullets. When she went to games with her dad, it was to watch the Bullets at the old Cap Centre. When she shot hoops in the driveway with her pals, she was Tom Gugliotta or Michael Adams, Tim Legler or Jeff Malone. And when she watched NBA games on television, more often than not she was watching Bullets games on Home Team Sports, as called by Phil Chenier.
So there's no broadcast job in the NBA that would mean quite the same to Lawson as the one she just landed: as the Wizards' primary television game analyst, replacing the beloved Chenier. CSN — which will re-brand itself as NBC Sports Washington next week — announced Lawson's hiring Wednesday morning; she'll be paired with longtime play-by-play man Steve Buckhantz, in the broadcast team's first major change in 20 years.
Lawson's hiring thus makes several bits of history. She'll become just the second full-time color television analyst in the franchise's history, and one of the youngest game broadcasters in the market. She'll also become one of the first female primary analysts for an NBA team, joining Sarah Kustok, who got the Brooklyn Nets job earlier this month. (Other NBA teams employ female analysts as part of three-person booths.)
"For 14 years it's been a goal of mine to be a part of a team on a day-to-day basis and cover the league on a day-to-day basis," Lawson said this week. "There's only 30 of these jobs, and with that said, there's only one of these jobs, because this is where I'm from. So while I would have been thrilled to have any job in the league, this one's different. And this one fits me all the way around."
Lawson, 36, started climbing the broadcasting ladder early in her playing career, working as a studio analyst for the Sacramento Kings and in a variety of roles for ESPN. Her prominence at that network steadily increased even as she excelled on the court; she became a courtside reporter and then a color analyst for national NBA broadcasts, a color analyst for men's college broadcasts, and a mainstay in ESPN's coverage of the women's game. She finished her 13-year playing career with the Mystics, stepping away after the 2015 season to focus on television.
CSN announced late last season that Chenier wouldn't be returning as the primary analyst, a job he began in 1984 during the infancy of regional sports television. The network auditioned several candidates during the offseason, including former Wizards players Caron Butler, Drew Gooden and Antonio Daniels, according to people familiar with the process. Gooden will also be part of this year's broadcast team, appearing on pre- and postgame programming and as part of occasional three-person booths with Buckhantz and Lawson.
Chenier will also continue to have a presence, both during studio shows and as part of three-person booths. And Lawson will continue to be part of ESPN's NBA and college basketball coverage, meaning CSN will reunite Buckhantz and Chenier when those duties conflict with the Wizards schedule, likely during the NCAA tournament.
But Lawson will be the analyst for the majority of Wizards games, a job that seemed almost unimaginable when she first broke into television and there were virtually no prominent female television analysts covering men's sports. That's changed in recent years; Jessica Mendoza is finishing her second season as a full-time Sunday Night Baseball analyst, and Doris Burke this month became the first woman to get a full-time schedule as a national NBA game analyst. So Lawson's challenge in winning over Washington fans figures to be less about her gender and more about the man she is replacing.
"I don't know if there's any person that's more loved by Wizards/Bullets fans than Phil, or who had a great impact on the organization than Phil, when you look at what he was able to do as a player, and what he's been able to do as a broadcaster and ambassador for basketball in the area," Lawson said. "People say this all the time, but I can't be Phil. I can't have his playing history, and I'm not going to have the equity that he's built up over 33 years doing this. I mean, that's impossible. … As far as what the job is and what I'm going to be asked to do, no, I'm not intimidated by it, because I know I can do it, and I know I can do it well."
Lawson has also been about as close to the Wizards as you can get without donning the uniform. She has known Monumental Sports Vice Chairman Dick Patrick since she was soccer teammates with his daughter as a 12-year-old. She has known Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld since she was a star at Tennessee, his alma mater. She has known Coach Scott Brooks since he was an assistant coach in Sacramento, where they used to play one-on-one as Lawson prepared for the WNBA season. She joined the Mystics in 2014 and thus knows everyone from ownership to the equipment managers to the arena staffers. People close to the process have described Lawson as the leading candidate from the moment Chenier's departure became public.
"Right person in the right place at the right time," said CSN President and GM Rebecca Schulte. "To find somebody who had been part of this community, who had grown up here, who had been a part of this organization: all these things happened at the right time."
The announcement comes after the team's media day and during the middle of its Richmond training camp. The broadcast team will almost certainly still be working on its chemistry when the season begins, in exactly three weeks. Buckhantz will go from working with Chenier — the only NBA partner he's known and one of his best friends — to someone he barely knows. His new partner, though, has spent 14 years preparing for this day.
"It's one thing to know the game, which all these ex-athletes do," Buckhantz said. "But it's another thing to be a broadcaster, and to know how to do TV. And she does. She's polished, she's done it for many, many years, and I could tell that in the audition. She was just easy to work with. So she'll be fine, and I'll be fine, and we'll be good together. It just takes a little time."