When Pat Summitt, the head coach of the University of Tennessee women's basketball team, came to West Springfield to recruit Kara Lawson, she could not answer one simple question. She went back to Tennessee, found out the answer and secured the services of the nation's best high school player.
According to Bill Gibson, the West Springfield girls basketball coach, Lawson asked Summitt why was the team's mascot a dog, if the team's nickname was The Volunteers? "Pat said, 'I don't know,'" said Gibson. However, what Summitt did know, was that Tennessee was the 23rd top-rated college in the country for its education. She also knew Lawson stressed a lot of importance on getting a good education while playing college basketball.
Lawson said her college recruiting was a four to five year process from the time she first began receiving letters of interest. "I stuck with the schools that were interested in me from the beginning. I looked for coaches who would mesh well with me personality-wise, and for teammates who were serious about playing at the next level," said Lawson.
After visits to the University of Virginia, Duke, Stanford, Vanderbilt and Tennessee, Lawson chose to play for the Volunteers.
"She was one of the most focused people I met," said Gibson. "It was important for her to get a good education as well as play basketball, and she was so organized [throughout the recruiting]. For somebody else [the process] could have been a headache," he said.
LONG BEFORE LAWSON WOULD step on the court for the Volunteers, she was wearing another kind of orange, playing for West Springfield. Lawson came to West Springfield as the subject of much controversy and debate. She had quit the basketball team at Sidwell Friends, a private school in Washington, D.C., and her family had to go through a number of steps before the school board approved her attending West Springfield. In December of 1996, Lawson took to the court for the first time as a Spartan. The Springfield Connection wrote at the time: "The Kara Lawson era at West Springfield High began Tuesday night in an impressive fashion. Lawson, subject of a battle over school board placement policy and intense recruiting by local private school coaches, scored 24 points in her first game since transferring from Sidwell Friends, to lead the Spartans to a 109-33 whipping of Yorktown." Lawson was the only non-senior on the Spartans' starting lineup.
Gibson said at the time: "I think she'll be Division I [college] big time. A good player like Kara picks up everybody to their best... She has strength, leaping ability, quickness, the complete game." Gibson recalled seeing Lawson play for the first time, and was most impressed with her knowledge of the game. "The best thing about Kara is that she is a coach on the court," said Gibson.
A regional semifinalist the year before, the Spartans went on to post a 30-0 record and win the Virginia state title in 1997, the program's first ever. Although the Spartans were already a formidable regional force, Gibson said Lawson helped transform a 25-3 team to a 30-0 team.
"West Springfield was a good program, not necessarily the best, but a good program," said Lawson. She said the school was a better fit for her than Sidwell Friends was, and that she enjoyed the team game the Spartans played. "I was lucky to have a lot of good teammates," said Lawson.
WHEN SHE FIRST CAME TO West Springfield, Gibson said some of the girls on his team saw Lawson as a threat. However, it was not much later that they realized she was not there to steal the show.
"She made the people around her better, and she gave confidence to the other players around her," said Gibson. "That is often overlooked."
After Lawson's first game, her senior teammate Erin Caulfield told the Connection: "She'll only make us better. It's been a good transition from the beginning. Her passing and intensity stand out, and she gets everybody the ball."
Lawson said her favorite memories from high school basketball, as well as college and professional basketball, revolve around the time spent with her teammates. She said she grew up playing a lot of sports, but basketball and soccer were her main sports. She gave up soccer to concentrate solely on basketball right around the time the WNBA was formed. Lawson said her role models growing up were athletes who worked extremely hard, and that included Michael Jordan.
The Spartans repeated their 1997 state title in 1999, Lawson's senior year, posting another 30-0 record. Lawson was named the Naismith High School Player of the Year, the Virginia Player of the Year and was a WBCA, USA Today and Parade Magazine All-American in 1999.
AS A TENNESSEE VOLUNTEER, Lawson helped the team to a 126-17 record and four SEC titles. However, she did not succeed in her bid to win an NCAA Division I title with Tennessee. The Volunteers played in two NCAA championship games, but lost both of them. "She chose Tennessee because she would have four chances to win the national championship," said Gibson.
Even though she failed to secure a national title at Tennessee, Lawson stayed on course with her academic commitment and received the 2003 Woody Hayes National Scholar Athlete award, presented to a select few college students who demonstrate excellence in both academics and athletics.
After four years at Tennessee, Lawson was drafted into the WNBA. The Detroit Shock drafted her as the No. 5 pick in 2003, but then immediately traded her away to the Sacramento Monarchs. In 2005, Lawson won her first WNBA title with the Monarchs, contributing with eight points per game in the regular season. Lawson raised her average to 11.2 points per game during the playoffs. She was also a part of a number of national team selections, both with junior and senior national teams. Lawson is still with the Monarchs, working hard towards defending the WNBA title from last year.
Kara Lawson is 2 in a survey of the area's Top 100 Athletes by Connection Newspapers in 2000.