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Another Coach K: The rebranding of Duke women's basketball's Kyra Lambert

kyra-lambert

Kyra Lambert has led the Blue Devils from the sidelines while recovering from a torn ACL.

Buried deep in the core of the Mike Krzyzewski Center—adjacent to Cameron Indoor Stadium and through a set of locked doors—another Coach K is being born. 

Her name is Kyra Lambert.

No, Lambert is not some off-limits protégé, shrouded in secrecy, mentored since birth by a crack squad of Duke Athletics staff to succeed Krzyzewski when he finally calls it quits. Neither is she merely a fondly regarded goldfish lounging in a comfortable tank along with a toy castle and a disproportionately-sized scuba diver in the legendary coach’s office. 

Rather, Lambert’s nickname serves as an acknowledgement of the third step of her winding path from playing basketball to rehab to coaching, and in a few months, back to playing.

"It’s funny how things are going full circle," Lambert said in an interview last week.

Lambert’s journey to the nickname begins with a set of extraordinarily adverse circumstances, which her heavily scarred knees will enthusiastically attest to. Yet, those circumstances have allowed her to flip the traditional court hierarchy on its head—and, come next October, she hopes to use her experience to restore Duke to its former place near the top of the women’s basketball hierarchy.

The long road home

The origin of Lambert’s coaching career is perhaps a disenchanting one, at least for her. An encouraging sophomore season—in which the former No. 9 recruit recorded 7.8 points and 3.5 assists per game on a team with two future WNBA draftees—was cut short when the point guard went down with a torn left ACL in the Blue Devils’ first-round victory against Hampton in the 2017 NCAA tournament. 

She spent the entirety of the subsequent season in rehab, and her return date remained cloudy.

Finally, at the Blue/White Scrimmage in October 2018, head coach Joanne P. McCallie entertained the idea of a return sometime in December. So when Lambert went down yet again in a late October 2018 practice with a torn meniscus and ACL in her left knee, the experience extinguished the hopes and expectations built up over a year and rekindled old frustrations. The pain of going through a third major surgery was real and fresh for Lambert and her teammates.

“I was there for all of Kyra’s injuries, and each one was just as hard as the first one,” senior guard Faith Suggs said. “It was kind of frustrating for us and for Kyra to see her work so hard and then have another setback.”

Like all great stories, there was initial resistance. Lambert did not want to coach after she went down in 2017, choosing instead to focus most of her efforts on rehab and academics. 

When disaster struck again, she did not repeat her mistakes. Already an acquaintance of the rehab process, she took a practical mental approach to recovery.

“I was hoping I wouldn’t be coaching this year…but I try not to feel sorry for myself,” Lambert said. “We have this ‘24-48 hour rule.’ You can feel bad for yourself for 24-48 hours, but after that, you just have to go on with it.”

Thus, with McCallie’s endorsement, Lambert began to take over some coaching duties, learning more about the various roles associated with the team. She even learned how to splice videos that go up on the team’s social media pages. It wasn’t long before McCallie dubbed Lambert the 'Coach K of Duke women’s basketball' early in the season.

‘I understand why coaches yell’

The presence of a player-coach can throw a wrench into ordinary team mechanisms. Instead of taking the orders, Lambert now gives them. She must maintain the confidentiality of coaches’ meetings, honestly criticize her teammates and keep her teammates’ trust by withholding their private conversations from the coaching staff. 

Lambert must do all this while trying to build a makeshift rapport with future teammates. Her relationship with her teammates seems a tricky subject to navigate. 

When asked about it, Lambert pondered her response for a moment.

“I’ve never actually thought about that," she said. "With my younger teammates, specifically, it has been a different relationship than teammates that I’ve played with. It will be more interesting to see next year, when I do get to play with the freshmen and sophomores now, who will then be sophomores and juniors.”

Suggs is one of the few players who has played with Lambert. A fellow member of the 2015 recruiting class, Suggs sees a different side of Lambert when she is in coach mode.

“I think she’s nicer as a coach than she is as a point guard,” Suggs said. “She definitely demands a lot, but I’m seeing her get more comfortable as a coach.”

Suggs supports Lambert’s coaching so much, she promised to join her coaching staff if she decided to coach full-time. Lambert, though, does not necessarily agree with Suggs’ sentiment.

“I understand why coaches yell so much now,” Lambert said with a chuckle.

‘I just can’t imagine her as a player’

When Lambert returns to the starting lineup—and she will—the question remains whether she can maintain her tightrope relationship between the players and the coaching staff. McCallie, however, erased any doubt.

“She’ll always have that,” McCallie said of Lambert's relationship with the Blue Devil staff. “We’ve built on that together, and that would be a tremendous asset to her on the court, making decisions and being an extension of the coach on the floor.”

It’s easy to tease out praise from McCallie for her prized player-coach. McCallie’s outlook could not be much more positive.

“Oh my gosh, being a player after the knowledge she has, being able to control games and understand value of possession and defense and intensity and detail—I just can’t imagine her as a player,” McCallie said. “I think the game would become very simple to her and very slowed down relative to what she sees.”

Like Lambert, Mikayla Boykin—the Blue Devils’ other point guard—tore her right ACL in a loss to Miami Jan. 17 of this year, leaving Duke without a primary ball-handler and paving the way for its worst season since 1992-93.

But the future is bright. McCallie’s staff, with the aid of Lambert, has groomed an inexperienced squad into a team laden with potential. In particular, freshman roommates Miela Goodchild and Onome Akinbode-James have transformed into crunch-time specialists, showcasing their evolution in a narrow victory against Clemson last Thursday. 

After Akinbode-James mentioned growth in the postgame press conference, McCallie laughed openly for the first time all season, knowing full well Lambert was a driving force behind much of that growth.

When McCallie interrupted Lambert's interview to advertise the “scout guide galore” coming in 45 minutes, it was the point guard's turn to laugh, knowing that she wouldn't be needing that guide to prepare for the upcoming game. Her gaze is set on October, the intended date of her return.

Lambert’s story isn’t over, and she knows it. 

For now, though, the Coach K of Duke women’s basketball is focused on the task at hand: upholding the prestige of her nickname.

“I have a lot to live up to,” Lambert said.

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