Kara Lawson was finally introduced by Duke, over 20 years after the school's first attempt at making her a Blue Devil. And just 10 minutes in, her mom made it clear how happy she was about it.
“Mom, I saw you—you wore Duke blue,” Lawson said, laughing. “My mom’s on the call, everybody. Here’s my mom, she got the right colors, so that’s pretty exciting.”
For Lawson, the journey to Duke was a long time coming. When she was being recruited as a player as part of the Class of 1999, her mom wanted her to commit to Duke, while her dad wanted Stanford. Playing for Pat Summitt pushed Lawson to Tennessee, though Summitt wouldn't be the first great coach she would get experience under.
Brad Stevens, who brought Lawson onto the Boston Celtics’ staff last summer, recently engaged with his then-assistant coach about the future and her goals. Though at the time she wasn't expecting any big offers to lure her away from the NBA anytime soon, Lawson was keeping an eye on some NCAA jobs, including her now-current position.
“I won't share [all of my future goals] with you, but I will say is [that] one of the places that I would have loved, at that time, to have an opportunity to coach was Duke,” Lawson said. “I didn't share that with very many people—probably just my family and Brad. There [weren't] too many people that knew that. But I knew that if it ever came open, that I was going to try and put my best foot forward and try to see if I could secure the position. That's how highly I thought of the institution, that’s how highly I thought of the job.
"I certainly had no idea that it would happen a year after I went to Boston…. But when the right opportunity comes along, you have to take it. And that's the same process that I used to join the Celtics a year ago…. When you find a place that their values align with yours and they have a high standard that they hold themselves to, if that fits, and you can feel that—if that fits, then it's probably the right place for you."
Lawson’s professional off-court and on-court careers started simultaneously. While she spent the first seven years of her WNBA career in Sacramento, she was a studio analyst on Kings broadcasts. She continued as an analyst with ESPN for NBA, WNBA and NCAAW coverage and spent a couple of years as the Washington Wizards color commentator before joining the Celtics.
Lawson was a trailblazer throughout, often facing adversity. Her first attempt to get into coaching was stymied when the Kings would not let her sit in on their practices because she would "distract the players." In 2007, she became the first woman to work a nationwide NBA broadcast, and her role with the Wizards made her just the second primary female TV analyst. Lawson's job with the Celtics also made her part of an NBA coaching pool that is less than 50 percent people of color, compared to over 80 percent of NBA players.
"I think the diversity of my experiences are my strength,” Lawson said. “This is a day and age that we are talking a lot about diversity. We are having a lot of needed conversations about diversity. If you really believe in it, you know that it creates great value for your organization. I think the same about experiences. Having been around the game in a number of capacities is a strength that I bring to this position.
"Understanding the game as a player, understanding the game from the college perspective, from the pro perspective, from the women's perspective, from the men's perspective, from a coaching perspective, from a media perspective—there are so many things that I've experienced," Lawson said. "[What] I strived to do, even all through my player career, was to find ways to continue to improve, and to find areas that I felt uncomfortable in to try and master them…. This is going to be challenging and I’m excited for it."
Lawson cites a surprising bit of coaching experience as formative: her time with the U.S. women’s 3-on-3 basketball team. Despite winning gold in 2018, her team struggled early the next year when she tried to implement the same strategies with different personnel. And so she learned an important lesson.
“‘Adaptability.’ I'm not going to sit here and say, ‘We are going to play this way, we are going to play that way.’ I think the ability to be adaptable in your processes, the ability to have players that are adaptable is vital,” Lawson said. “So I am not going to make any grandiose statements about what we are going to do and who we are going to be. I just think we’re going to figure out what works for us and we’re going to strive to master that. And I think if you keep it simple in terms of your goals, that gives you a chance to really achieve them."
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What stood out the most from Lawson’s presser, however, was how she talked about the Duke program. She spoke with confidence about the promise it holds, and how much she looks forward to the challenge.
“I think any time you take over a college program, you have to look at engaging all the constituents, and all the people that surround the program, and making sure that they feel invested in what you’re doing and what you hope to build,” Lawson said. “That’s why I first started, my first couple days, reaching out to the players. I’ve talked to a number of former players—probably, I don’t know, maybe two dozen—and just trying to introduce myself to them.
"A lot of them are my friends. A lot of them I’ve known for a long time, so those were obviously fun calls, but some [were] straight-up cold-calls. Talking to people, and just trying to share with them what my vision of the program is, how I foresee them being a part of it, and them being able to just really come back and be a part of the group. Whether it’s coming to practices, coming to shootarounds, coming to games. I just think that that’ll be awesome.”