Lessons From Legends Guide Kara Lawson’s 3x3 Role
Even in Kara Lawson’s triumphant afterglow a half-world away, the late Pat Summitt simply had to reach out for a congratulatory message.
After all, communication was one of the things she stressed emphatically as a coach.
It was August 23, 2008. Lawson had just piloted Team USA’s 92-65 romp over Australia for Olympic gold in Beijing with a game-high 15 points. She, Tamika Catchings and Candace Parker constituted a trio of Tennessee products on the podium, making Summitt’s program the most represented.
When their buoyant bus took off, the three Volunteers had a kudos call waiting. NCAA basketball’s then-winningest coach was eager to speak with her once-and-always protégés at the earliest opportunity.
Obviously, Summitt could not talk to Lawson during the actual games at the Olympics, and little did Lawson know she would one day face similar restrictions with her own players during her first foray into Olympic coaching.
“What I get to do is observe,” said USA Basketball’s 3x3 coach ahead of the inaugural Tokyo Olympic 3x3 tournament. “I don’t get to coach during the games, so you spend a lot of time observing your players, other teams.”
Adding to the role’s tricky nature, “There’s no assistant coaches, there’s no scouts. You’re doing everything. So, you have to observe efficiently, observe critically to put your players in the best position to win.”
It is how Lawson embodies a principle she dubbed “the power of observation” in an interview last August for the NCAA website. When reached from Las Vegas amidst the 3x3 Olympic team’s final tune-up, she reaffirmed Summitt’s status as a great communicator. Lawson herself allows she was a fiery competitor in the heat of play. But as an undergraduate in Knoxville, she was not always so outspoken off the court.
Summitt was sure to rectify that.
“She’s influenced me in a lot of ways,” said Lawson. “But the major one is communication.”
Fast-forward to 18 years after her last collegiate game, and Lawson has spent her adult life addressing WNBA teammates as a player, TV audiences as an analyst and professional athletes as a Boston Celtics assistant coach, to now serving as the Duke University women’s head coach and coach of the USA Basketball 3x3 Women’s National Team. She even will, along with Parker, analyze five-on-five action for NBC viewers as an Olympic broadcaster.
“Something that was a severe weakness of mine as an 18-year-old is now a great strength of mine,” she said.
Now she is on the verge of following in the footsteps of the woman who helped her unearth those powers. Summitt played in the first women’s Olympic basketball tournament in 1976, then coached the USA women’s first gold-medal run in 1984.
Come tip-off of the U.S. Olympic 3x3 team’s first game against France on July 24, Lawson, the assists leader of the 2008 Olympic gold medalist team, will join a group that includes Summitt, current five-on-five USA head coach Dawn Staley, and 2008 head coach the late Anne Donovan. Only those four have represented the U.S. women in both playing and head coaching capacities at the Olympics. And like Summitt in ’76, Lawson will help usher in a new kind of Olympic competition.
“You’re coming out with a heavy hitter,” she said when reminded of the distinction. “She’s set an incredible standard.
“I think she’s the most impactful person in women’s basketball history. The way that she inspired people, motivated people. Obviously she won, but that was just a small part of her impact on our society.
“So I know that, having had a personal relationship with her, how excited she would be for me for this opportunity. Any time she gets brought up I definitely smile.”
When the USA returned from securing the USA’s 3x3 Olympic berth at the FIBA 3x3 Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Austria this past May, Duke men’s head coach Mike Krzyzewski — who in 2018 succeeded Summitt as college basketball’s all-time victory monarch — was among the first to relay praise.
For Lawson, whose first season with the Blue Devils was cut short after four games due to COVID-19 precautions, the gesture was a reminder of Cameron Indoor Stadium’s infectiously hallowed corridors. Besides five NCAA titles and a record 1,170 wins, Krzyzewski has amassed five Olympic gold medals.
“His track record speaks for itself,” Lawson said. “It’s something to aspire to and admire.”
And with 2021-22 being Krzyzewski’s swan song, it would not hurt for his colleague to bring another tale of Olympic glory to talk about. A more normal autumn and winter should yield more opportunities for casual communication among the two programs.
“I’m fortunate to be on the same campus with him for at least another year,” said Lawson.
Al Daniel is a freelance contributor to USAB.com on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.