In early July, after the resignation of longtime women’s basketball head coach Joanne P. McCallie, the Duke athletic department went out and searched for its fifth head coach in program history. That search, led by Senior Deputy Director of Athletics Nina King, spanned 20 candidates, narrowed down to six and ultimately two for the final round of interviews. The chosen candidate was both an out-of-the-box hire in her college coaching experience but at the same time, was well positioned within the greater basketball community.
A winding career path
Growing up, Kara Lawson did not only pick up a basketball. She also played soccer through her high school career at West Springfield High School and played football when she was younger.
The path Lawson took to Durham was unique and the July hiring was not the first time Duke had attempted to bring her to Cameron Indoor Stadium. In fact, Lawson’s mother, Kathleen, wanted her daughter to don the blue and white. However, the lure of playing for Hall of Fame coach Pat Summitt at Tennessee won out, and the 1999 Naismith High School Player of the Year made her way to Knoxville, Tenn. She also was named the Virginia Gatorade Player of the Year in her junior and senior seasons while spearheading two state championships.
Over the course of her career with the Lady Volunteers, Lawson went to three Final Fours and started 137 of her 143 games, according to her GoDuke profile. The team’s record during the four years was 126-17, with a 54-2 mark in SEC contests. Tennessee won the regular season and conference tournaments all four seasons. Individually, Lawson’s name appears through the program’s record book. She presently holds the sixth place in career points with 1,950 and second all-time in 3-point shooting percentage at 41.5%. Lawson also holds both the third slots in the program’s 3-point makes category with 256 triples and the career free throw percentage at 84.7%.
On the awards side, she was an All-SEC first team selection from 2000 to 2003, a two-time Naismith Player of the Year finalist and the 2003 Arthur Ashe Jr., Female Student-Athlete of the Year, among other recognitions. Lawson graduated in 2003 with a degree in finance and she currently sits on the Board of Trustees at Tennessee.
Lawson was then selected fifth overall in the 2003 WNBA Draft by the Detroit Shock, but was soon traded to the Sacramento Monarchs. She spent seven seasons as a member of the Monarchs, who won the 2005 WNBA Championship. Lawson was selected to the 2007 All Star team. The Monarchs then folded prior to the 2010 season and Lawson joined the Connecticut Sun before being traded to the Washington Mystics in 2014. She retired from the WNBA in 2015.
In 377 WNBA games, Lawson surpassed the 3,000-point, 800-rebound and 700-assist mark across 13 seasons. On average, she recorded 9.8 points, 2.6 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game. In addition, Lawson was a member of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympic team. En route to a gold medal, she averaged seven points and three assists, and capped off the event with a team-high 15 points against Australia in the finals.
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While a member of the Monarchs, Lawson also joined the Sacramento Kings broadcast team as a studio analyst. In January 2007, she became the first female analyst for a nationally televised NBA game. After she finished her time with the Mystics, Lawson spent two seasons as the Washington Wizards broadcast analyst and was an ESPN studio and game analyst for college basketball and the NBA.
Lawson rose up the ranks on ESPN’s women’s basketball coverage to be a member of the lead women’s basketball and Final Four team alongside Adam Amin, Rebecca Lobo and Holly Rowe. As a result, she called Duke’s 2018 Sweet 16 matchup with top-seed Connecticut. This experience allowed Lawson to garner an inside look into the top collegiate coaches and their respective programs.
On the coaching side, USA Basketball named Lawson its 3x3 coach back in 2017, where she has won six gold medals coaching a handful of teams, including the U18 men’s and women’s teams. In the summer of 2019, Lawson became an assistant coach for the Boston Celtics and remained with the team until she was hired to lead the Blue Devils in July. She was the first female coach in franchise history and one of only a handful throughout the league. This summer, Silver Waves Media also named Lawson as one of the 100 most influential people in women’s college basketball.
Program and coaching philosophy
Over the course of the three months since Lawson was named as the head coach, she has shared some of her core tenets of how she will run the Duke women’s basketball program. Built upon her multitude of different experiences, the newly minted coach will implement these ideologies throughout the team.
In 2014, Lawson gave a Ted Talk in Springfield, Mass., titled, “Focus, discipline, concentration and the results of never settling,” where she shared some lessons from her childhood that helped shape her as a basketball player and commentator on and off the hardwood.
In her first staff meeting, Lawson emphasized the role accountability should play throughout all relationships amongst the team.
Back in early September, the head coach explained the difference between hard work and competitiveness.
Then in early October, Lawson stated her views on having a growth mindset.
Finally, throughout her two most recent press conferences, Lawson has outlined a few areas of emphasis that fall outside the lines of X’s and O’s. In order to build a successful team and program, Lawson believes that it starts with relationships. She began meeting individually with each and every player and workouts followed the same way. She wants to build up trust between her team and coaching staff. Versatility is also an area where Lawson will look to use going forward with members of the current roster as well as future recruits.
Last week, she spoke about patience and consistency, while presenting that the team will take care of the ball on offense and limit fouling and free points on defense.