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Appalling. It’s the only word that even comes close to describing the 2002-2003 college basketball season — a season that began amid such high hopes and ended with such a lurid litany of scandals, involving welding certificates, fake grades, petulant players and cheating coaches.

And then — just as you were ready to write the whole system off as irredeemably corrupt…

Amazing. It’s the only word that even comes close to describing Kara Lawson of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, a standout scholar, ace athlete and this year’s Arthur Ashe Jr. top Female Sports Scholar.

Lawson draws nothing but superlatives from the adults who surround her. “A coach’s dream” is how Pat Summitt, the legendary women’s coach who’s led the Lady Volunteers to a record six NCAA tourney championships, describes her.

“As good an athlete as she is, I can testify that she’s an even better person. She’s old school,” says Bill Gibson, her coach at Virginia’s West Springfield High, where Lawson led the squad to an 83-2 record and two consecutive state AAA championships.

Lawson appears to be that rarest of rare birds: a top player at a top-tier program who takes her studies as seriously as she does her statistics.

On the basketball side of things, she is a star. She’s averaged 19 points per game in her last seven games and, as the No. 1 all-time free-throw and three-point shooter for the storied Lady Vols — not to mention No. 5 on the all-time scoring tally — she’s a serious contender to follow up her Naismith High School Player of the Year honors with the college award.

Lawson won her Tennessee scholarship with stellar grades and a 1370 on the SAT. She’ll be graduating as a finance major with a 3.75 GPA — and this at a time when NCAA’s own statistics note that only 60 percent of Black female and 35 percent of Black male college hoops players graduate from their programs.

Lawson also has a long list of community service activities. Since 2001 she’s been showing up weekly both at Knoxville’s West Hills Elementary School to help the kids with their reading and library skills and at the Love Kitchen, a meals-for-the-needy program. She’s also been active with the Race for the Cure and she’s been an honorary executive and tutor with the D.C. and Fairfax, Va., Special Olympics, to name just two more on her laundry list of involvements.

“When I was a young kid, growing up, doing sports, I really benefited from a number of programs that were put in place to help young people, so I really want to give back to my community, too,” Lawson says.

Asked how she manages to find the time, Lawson chuckles. “It’s all about priorities and commitment,” she says. “My parents taught me that if you want something done, then if it’s important, you find a way to get it done.”

Lawson — affectionately known to Lady Vols fans as “The Law”— makes it sound easy.

While most college students tend to drop out of demanding activities as they focus on the fun and freedoms of college, Lawson thrives on taking on more. Calling it “stress relief,” she took up piano as a junior and practices diligently.

“It all goes back to her self-discipline,” adds Summitt. “Kara has a clock, it’s always ticking and she doesn’t miss a minute. She’s got everything planned out, and she’s always on time. In fact, she goes crazy if everything around her isn’t on time, too.

“She has unbelievable focus and discipline for a young lady of her age.”

And apparently she’s always had it.

One of Lawson’s earliest memories is of watching the 1984 Olympics with her father. She was only three years old, but her father was explaining to her what the Olympics were — that “all the countries sent athletes and they all competed for gold medals. And I remember my favorite event was the 100-meter dash, because my father explained to me that the person who won that race was known as the fastest man or woman in the world.”

That year, Evelyn Ashford won the gold, “and I remember watching and saying to myself, ‘I want to be the fastest woman in the world.’ So the next day, my father said, I walked out to the corner where the street sign was, and then over and over again I’d put my hand on the pole, wait for a car to turn the corner, and I’d try to beat it to my driveway.”

The middle of three siblings, all girls, Lawson recalls that her parents — her mother, who worked in guidance in the school system, and her father, who worked in the White House, beginning in the Carter administration and ending her junior year in high school — were sports mad, but “all about academics.”

“I remember coming home,” Lawson chuckles, “and wanting to play with my friends. No way. Homework came first.” Indeed, that was so much so that “when I came home with a B in fifth grade, I wasn’t allowed to go to basketball camp that summer!”

Lesson reinforced, Lawson never again allowed her grades to slip as she set about turning herself into a bona fide sports phenom. She developed into a standout “peewee football” running back and linebacker, leading her team in rushing, scoring and interceptions. When she began to make her mark in basketball, she never looked back.

Indeed, Lawson is so focused that she often
doesn’t make a good initial impression. Howland recalls thinking that she was “aloof.” Even Summitt says, “There wasn’t an instant connection.”

Summitt’s first memory of Lawson was of going on a home visit, sitting with Kara and her parents and finding that “she literally knew as much or more about the university and about me as I did. She had read my book, Reach for the Summitt, knew all about my life.”

Gibson, the West Springfield coach, says, “I told Coach Pat, ‘You don’t even know what you’re getting. She’s like a coach on the court.’ And I went on and on, and Coach Pat said, ‘Yeah, yeah.’ “

But later, when Gibson went up to Tennessee for a visit, he says Summitt had seen the light. “She came up to me and said, ‘You were exactly right. She’s a coach’s player. She wants to learn, she wants to understand, then she puts it all into practice on the court!’ ”

Now, Summitt says, “I’m going to miss Kara so much. I can’t imagine her not being here because she is a coach’s dream. On the court, she’s a warrior. And off the court, you just don’t worry about her. You don’t worry about her not showing up on time, don’t worry about her bombing academically, don’t worry about her missing classes, breaking curfew, partying. I have no worries with Kara.”

And Lawson, who’s being showered with honors as her college career draws to a close, is strongly aware that every time she steps out on the court in this, her last postseason, it may be the last time.

Ever the planner, she’s certain of her next step — playing in the WNBA this summer, and possibly at some point in Europe, as long as “my body holds out.” And then, she’ll go to law school with a view to a “front office job with a pro team or maybe becoming a Division I athletic director.”

But though “the Law” has had her career highlights — standing on the medal stand accepting the gold at the 2001 World University Games in Beijing, she has one goal left to accomplish at the college level: winning an NCAA tournament ring.

So she’s focusing in on that goal by focusing on the things in her life that she loves: “Interacting with my teammates on the bus, in the locker room, that feeling of being a part of a team, part of something bigger than just you,” Lawson says. “In the grand scheme of things, getting to the Final Four and getting a championship ring may not be huge, but it’s special to you,” she says.

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