A new face in the old boys’ club, Lawson right at home with Wizards

WASHINGTON — This wasn’t in Kara Lawson’s wildest dreams, because it wasn’t really in any of her dreams.

But Wednesday night, Lawson (along with Sarah Kustok of the Brooklyn Nets) will become the first woman to serve as a primary television analyst for an NBA team as the Washington Wizards open their season against the Philadelphia 76ers at Capital One Arena.

When Lawson’s hiring was announced, NBC Sports Washington President and GM Rebecca Schulte called her the “right person in the right place at the right time.” That’s been true of Lawson’s entire broadcasting career, right back to its beginning.

After getting her finance degree from the University of Tennessee, Lawson was focused on going to law school, when she got what she thought was a prank call.

“I was a year out of college, about a week after taking my LSAT, and I got a phone call from ESPN, asking me to come up and audition for a position,” Lawson told WTOP. “And I said, sure, why not, at the very least I’ll get a trip up to Bristol, Connecticut, maybe I’ll get to meet Stuart Scott.”

She never had any ambition to broadcast, had never had any discussions with anyone about it. All she wanted as a kid was one thing: to be an NBA player.

“Growing up, I wanted to be a basketball player,” she said. “I wanted to play in the NBA. There wasn’t a WNBA at the time, so I figured, well, I’m good enough to beat the boys now, so I’ll be good enough when I get older to do the same.”

Raised by a supportive family, surrounded by good friends, nobody dared tell Lawson that she couldn’t. Perhaps that ambition and confidence served her well as the Alexandria, Virginia, native ascended from West Springfield High School to playing for the legendary Pat Summitt at Tennessee. As a star player for a powerhouse college program under the national media microscope, she was used to being on camera and thinking on her feet, delivering a poised, confident presence.

“I was having to do tons of interviews all the time, after practice, news conferences, all these types of things. So that certainly helped me, in that sense, where I wasn’t nervous to talk on TV or be asked questions,” she said.

That’s what got her spotted in the first place. Fourteen years later, after working as a broadcaster in the offseasons around her WNBA career, Lawson had established herself as a regular around the ESPN networks, dabbling in both college and professional ball. She was happy where she was, so it would have taken something she couldn’t possibly refuse to pull her away. But having grown up a Bullets/Wizards fan, with the chance to be not just a part of that organization, but come home again, she was thrilled by the offer.

“That’s another reason why coming back here is so satisfying for me, because it’s being around the people that have supported me from the beginning,” Lawson said.

That support is key, as Lawson faces a number of uphill battles. While she’s grown a thick skin when it comes to dealing with the harassment she gets via social media for being a woman calling men’s sports, she’s actually feeling more pressure heading into this season as the new kid on the block.

“You have to establish relationships with everybody, and they don’t know you yet,” she said. “It doesn’t really have anything to do with gender, it’s more to do with, they don’t know you as a person.”

She also faces the challenge of replacing a legend in Phil Chenier, which means developing her own rapport with play-by-play man Steve Buckhantz.

“As that relates to the broadcast, Buck and I don’t have the years and years of experience that Buck and Phil had. That takes time, the chemistry, and understanding each others’ nuances as a broadcaster,” Lawson said.

The news that Chenier wouldn’t be back fell out of the sky late last season. It was understandably not received well by a fan base that has relied on Chenier, a member of the franchise’s only championship team, for more than three decades in the booth. It was inevitable that whoever was tapped to replace him would face some added measure of scrutiny in gaining the fans’ loyalty.

Few people understand that as well as Lawson.

“My childhood memories of learning the game, of loving the NBA game, are through Phil’s words,” she said. “That’s never going to be erased. That’s never going to be forgotten.”

“I can’t be Phil. I can’t have the impact that he had on people.”

If anything, knowing that is driving her more to make sure she does the best possible job she can, given her access to the team.

“I’m here every day. I come watch practice every day. I think that’s an important part to the job, understanding and being able to give context to fans when they see the game,” she said.

And while she hasn’t yet had a chance to speak with Chenier, she is thankful that he’ll still be in the fold for certain games, and hopeful that perhaps one day they can share the booth together.

“I’m thrilled that he’s still going to be a part of the broadcast, and who knows, maybe we’ll get to do a game together someday.”

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