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Sports: Kara Lawson: Still Blazing Basketball Trails

Former West Springfield girls’ basketball star has gone on to have an extraordinary hoops career.

>Kara Lawson is considered to be the greatest girls’ basketball player to ever come out of the Northern Region. She spent most of her high school days at West Springfield, where she was a hoops force, before going on to a successful collegiate career at the University of Tennessee and ultimately enjoying a solid pro career within the WNBA.

These days, Lawson is a member of the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun and also serves as a part-time college/pro basketball analysis for ESPN. Her cool, pleasant demeanor and ability to share her basketball knowledge in front of the camera makes her a natural to the medium.

Longtime high school basketball fans in the Springfield area might recall Lawson’s first game as a West Springfield High Spartan. It was early December 1996 and the husky, 5-foot-8-inch Lawson was a sophomore on head coach Bill Gibson’s region powerhouse team. She had played part of her freshmen season at area private school Sidwell Friends (Washington, D.C.) before leaving the team due to differences with the coach.

Lawson, who was highly recruited by area private schools prior to her freshmen year because of her extraordinary basketball skills, became the poster child for public school board placement policy after leaving Sidwell. She lived with her family in the West Potomac High School zone in Alexandria at the time and her father, Bill, applied for pupil placement so she could enter West Springfield High as a sophomore. The School Board ruled against the placement of Lawson to West Springfield, resulting in the Lawson’s establishing residence in the West Springfield zone so she would be eligible to attend the school.

So, West Springfield was where Lawson spent her following three years of high school. As a sophomore, she was joining a Gibson-coached program that had reached the Northern Region semifinals seven of the previous eight years. Lawson, going into the 1996-97 high school season, was the talk of the girls’ basketball landscape.

The versatile sophomore standout, who would make her mark as a point guard at West Springfield and beyond during her playing career, actually jumped center to begin the new season that December evening in 1996 in a game at Yorktown High in Arlington. Lawson, the lone non-senior in West Springfield’s starting line-up, scored 24 points in the Spartans’ lopsided 109-33 road win.

Lawson’s first game as a Spartan was the lead story in the Dec. 5-11 edition of the Springfield Connection Newspaper. That stories lead sentence read, “The Kara Lawson era at West Springfield High began Tuesday night in impressive fashion.”

The story went on to read that Lawson “hopes to mesh her skills with a seasoned Spartans club which reached the Northern Region semifinals last year.”

Lawson, who throughout her high school career always exhibited exemplary maturity in dealing with her peers, coaches, fans and the press, told reporters following the Yorktown game that she had transitioned nicely to her new team.

“The team and coaches have made me feel real welcome,” she told The Connection. “We have seniors who have experienced success and people look at West Springfield as a top program. It’s taken a while to get to know each other on the court, but we’re playing as a team in practices.”

THAT NIGHT, Lawson, 15, missed her first shot against Yorktown, a three-point attempt from the top of the key. But her breakaway lay-up 2 minutes into the game, off an assist from teammate Erin Caulfield, opened the night’s scoring. Lawson went on to convert 12-of-18 shots that game while pulling down seven rebounds. Ironically, she missed all four of her free throws.

Gibson knew he had an outstanding player in Lawson.

“I think she’ll be Division 1 big time,” he said. “A good player like Kara picks up everybody to play their best. It’s great to have a point guard like that who is capable of posting up, penetrating the lane, making things happen off the steal, and putting in stick-backs. She has strength, leaping ability, quickness, the complete game.”

The coach said there would be an adjustment period between Lawson and her new teammates.

“Coming in with four senior starters is a little tough for her because your point guard is sort of your leader,” said Gibson.

“She’ll only make us better,” said Caulfield, a senior guard. “It’s been a good transition from the beginning. Her passion and intensity stand out, and she gets everybody the ball.”

West Springfield, with Lawson at point, would go on to win state crowns both that season and two years later when she was a senior.

AS A COLLEGE PLAYER at Tennessee, Lawson played under legendary head coach Pat Summit. The backcourt sensation and Academic All-American led the Volunteers to NCAA Final Four appearances three times (2000, 2002 and 2003). Twice, she was a Naismith Player of the Year finalist. She finished her college career ranked third in school history in career 3-pointers made (256) and also third in free throw shooting percentage (.847).

Following college, Lawson was the fifth overall pick by the Detroit Shock in the 2003 WNBA Draft. However, five days later, she was traded to the Kansas City Monarchs. Two years later, she was a key member of a Monarchs team that captured the league title. This season, she is a member of the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun and averaging 9 points per game. That, in fact, is her career scoring average in eight WNBA seasons.

Lawson was a member of the USA women’s basketball team that won the gold medal at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China. She scored a team-leading 15 points in the gold medal finals win over Australia.

Just as she has made her mark as a player, Lawson is also excelling as a basketball analyst at ESPN. On Jan. 12, 2007, she became the first woman analyst to call a nationally televised NBA game. During each year’s NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament, she is a familiar studio analyst.

In the summer of 2006, Lawson was ranked No.2 by the Connection Newspapers in a series of stories of the Northern Region’s Top 100 Athletes.