In the late-1990s, Kara Lawson was an elite prep basketball player in Alexandria, Virginia, and was getting recruited by virtually every major program in the country. Her father wanted her to go to Duke. Her mother wanted her to go to Stanford.
In the end, she wound up at Tennessee.
That was the pull of Pat Summitt, who died Tuesday five years after being diagnosed with early onset dementia. She was 64.
“I would watch her coach when I was a kid,” Lawson said on CBS Sports Radio’s The Doug Gottlieb Show. “When I was in middle school, when I was in high school, I’d see her on the TV and I’d see her intensity and I’d see her competitiveness and the way she was yelling and I just remember thinking, ‘Who is this woman? Who is she? I want to play for her.’ You don’t know a lot of things when you’re 18 years old, but the one thing I did know that I wanted to do was reach my potential. I knew that I wanted to maximize whatever I could be as a player and as a person, and when I met Pat, I knew that she would do that. It’s the best decision I’ve made.”
Lawson, the fifth overall pick in the 2003 WNBA Draft, played 13 seasons in the WNBA, was named an All-Star, won a championship and was an Olympic gold medalist.
But when people ask her about her basketball career, it’s almost always about Summitt and Tennessee.
“That’s usually the No. 1 thing that people want to talk about,” said Lawson, now an ESPN analyst and co-chair of The Pat Summitt Foundation. “They want to talk about what it was like to play for her. ‘How hard was it? How tough was she?’ That dominates the conversation. I was doing an NBA playoff game last month. We were doing a Warriors game, and you meet with the coach before the game. You go in there and we’re getting ready to start with Steve Kerr, and all he wants to talk about is Pat Summitt. All he wants to do is just ask questions about her and (know what it was like playing for her). We got about five minutes into the interview and I said, ‘Steve, we’re supposed to be interviewing you. We’re supposed to be asking you questions.’ But it’s something that within the basketball world – the people that have been around the game and know the game – have such great respect and fondness for what Pat Summitt was able to achieve and how she was able to achieve it.”
Summitt, who never had a losing record in 38 seasons, went 1,098-208 in her illustrious career. She coached the Lady Vols to 18 Final Fours and eight national championships. In 2012, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.
“She honed in on you as a person,” Lawson said, explaining Summitt’s ability to connect with players. “She was very interested in what made you tick and your personality and understanding what did she need to do to motivate you and make you better as a player. She was a phenomenal teacher. I used to sit before practice with her for 10 minutes, sometimes for 30 minutes. I played point guard for her for four years. She taught me the game. She taught me how to watch film. She taught me how to look for things in an opponent, how to look for things in your own teammates, how to run a team, how to command an offense. All these things, I’m learning. I’ve learned how to do that. So when people come up to me and say, ‘I like the way you explain the game,’ all those things that I do now are because of what she taught me and how she explained the game and how she demanded perfection from us on the court and demanded that you get the best out of yourself. I owe every professional success that I have on the court and off the court to Pat Summitt.”
Lawson shared a poignant anecdote about Summitt, whom she met for the first time during a home-recruiting visit in 1998.
“She was my last home visit,” Lawson recalled, “but it was a different feel when she walked in the room.”
Summitt sat down to talk to Lawson and her family, but a lamp prevented Summitt from making eye contact with Lawson’s mother. So, Summitt did what no one in the Lawson household had ever done.
“She moved the lamp,” Lawson said, still in disbelief. “I don’t know if that lamp and been moved in 18 years. It was always in the same place on the table. But after that night, it stayed in the place Pat Summitt moved it to.”