West Springfield girls’ basketball Coach Bill Gibson chuckles when he recalls a conversation he had 15 years ago with Kara Lawson, his star point guard at the time. The two were talking sports other than basketball. Gibson, a sports marketing teacher, found Lawson’s thoughts so insightful that he asked if she had ever considered a career in broadcasting. She gave him a “yeah right, coach” laugh on her way out of his office.
At the University of Tennessee, where four-time all-Southeast Conference first-teamer Lawson helped lead the Volunteers to three Final Fours, she would offer commentary while watching basketball on TV with friends and roommates. It became kind of a parlor game: Lawson would make an observation, and five seconds later, the analyst would parrot her. Skeptics in the group thought the games were rebroadcasts.
So even though it might come as a surprise to Lawson, a three-time All-Met and 1999 All-Met Player of the Year, that she has emerged as one of the public faces and voices of NCAA women’s basketball in her role as an analyst both courtside and in studio on ESPN, it is a surprise to few who know her. She also works men’s games for the network and has covered the NBA as well.
Viewers will get a long look at Lawson during the women’s Final Four on Sunday on ESPN, where she has worked since 2004. As she predicted, all four No. 1 seeds advanced to Denver.
“Never once did doing television enter my mind,” Lawson, 31, said this week during a phone interview. “I don’t even really know how [ESPN] got my phone number. I thought, ‘Free trip to ESPN. I love sports. I know I know basketball. Sure, why not?’ And nine years later, here we are.” Lawson at least in part owes her broadcasting ease to Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt, who early in Lawson’s college career encouraged her to take a public speaking course. That was a real discomfort zone for the finance major. Summitt also would make Lawson give speeches in front of the team to help prepare her for the spotlight that comes with being a Volunteers point guard.
The first topic Summitt gave her? Communication. Lawson, who still owns three Virginia AAA state tournament scoring records, had scarcely graduated from Tennessee before ESPN called with a tryout offer.
It seems a small Northern Virginia enclave has the market cornered on ESPN college basketball punditry. Men’s analyst Hubert Davis played at Lake Braddock, less than three miles from West Springfield, where Lawson led the Spartans to unbeaten championship seasons in 1997 and 1999 after transferring from Sidwell Friends. The two crossed paths often this season, toiling on adjacent sets during the network’s “Big Monday” broadcasts. Lawson’s schtick is not having one. She offers informed, straightforward commentary , buttressed by meticulous preparation, meant to sate and challenge hardcore basketball followers and educate casual ones. Her goal is to explain something in a way that her mother, Kathleen, can digest, although she’s not sure that her mom is aware of her everyviewer status.
Lawson, who has been a WNBA all-star and Olympian, is still an active player with the Connecticut Sun, which gives her added credibility, playing with and against women just out of college. She has an “own the details, own the concepts” approach to broadcasting unlike many former players who seem to believe that their mere presence and off-the-top-of-their-head comments are enough. As Sports Illustrated media critic Richard Deitsch once noted, Lawson “has approached her broadcasting career like a professional from the moment ESPN....brought her in for an audition.” He went on to refer to her as “a smart and thoughtful voice.”
“I don’t know if ‘blunt’ is my style, but I would say honest and just plain-speaking,” said Lawson, who was an emotive high school player not opposed to the occasional gleeful bolt into the Spartans’ student section. “I don’t have an act or buzzwords that I’m trying to get in or say. I just say what I see.
“When you’re in a position where people care about what you say, whether you’re a professional athlete or movie star or someone on TV, you think you have to kind of change who you are or how you deliver [information] just because you are that person. I never subscribed to that. This is my personality. This is how I am.”Varsity Letter is a column about high school sports in the Washington area.