Lawson ups her game, on and off the court

New UT Board member interested in Olympic coaching

Friday, July 13, 2018, Vol. 42, No. 28
By Rhiannon Potkey

Former Lady Vol Kara Lawson, who won a gold medal playing for Team USA in the 2008 Olympic Games, says she is interested in coaching a team in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

-- Ap Photo/Eric Gay

Kara Lawson provided plenty of assists for the University of Tennessee on the basketball court during her career. The former All-American point guard is hoping to do the same in a new role.

Lawson has been appointed by Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam to serve on the University of Tennessee Board of Trustees, the governing body that oversees the educational and operational activities of the statewide university system.

Lawson’s appointment, which was confirmed by the state’s General Assembly, started on July 1. Her term will expire in 2024.

“I had such great success at Tennessee and enjoyed my time there, so why wouldn’t I want to give back and make sure that students coming behind me have the same type of positive experience,” says Lawson, now an ESPN analyst in her 15th season of broadcasting.

“It was a pretty simple decision once I was asked. I considered it an honor, and I’m really looking forward to the opportunity.”

Lawson, 37, helped the Lady Vols reach three Final Fours from 1999-2003 while playing for legendary coach Pat Summitt.

As a senior, Lawson received the Torchbearer Award – the highest student honor conferred by the University of Tennessee – and the NCAA’s Top VIII Award, which recognizes the top eight student-athletes across all divisions and all sports for their contributions athletically, academically and in their communities.

“I came to Tennessee to play for Pat, as a lot of players did, and what you find when you get there is how many great people there are within the university and around the university,” says Lawson, who graduated with a degree in finance.

“There are just a lot of people that want to help you succeed and share in your success when you have it, and still follow you and what you are doing. It’s really about the loyalty Pat showed me as a player and even when I was done playing for her. We obviously were very, very close.”

Once her position on the Board of Trustees was announced, Lawson realized just how widespread and sustaining her impact was at UT.

“I experienced so much growth and maturity at Tennessee, and I am still connected with some of the professors I had 15 years ago. They messaged me when I was approved for the Board of Trustees. I thought that was pretty cool,” she adds. “I don’t know how many other places that happens. It’s just a really special relationship I have with Tennessee.”

Lawson, a Virginia native, remains a lifelong learner, seeking opportunities to constantly increase her knowledge base.

Having retired from the WNBA in 2015, Lawson has used the extra time to expand her broadcasting responsibilities and explore coaching. Lawson was named head coach of the USA Basketball 3 x 3 girls U18 team last year, leading the Americans to the gold medal at the World Cup.

This year, she is coaching three teams - the boys and girls U18s and the senior women’s team. On-court coaching is not allowed during games in 3 x 3, so Lawson does most of her instruction in practices and meetings.

“I looked at this as an opportunity to grow my basketball experience and to work with young players to teach them the game in a real way with real consequences, not just at a camp,” Lawson explains.

“I wanted to help scheme and build a playbook and have to change every year when we get new players. It’s been a great experience for me because I’ve been able to actually experience what coaches go through.”

The recognition of 3 x 3 basketball is growing in the U.S. through the performance of the national teams and Ice Cube’s Big3 League, which is filled with former NBA players going city to city playing the half-court style. Men’s and women’s 3 x 3 will be an Olympic sport at the 2020 Tokyo Games.

“Not many people are aware of that. It’s not a scientific poll – it’s just my observation – but when I talk about 3 x 3 and tell them it’s an Olympic sport people are really surprised,” Lawson says. “Most of the general public has no idea they are going to be giving out gold medals for 3 x 3 basketball.”

If the U.S. qualifies a 3 x 3 team for Tokyo, Lawson says she would love to represent her country as a coach. She won an Olympic gold medal as a player in 2008.

“I would certainly be interested in being a part of the Olympics if they asked,” Lawson acknowledges. “I don’t know what their process at USA Basketball will be in terms of the selection of a coach, but the first thing that has to happen is to have a team qualify. It’s not a guarantee on either side. It’s a very hard qualification process.”

“I would certainly be interested in being a part of the Olympics if they asked,” Lawson says. She’s currently coaching three teams in 3 x 3 basketball.

-- Submitted Photograph Courtesy Of Usa Basketball

Lawson’s basketball knowledge is regularly on display as a broadcaster during the men’s and women’s professional and college seasons.

She was the first female analyst for a nationally televised NBA game in 2007 and has expanded her assignments each year.

The past season, Lawson served as the television analyst for the Washington Wizards for Comcast Sports Mid-Atlantic.

“Being a part of the broadcast team for the Wizards helped me grow a lot, not just as a broadcaster but as a basketball mind. I was at every practice with the guys observing,” Lawson continues. “I was fortunate because not all coaches allow television people at practices. It’s definitely a team-by-team basis.

“But our team allows us in, and I am thankful to (Wizards president) Ernie Grunfeld, a fellow Vol, and head coach Scott Brooks for that.”

Lawson was involved in arguably the greatest Final Four in women’s basketball history in April with Notre Dame guard Arike Ogunbowale hitting two incredible game-winning shots to lead the Fighting Irish to the national title.

In a video that was widely circulated in the aftermath, Lawson remains completely composed calling the action as pandemonium broke out around the broadcasting crew.

“You definitely get excited when the big moments happen, but I think the key to that is they weren’t buzzer beaters. There was still a little time left on the clock, and I have to be ready if the other team makes a play,” Lawson points out.

“If I am over there celebrating, I might miss what actually happens in front of me and everyone at home is entrusting me to analyze the game and tell them what is happening and why it’s happening. So while you do feel excitement and obviously hear it in the arena, you have to be locked in.”

Lawson relieved the memories several times the following day when she traveled to Houston to prepare for a Wizards game against the Rockets.

“All anyone wanted to talk about was those games, and I think that is pretty true for anybody that has co-workers, family and friends who follow women’s basketball,” Lawson says.

“To be right there and be a part of the historic nature of the game was definitely something I won’t forget.”

Lawson’s name has been mentioned as a potential coaching candidate at the college and professional level, and she’s open to the idea of making the move.

“I would listen to any opportunity that I think would further my growth. That is the way I look at all those things. I have enjoyed coaching 3 x 3 basketball and I have enjoyed doing television, so I really like where I am right now.

“But I am not one of those people to say, ‘No. never, never, never’ and then five or 10 years later you are doing something you said you would never do.

“For me, it’s about finding things you enjoy and things that allow you to keep growing and working with people that keep you motivated.”

Lawson’s position on the university Board of Trustees fits that mindset. She will be serving alongside former and current CEOs of major corporations like PepsiCo, Regal Entertainment, Tyson Foods, Inc. and AutoZone. They will be discussing a range of topics and issues that stretch well beyond sports.

“The university system is such a large living and breathing organism with so many people connected to it, even people who are not connected to the schools but just cheer for them,” Lawson explains.

“I am on the board with some very distinguished individuals that I think I will learn a lot from. For me, the opportunity is really about the ability to impact people and help shape the future of the system in the state of Tennessee. It’s a great responsibility and something that is really exciting.”

Lawson isn’t sure what to expect when the board meets for the first time. Everything will be new to her. But she’s treating it the same way she does everything in her life.

“I think the best way to approach it is just to jump in and immerse yourself in it,” Lawson adds.

“It’s really about seeing if you can be a part of making some decisions that set the universities up very well in the future.”