TOKYO — Kara Lawson has spent five years in coaching, a profession that has taken to her to a NBA bench and presently the helm of the Duke Blue Devils’ women’s basketball program. Her name has been floated for in the NBA head-coaching rumor mill.
But the former WNBA All-Star actually started her coaching career in the 3-on-3 format.
“As my 3-on-3 responsibilities grew,” Lawson told USA TODAY Sports via video call, “I also became a 5-on-5 coach at the same time.”
It was in her first year coaching 3-on-3, 2017, Lawson helped lead the U-18 3-on-3 team to gold at the World Cup in China. USA Basketball then asked her to coach the U-18 men's side. More success followed, and she began working with G League and WNBA players in her first exposure to the senior squads.
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Eventually, Lawson became the official "adviser" – 3-on-3 teams don't have official coaches like 5-on-5 teams do – for the women's 3-on-3 Olympic team.
At the Tokyo Olympics, the team has been a bright spot for Team USA. The roster of four won their first six games before losing to host Japan. By then, they'd secured the best record in group play and a bye into the semifinals against France, which will take place Wednesday at 4 a.m. EDT. The gold- or bronze-medal contest will take place later that day.
"I feel like we’ve gotten better throughout the tournament and we’ve put ourselves in position to win, just like three other teams," Lawson said.
The mentality heading into medal day?
Win two, win gold.
Adversity, and the reality of holding an Olympics during a pandemic, hit Lawson's squad before they even left for Tokyo when former Connecticut standout and Seattle Storm guard Katie Lou Samuelson tested positive for COVID-19.
"She was a big part of her team. Losing her a few days before we left (for Tokyo) was a big blow for our team," Lawson said. "The mission didn’t change. Why we came over here didn’t change, regardless of who’s on our team."
Jacquelyn Young replaced Samuelson on the roster. The other three players – Allisha Gray (5.4 ppg), Kelsey Plum (6.3 ppg) and Stefanie Dolson (5.6 ppg) – have done most of the scoring.
"(Young has) done a great job for us of keeping things up. She was on the beach somewhere, I think," Lawson joked.
One of the major differences in the 3-on-3 format is the length of games, which last 10 minutes, or the first team to reach 21 points. Letting the game come to you is not an option. It's on from the first check.
"You have to play hard," Lawson said. "You might be saying, 'Of course you have to play hard.'"
Other essentials for 3-on-3, Lawson said, are skill and toughness, given physicality of the discipline. Most of all, though, she said her crew possesses the necessary mental aptitude.
For example, the U.S. played Italy first on Monday and then China a couple of hours later. Each victory required different strategies.
"You have to have players that can, from an intelligence standpoint, handle different game plans and still be able to execute," Lawson said.
'Have to trust what I've taught them'
With no coach allowed on the bench to bark instructions or call plays, Lawson has been watching the games in the intimate setting of Aomi Urban Sports Park. But remember, being unable to roam sideline is nothing new for this "unique creature" in coaching.
"I started not being able to coach in games," Lawson said, referencing her 3-on-3 roots. "That’s all I do. So the fact that in 5-on-5 they let you coach in games, that’s like a big bonus for me. My normal is not being able to coach (during games).
"It's all I've known."
It's only a 10-minute game, after all, and the players listen to her the other 23 hours and 50 minutes of the day, she joked.
"I just have to trust what I’ve taught them," Lawson said more seriously.
The 2008 Olympic gold medalist estimates she’s coached more than 100 players in 3-on-3.
"I haven’t had a player yet that didn’t love it – not like it," she says. "Love it."
It’s not a passion that is clear immediately – the format can be a difficult adjustment at first.
"I don’t know where it goes," Lawson said of 3-on-3 competitions. "I do know from a big-picture standpoint, it does allow more countries to field competitive teams and have the chance to play in international tournaments."
Smaller countries or federations without resources to sustain a successful 5-on-5 operation, such as Mongolia, which qualified on the women's side, can have places on the world stage.
"You just need four players and a coach," she said. "If you’re a smaller country you might not have 12 good players to field a 5-on-5, but you might have four."
In the short term, three teams will be feeling low without the gold, Lawson said. She and the foursome are determined to feel the highs that come with the 3-on-3 game.
"This game is unpredictable ... it's a cruel game," Lawson said. "Over five years of being in the sport, I’ve seen so many endings, so many different types of games happen. So many games I think we’re going to lose and then we win. It’s just a 10-minute rollercoaster.
"It’s great theatre."
Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: US 3-on-3 basketball team ready for Olympics final, led by Kara Lawson