Former Monarchs star Kara Lawson recalls playing at Sleep Train Arena
Kara Lawson is proof that things can change. Though the popular ex-Monarch is only 36, her bucket list already overflows with the predictable and the unconventional.
This is a slice of her life so far: Washington, D.C., metro area prep standout. Star for the late Pat Summitt at Tennessee. Member of the Monarchs 2005 WNBA championship squad. Studio host for the Kings pregame and postgame show. ESPN game analyst and studio commentator for women’s NCAA Tournament. Coach of the USA’s under-18 women’s 2017 world championship team.
Most recently she was selected as the primary television game analyst for the Washington Wizards, becoming one of only two women in the NBA with full-time duties.
If her new gig is a monumental career achievement – and it is – it is also a touch bittersweet because, well, Lawson wanted to be the next Jerry Reynolds. She credits the Kings TV analyst and one-time Monarchs GM – the man who acquired her from the Detroit Shock before her 2003 rookie season – with nudging her toward the microphone, into the studio, and into the boys club.
“Jerry was the first person to tell me I could do this job,” said Lawson, who will be in the booth Sunday for Kings-Wizards at Golden 1 Center. “I never forget that. But while I thought it would be so cool to come back and succeed him when he retired, I just wasn’t sure. There were women working as sideline reporters back then, but I was the only one doing (NBA) pre- and post-game studio.”
Instead of heading overseas during the offseason as did most of her WNBA peers, Lawson stayed home and offered commentary about a Kings team limping into another era. She was a familiar figure inside the old arena, watching game film, talking with opposing coaches, chatting with players during early warmups, while receiving little cooperation from the Kings basketball operations department.
Former team president Geoff Petrie and head coach Rick Adelman refused to let her watch practices, which was consistent with their almost utter disdain for the organization’s WNBA team.
“I wasn’t allowed to watch anything,” Lawson recalled, “which made my job a lot harder. I don’t think I had a conversation with either one of them.”
Added Reynolds: “That part always disappointed me, how the Monarchs were treated. I think it varied from place to place. Some (NBA) franchises were very supportive and others were not.”
But again, the Wizards are proof that change for the better can happen, even in the nation’s capital. Lawson was surprised late last summer when her agent called and asked if she wanted to audition for the Wizards primary TV analyst role alongside Steve Buckhantz. Phil Chenier, a beloved figure in Wizards/Bullets lore, was assuming part-time duties with NBC Sports Washington.
By several accounts, Lawson made a powerful impression with her poise, presentation and knowledge. Her connections with members of the organization didn’t hurt, either: She played her final two WNBA years with the Washington Mystics; knew Wizards head coach Scotty Brooks from their years together in Sacramento, when he was a Kings assistant and she was hitting jumpers for the Monarchs; was familiar with Wizards GM Ernie Grunfeld, who oversaw the New York Liberty when the WNBA launched in 1997.
Similar to Reynolds, Grunfeld remains an impassioned advocate of the women’s game. He also was very close to Summitt, who was just beginning her Lady Vols coaching career when he played for Tennessee.
Score one for the Wiz in this sense, too: Unlike the restrictive practice policy implemented during the Kings’ previous regime, the Wizards open their doors for Lawson. “We had no reservations at all,” said Grunfeld. “Everybody around here really respects her.”
Lawson’s promotion comes at an interesting and unusually active time for women pursuing careers in the NBA. Within the past several months, women have been hired or promoted at league headquarters in Manhattan, in front offices, on coaching staffs, on training staffs. In sports media, Sarah Kustok was named full-time TV analyst for the Brooklyn Nets. (Ann Meyers-Drysdale has done part-time commentary with Phoenix Suns for years, while Doris Burke is the gold standard at ESPN).
Yet not everyone is feeling the warm and fuzzies, apparently. Fox Sports Southeast is catching heat for moving Charlotte Hornets’ Stephanie Ready from game commentator to sideline reporter. The network’s explanation – that a three-person booth was too crowded and too far from the court – has ignited a grassroots movement pressing for Ready’s return to her old job. Stay tuned.
Meanwhile, there is a local kicker to the Kara Lawson story. Her husband, Damien Barling, whom she met in Sacramento and married in 2008, is a co-host for KHTK 1140’s afternoon show. They moved to Connecticut when her ESPN duties expanded, but are two years into a cross-country marriage. “He really wanted to get back out there to do his show,” Lawson said.
No complaints, though. This new job? At the least, it’s a spoonful of icing on an already memorable life.