Former Lady Vols volunteer for WNBA

Former Lady Vols Ashley Robinson and Kara Lawson have been canvassing the Dallas-area this week to lend their support for community projects – from building playgrounds to keeping kids active to visiting a day care center for homeless children – in conjunction with the NBA All-Star game festivities. Both took a brief break Friday to conduct phone interviews to explain what they were doing and why.

Ashley Robinson had spent Friday painting and getting dirty as a playground went up and, after cleaning up, was headed next to a business gathering Friday evening to meet potential sponsors and investors for WNBA teams.

"We've got to do this work in the off-season to help the league last," said Robinson, who planned to start work at 6:30 a.m. Saturday on more community projects.

Ashley Robinson's official portrait for the NBA All-Star weekend. Photo provided by the WNBA.

Kara Lawson had spent the day encouraging youngsters to get fit and did a phone interview before ducking into a conference room for a league seminar on the grassroots digital age of social media.

Kara Lawson's official portrait for the NBA All-Star weekend. Photo provided by the WNBA.

The two former Tennessee Lady Vols have volunteered their time and efforts – along with other WNBA and NBA players – in the days preceding Sunday's NBA All-Star Game, which will be played at Cowboys Stadium, guaranteed to break an attendance record for the most people to watch an NBA event.

The old record for an NBA All-Star game was 44,735 at the Houston Astrodome in 1989. The largest crowd to watch a regular season NBA game was the 62,046 at the Georgia Dome in 1998 to see the Atlanta Hawks play Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. The 2010 All-Star game should shatter both records with a crowd expected to exceed 90,000 and the NBA hoping for 100,000.

Amid the hoopla and festivities are players sweating and getting dirty – literally for Robinson – off the court to improve the community in the city that hosts the All-Star game.

For Robinson, who is from Grand Prairie, Texas – about 16 miles west of Dallas – having the event in her home state has made her work with the NBA Cares All-Star Community Caravan even more meaningful, as the events are taking place throughout the Dallas-Fort Forth area.

Robinson and Lawson got started on Wednesday and it has been nonstop for the pair ever since.

"We're doing all sorts of things down here," Lawson said. "We've just been getting out in the community and trying to find ways to impact our youth because there are so many issues facing them that maybe weren't facing us when we were young."

Lawson participated in the first-ever NBA FIT All-Star Youth Celebration.

"It was working with kids and talking to them about nutrition, talking to them about living a healthy lifestyle and talking to them about how fun exercise can be and just going through stations and teaching them jump rope, sit-ups, defensive slides, just different fun things that they can do to stay in shape," Lawson said.

Childhood obesity has become a national epidemic and establishing habits early to exercise and stay active are considered to be the frontlines of defense. Lawson, who played youth football in Virginia as a child, said sports set the stage for a healthy life as an adult.

"My parents started me very early with physical fitness and really emphasized that as a means of having a lot of fun, being healthy," Lawson said. "We had a rule in our house for the kids that you could pick whatever sport you were going to play, but you had to play one every season. I picked a lot of different ones. I played football, I played baseball, I ran track, I played tennis. My older sister did tennis. She did rowing.

"We were allowed to pick whatever we wanted, but we had to do something every season. To me that just became second nature. It became like breathing air. It was something I loved to do and I wanted to do every day, so I was always one of those kids that was outside playing every day after school, that mom had to call home for dinner when the streetlights came on. I think that has definitely translated as an adult now. If I don't work out, I feel bad. I know it's so important for me it being my job but also for me to be healthy."

Among Robinson's efforts have been presiding over a wheelchair basketball game as an honorary coach at the All-Star Jam Session on Thursday and helping Friday to build a playground.

Ashley Robinson, second from left in the back row, helped to preside over a wheelchair basketball game this week as part of the NBA/WNBA Cares activities. Photo courtesy of the NBA

Both players also made visits Friday to a child care center for the homeless, the tender age of the occupants being eye-opening for Lawson.

"It's really another epidemic in our country," Lawson said. "What I didn't realize was you're talking about homeless children from the ages of six weeks to six years that this facility cares for. When I would think of homeless children I would think more of the older ones, but these are very young kids that are living on the streets. This is a facility that cares for them and gives them breakfast and lunch and helps teach them basic skills.

"We were able to visit the kids and spend some time with them, and it was a powerful few hours."

Other stops for Lawson and Robinson included ones at a children's hospital to visit patients and an elementary school to dedicate a new library stocked with books and computers. The former Lady Vols were joined by former First Lady Laura Bush –reading was a big issue for the former librarian during her years in public service – and "it was something she was really excited about," Lawson said.

While Lawson was encouraging children to get fit Friday, Robinson was getting dirty on a new playground that was being erected. She painted, hung signs, leveled the ground for equipment and spread mulch.

"I got kind of dirty today," Robinson said with a laugh. "I have mud on my jeans right now and my feet are cold. I am not the type that likes to get muddy. I started out painting. The painting part was really cool. That's more of my type of stuff, but I decided to get muddy."

Robinson is known for being rather fastidious when it comes to style and fashion – she will send text messages to Pat Summitt when she sees a look during televised games that she likes on the coach – but she volunteered for work duty this week.

"I've been doing things since Wednesday," Robinson said. "We volunteer to do it, and we should do it. I like being at home and doing it. It is so fulfilling for me. I do community service in other places, and it's nice to do it in my hometown."

Robinson also is using the opportunity to help the WNBA spread its message.

"It's a way to get the league out there and to get little girls and little boys exposed to the WNBA," Robinson said.

Both players also saw the events as a chance to network for the league and stay abreast of current issues in their sport from a business point of view.

"It's something I've done with the NBA and for the WNBA for the past seven years," Lawson said. "I always make my schedule available to be able to do this. I love the community events and going to the city and meeting the kids. It brings to light issues that maybe are not in the forefront of your mind and need to look at. It brings to light issues that we should be fighting against.

"It is definitely something you never take for granted. It's a great all-around event."

It has been a whirlwind series of events for both players, and it continues Saturday with more community service.

"I don't know exactly what I will be doing, but I know I start at 6:30 (in the morning), and I don't end until about 9 (p.m.)," said Robinson with another laugh, as she searched for her itinerary as she conducted the phone interview.

Both players will be in attendance at Sunday's All-Star Game (8 p.m. Eastern, TNT) at Dallas' $1.2 billion football stadium.

"The new Cowboy Stadium is breathtaking," Robinson said.

Ashley Robinson played at Tennessee from 2000 to 2004 and was drafted by the Phoenix Mercury after her college career ended. She joined the Seattle franchise in 2006 and is a restricted free agent now and expects to be with the Storm for the start of training camp in April.

"I would never have thought I would be in the league six years later," Robinson said. "I never thought I would play this long. That is just a testament to going to Tennessee and having such a great coach, who I miss so much. Pat just got the best out of me."

Kara Lawson played at Tennessee from 1999 to 2003. She was drafted by Detroit after college and traded four days later to Sacramento. Lawson remained with the Monarchs until last fall, when the franchise was disbanded by the owners of the Sacramento Kings.

Lawson spent the past several months rehabbing a serious quad injury – she missed the final part of the 2009 WNBA season – and has been medically released to play. Lawson has been in Knoxville since last October to rehab with Jenny Moshak, the chief of sports medicine for Tennessee, and Lawson's husband, Damien Barling, a personal fitness trainer, also has been with her.

"I am cleared to do everything on the basketball court," Lawson said. "We are just taking it slow because there is no need to rush. I am cleared to do everything contact-wise."

Lawson, an unrestricted free agent, was free to sign with any team, and the Connecticut Sun inked her to a contract on Feb. 2.

"This is a player we've tried to trade for several times," Sun Coach Mike Thibault said. "We tried to sign her as a restricted free agent, but we knew Sacramento would match the offer. She fills a huge need on our team because she plays both guard positions and can excel at all the skills required of both positions. Her shooting, her ball-handling, her passing, her vision, her toughness and her leadership are all things we need."

The Sun also acquired DeMya Walker from the dispersal draft when the Monarchs folded, so Lawson will have a former teammate with her in Connecticut. Lawson's professional life was in limbo after the early December announcement that the pro team she had played for since 2003 no longer existed.

"There definitely was a little bit of stress involved in deciding where we were going to be and not so much from the basketball side of things, although there was some, but more so from the life side of things, having to move from California and waiting," Lawson said. "We've been living out of a suitcase for a couple of months. It's nice to know where we are going to be and start making plans and start the moving process.

"I am really excited. Coach Thibault coached me as the assistant for the Olympic team the last three years so I got a chance to get to know him, his style of coaching, his system, and I think it's a great fit for me. Just the type of player that he likes to coach and the type of skills that I have I think match up really well with the system he runs.

"I was really excited about the players that they have there. We have one of the best frontcourts in the entire league when you look at our depth and our versatility. Asjha (Jones) has been an All-Star for the last few years. (Sandrine) Gruda is one of the best young centers in the world. DeMya, who I played with in Sacramento, so there is some familiarity there with personnel.

"And, of course, they have the number one pick and the type of season that (UConn's) Tina Charles is having (the presumptive top selection in the WNBA draft). All of that makes it really exciting. Our guard play I think is going to be a lot of fun. We have a lot of versatility, we don't have people stuck in positions, and we can kind of all play different spots.

"It was a total package. I think it's a team that has a chance to be really good for the next four or five years and I was looking for sustained excellence, not just a team that would be good next year or good for the next two years. This was a team I felt had the young players that could really sustain a good run of contending."

Last season, Robinson and Lawson were among 13 former players from Tennessee in the WNBA, the highest number of any school.

"I think a lot of that has to do with Coach getting us ready for the league," Robinson said. "You go to Tennessee and everybody knows you're a good player but not all of us can be All-Americans at Tennessee. The whole team can't be All-Americans, but we're pros when we graduate there. She really coaches us to get us prepared for the next level.

"That is why we have longevity in the league. We know the game, and we have passion for the game. That is every WNBA player I think, but there are a lot of Tennessee girls because we bought into her system. Coach just knew how to make us into pros. She prepared us in ways that we didn't even know."

Robinson was in New York last fall with former Lady Vols Loree Moore and Alexis Hornbuckle when the Women's Sports Foundation honored Pat Summitt for her 1,000 career wins. Robinson also frequently sends text messages to Summitt, especially if she likes the coach's style.

"I am always sending her little texts not about the game but about how she looks on the sideline," said Robinson, who, like former Lady Vol Shyra Ely, is a fashion maven.

Robinson laughed when asked if current Lady Vol players would not believe her if she told them they would eventually miss Summitt.

"They will," Robinson said. "She tells you, ‘You're going to miss Tennessee, and you're going to miss your coach,' and she's right. I miss Tennessee and I miss my coach. Nobody is going to love you like Pat. I met Pat when I was 16. She saw me grow up. Our coaches now see us as adults. Pat saw me as a little girl, and she saw me grow into a woman.

"Nobody is going to love you like your (college) coach, and it's hard to explain. Pat is Pat. Everybody asks me, and I can't explain it. You go to Tennessee, but you get so much more because you really do get to form a relationship with this woman who is the most amazing woman, I think, in the world.

"I miss Knoxville, and go Lady Vols."

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