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.”
For most of the past two decades, he patrolled the sidelines in the WNBA — first with the Charlotte Sting, then the Cleveland Rockers, and for nearly a decade, the San Antonio Stars — before retiring after the 2016 season.
But his farewell proved to be short-lived, as the Seattle Storm announced him as their new head coach Wednesday. Hughes said the lure of coaching veteran All-Star Sue Bird, and a pair of budding young stars in Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd, was too enticing to pass up.
“Nothing in my life could I find that was as fulfilling as when you’re on the court, and you’re involved with a player and the learning process of basketball,” Hughes said.
The 62-year-old fills the role held by Jenny Boucek, who was let go with eight games remaining in the 2017 season. He is the franchise’s fifth head coach.
Twice named WNBA Coach of the Year, in 2001 and 2007, Hughes returns to the bench already having coached more games — 524 — than anyone in league history. After spending the past year as a TV analyst and traveling from Canada to Mexico to help out at basketball clinics, “wherever anybody would ask me,” he didn’t find anything that quite imitated the experience that teaching basketball had for him for so many years.
In a release, Storm president and general manager Alisha Valavanis called him a “wonderful match for our developing team.”
“We are thrilled to welcome Dan to the Seattle Storm organization,” Valvanis said. “Dan is one of the most well-respected coaches in our league.”
When the opportunity in Seattle arose, Hughes was interested immediately. He said the team reminded him of things he liked about basketball, and he felt the coaching opportunity was special, not just because of the talent on the roster, but how that talent could mesh. However, he said he needed the blessing of his family to take it. His wife didn’t hesitate.
“She just looked right at me and said, ‘You gotta do this,’” he said. “My kids were the same way.”
Now, he inherits a team that made the playoffs for a second-consecutive year, but one that many felt under-performed, with 10-time All-Star Bird, and back-to-back first-round draft picks and Rookies of the Year in Loyd and Stewart. En route to a 15-19 campaign, Seattle averaged 82.6 points per game, while allowing the same.
“I didn’t see a team that knew how to win regularly last year,” Hughes said. “But I saw a team that by and large liked each other, by and large had a chemistry with each other, and that’s real important to me.”
He had high praise for Bird’s leadership.
“Having the chance to coach Sue is something any coach would value and prize,” Hughes said. “(The Loyd and Stewart combination) just gets my coach’s juices flowing, because they are so versatile, and I think there’s an even higher ceiling for both of them.”
In Stewart, Hughes sees potential for being the best all-around player in the game. Meanwhile, Loyd is, in Hughes’ eyes, “absolutely special off the dribble.”
He’ll now be tasked with making the most of that talent, while Valavanis retools the rest of the roster for 2018. Seattle currently holds the fifth pick in next April’s draft, and has decisions to make on free agents Crystal Langhorne and Carolyn Swords.
In the meantime, Hughes also needs to compile a staff. Retaining Gary Kloppenburg – the assistant coach who filled in for Boucek at season’s end – and assistant Ryan Webb is a consideration.
“I am interested in looking at the present staff as a beginning point,” he said. “I love having a diverse staff, and so, we’ll probably take that as step one, and step two will be putting a staff together that complements that.”
Minneapolis – A dominating, balanced effort by the Minnesota Lynx propelled them past the Los Angeles Sparks, 85-76, Wednesday for their fourth WNBA Championship.
The Lynx have now tied the Houston Comets for most titles, after dominating the Sparks on the boards, 46-29.
Regular-season Most Valuable Player Sylvia Fowles was named the Finals MVP after a 17-point, 20-rebound performance for Minnesota that saw her eclipse her own rebounding record. Maya Moore also had a double-double, with 18 points and 10 rebounds, and the team’s other three starters – Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus and Rebekkah Brunson – also scored in double figures with 17, 14 and 13 points, respectively.
The Lynx had a 79-67 lead with 90 seconds to go, when Jantel Lavender scored for the Sparks. Riquna Williams made a pair of free throws and Odyssey Sims stole the ball twice for layups, which pulled them to 79-76 with 35 seconds to go. But Moore made a bucket and Fowles rebounded a missed shot from Sims to secure the win.
It was the second consecutive Finals series that featured the two teams, in almost a replica of last year’s games, with Los Angeles taking Games 1 and 3 and Minnesota winning the second and fourth games. This year, however, it was the Lynx, with the oldest team in the league, that mustered the fire in Game 5 to down a team that was even better than the one that took last year’s trophy.
Fowles said she was motivated by her own lack of rebounding in last year’s fifth game.
“If I didn’t do anything else, I just wanted to make it my business to make sure I just go out there and rebound, as that was my downfall last year,” Fowles said. “Like I said, I fell on the court, and that haunted me for a long time after Game 5 last year. I just wanted to come in and I wanted to show my presence, and if that was rebounding, then rebounding it was.”
Coach Cheryl Reeve said it was especially meaningful to win the title at home, in front of a sold out crowd of over 14,000.
“You know, I mean, it’s just a little bit surreal right now,” Reeve said. “I’m happy we won at home for our fans. Our fans were unbelievable.”
Candace Parker led Los Angeles with 19 points and 15 rebounds, while Chelsea Gray had 15 and Odyssey Sims, 14. Nneka Ogwumike scored 11 points before fouling out in the fourth quarter. It was the second straight game where the Sparks tried to catch up after falling behind early.
Sparks coach Brian Agler credited his team’s persistence, but said he “isn’t one to make excuses.”
“I think, with 20-some seconds left, we’re down three. That’s a credit to our team, to fight hard, to put ourselves in position,” Agler said. “We made some really good plays and finished and couldn’t get over the hump.”
Parker said that while losing Ogwumike was hard on the team, it was the rebounding differential that cost them the game.
“Obviously it hurt not having her in the game, but (the lack of rebounding) hurt, honestly,” Parker said. “Our start wasn’t as up-to-par as we wanted it to be, but we cut the lead and we got back in the game, and a couple calls didn’t go our way.”
Players from both teams said this was the most evenly-matched series they’d played in. Going into Game 5, each team had tallied 908 points over the last 12 games against each other.
Brunson has now won five WNBA Championships – four with Minnesota and one with the Sacramento Monarchs in 2005.
Fowles became the fourth player in league history to win both a regular-season MVP and Finals MVP award in the same year. She is the seventh player in league history to win both MVP and a title in the same season.