Basketball fans have been spoiled by Kara Lawson for a long time.
The 14-year ESPN analyst breaks down the mechanics of a game and the people playing it with thoughtful insight and precision. She is so objective that she once picked a Tennessee opponent to win a matchup between the two teams, which perturbed her longtime mentor and former coach, Pat Summitt.
So when CSN Mid-Atlantic came calling last month, it was no surprise. They hired 36-year-old Lawson to be the primary game analyst for the NBA’s Washington Wizards, replacing Phil Chenier, who has filled the post for 33 years.
Yet somehow, when Lawson steps into those big shoes in a few weeks, she’ll do so with both hands remaining in college basketball, as she plans to continue commentating for ESPN, as time permits.
“My schedule will remain the same, but the composition will be a little different,” Lawson said. “I don’t get to choose my games; it depends on where ESPN assigns me.”
Lawson’s success comes at a time when women are seeing increased opportunities in sports broadcasting, as Sarah Kustok became the NBA’s first primary sports analyst, for the Brooklyn Nets, last month. But the former Lady Vol star point guard and WNBA champion is also breaking through after staggering personal losses.
Her achievements are impressive – especially considering that she never planned on a broadcasting career.
Lawson’s new job is a homecoming, as she was raised in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Alexandria, Virginia, and played two seasons for the WNBA’s Washington Mystics. She has been living near ESPN headquarters in Connecticut, and relishes her new opportunity.
“I get to go home,” Lawson said.
Replacing Chenier is significant because Lawson grew up listening to him call games. His analysis helped frame her growing love for basketball as a child, when she would emulate Washington Bullets players. She called Chenier “a legend.”
“He’s somebody that everyone looks up to because of the success he had as a guard for the Bullets’ only Championship team,” Lawson said. “He’s been a player, a broadcaster and an ambassador for the city. Everyone loves Phil.”
Yet, Lawson said she doesn’t feel pressure to be like her predecessor.
“It’s a great responsibility, and I’m looking forward to it,” she said. “I’m not worried about replacing him; I’m just worried about doing a good job.”
Lawson’s cerebral, no-nonsense analysis has made her an ESPN favorite for years. She said her approach is grounded in her playing experience.
“I can look at a game through so many perspectives, but for me the most powerful has always been from a playing perspective,” Lawson said. “What did you see, feel, do, how did you react in those situations? How do you see, interpret and anticipate the game?”
She used the analogy of learning a new language to explain her lens on the game.
“You become proficient in a second language by knowing one language well at first,” Lawson said. “When I see the game, I see it as a player; that’s my English. For me, having to learn the game any other way is not natural. I don’t know another coaching broadcasting perspective than as a player. That’s just me.”
Lawson’s analysis begins with watching a team play, whether on film or in person.
“It’s important to get a feel for where they are in their season, because the season is so long,” she said. “From November through February, a team will be totally different. I have to be aware of where they are in their season by watching and talking to coaches and players. I usually spend a lot of time getting a feel for a team.”
“Once I have a feel for it, then it’s analyzing the matchup in my head and trying to think of what will be important strategy points in that matchup. I try to make sure I have all the pertinent facts, because you never know what direction the broadcast is going to go in.”
Part of the thrill, Lawson said, is in the unexpected.
“Then the teams play, and the unknown is great because you never know how a game will play out,” she said. “Who is the high scorer? It could be anything. And it never plays out the way you think it will.”
Much of being an effective commentator is getting that intangible “feel” for players, teams and coaches. Lawson said she didn’t realize that at first.
“Then I (called) a game where I wasn’t (physically) there one time, and I realized how much I am (cued in to sensory clues), because I wasn’t there in terms of observing,” she said. “There are context clues you pick up when sitting courtside: facial expressions, lip-reading, hearing the chatter on the court, the referees, players and coaches. It’s about context.”
Over the last few years, more and more female broadcasters are working in basketball and football. Last spring former basketball analyst Doris Burke became the first woman to step into an NBA-only commentating role. Two months ago Beth Mowins was named an NFL analyst – the first such woman in 30 years. Lawson said she is pleased to see the rise of women in sports broadcasting.
“When I first started calling games, there wasn’t anyone doing anything in basketball,” she said. “When I first started, there were no women in the WNBA or NBA that I remember, or in men’s college basketball.”
Despite her success, broadcasting wasn’t a goal of Lawson’s growing up. She graduated from Tennessee in 2003 with a degree in finance, and her goal was to be a coach or an athletic director after her playing career was over. After finishing her WNBA rookie year with the Sacramento Monarchs, she was poised to enroll in law school when she got a call from ESPN.
“They wanted me to audition, and I was confused because I hadn’t expressed any interest,” Lawson said. “I thought it was one of my friends playing a joke on me. I hadn’t thought of it as a career, but I thought it would be fun to give it a try.”
Lawson was hired, and wove her new career into her basketball life. She last played in the WNBA in 2015, for the Mystics, but won’t comment on whether or not she has laced up her shoes for the last time.
“Did I retire?” she asked rhetorically, and declined to answer further questions.
The irony of Lawson’s recent achievement is that it has come after the loss of two of the most significant people in her life: her father, Bill Lawson, who died Aug. 25, and Summitt, who passed in June, 2016.
Lawson was always close to her father, who introduced her to sports. And though he was ill recently, he approved of her new job with the Wizards.
“It’s not been an easy month,” Lawson said slowly. “This (job) was kind of in the works most of the summer, and it was something I was able to talk to my dad about before he passed.”
Lawson had maintained the same kind of relationship with Summitt over the years.
“Losing Pat was very difficult for me as well,” Lawson said. “She, like my dad, was somebody who I could call for advice or to check in, and to talk about whatever was going on. When you have a relationship like that with somebody, you can’t really replace that. You have a shared history that goes back, and to replicate it, you’d have to start over with somebody else.”
“She knew me very well; she knew my history, and my strengths and weaknesses as a person. I didn’t need to explain a lot of stuff when I talked to her. You want someone who’s going to be honest and someone who’s going to spend time and talk, and care and talk in conversation. She gave me her time.”
Lawson said she thinks about Summitt every day.
“I try to make decisions based on what she’d advise me to do and want me to do,” Lawson said. “I’m sure she and my dad would want me to take this job. They’d be proud of me.”
Outside of basketball, Lawson is essentially as she is on air.
“I’m pretty regimented in what I do,” she said. “I have a routine in what I’m doing. That way, things are organized in terms of the day. I’m very particular about why I do things in a certain order. I like to be efficient.”
Though in her new job she is a forerunner, Lawson said she wouldn’t call her endeavors a legacy.
“I don’t look at it in those terms,” she said. “I enjoy what I’m doing and I have goals that I’d like to reach. They’re my personal goals, and so far I’ve been able to reach them. I’m just going to continue to reach for the things that I’ve thought about and want to achieve. People don’t know what (those things) are.”