In 2019, six women were hired as NBA assistant coaches, doubling the total number of women to ever coach in the league’s history. Now-Duke womens’ basketball head coach Kara Lawson was one of those women when she was hired as the first female to ever coach for the Boston Celtics in June 2019.
Despite the lack of precedence regarding female coaches in the NBA, Lawson had as impressive of a resume as they come, and the Celtics would have been hard-pressed to find a candidate more qualified for the job.
That resume is made up of a wide variety of experiences, from the WNBA Finals to the NBA broadcast booth. But it all began during Lawson's four years playing at Tennessee under the legendary Pat Summitt, the winningest coach in college basketball history at the time of her retirement.
“She was a life-changer for me,” Lawson said in an ESPN interview following Summitt’s passing in 2016. “That’s how I learned the game. That’s how I’m able to do the job I do—because of [her] lessons.”
‘She’s an A+ person’
It was those lessons that Lawson carried throughout the rest of her decorated career. After graduating from Tennessee in 2003, Lawson was selected fifth overall in the WNBA Draft. Throughout a 13-year WNBA career that ended in 2015, she won a championship with the Sacramento Monarchs in 2005 and was an All-Star in 2007, among other accomplishments. In 2008, Lawson was selected for the U.S. Olympic Team that won the gold medal, leading the team in scoring in the championship game with 15 points.
Lawson’s basketball impact didn’t just come on the court, however.
While playing for the Monarchs, Lawson got her start in sports broadcasting as a studio analyst for the Sacramento Kings. Eventually, she worked her way up through the ranks and became one of the first female primary television analysts for an NBA team when she took the position with the Washington Wizards.
So when the Celtics found themselves in need of an assistant coach, her resume was hard to ignore.
“Everything I had heard about her was just A+,” Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said following her hiring. “And she’s an A+ person—she’s super smart…. Obviously I was excited to get on the phone with her, and excited to talk about coaching.”
Lawson formed close relationships with many of the team’s players throughout her short tenure in Boston, especially the guards, as she was a point guard throughout her own playing career. For example, Celtics rookie point guard and former Purdue star Carson Edwards had a rocky start getting into the league, and could often be seen working with Lawson during and after practice.
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Having played at every level of the game—college, professional, Olympic —Lawson understands the players on a deeper level.
“I’ve been a rookie where I didn’t play a lot,” Lawson said in a press conference after her first Celtics practice last summer. “I’ve been a point guard where I started every game and we made it to the conference finals, and I’ve been a sixth man, more years than I wanted to be…. Most of the things that they experience, emotionally, most of them, I’ve experienced, too.”
Lawson also worked closely with Marcus Smart. The veteran guard said when Lawson first joined the Celtics, Stevens let her pick who she wanted to work with first, and she chose none other than Boston’s defensive-minded guard.
“She became more than just my shooting coach—she became a longtime friend and somebody I know I can talk to if I ever need advice,” Smart said after it was announced that Lawson would be leaving the Celtics for Duke.
It wasn’t just players that Lawson formed bonds with. As two of the few women working for the Celtics, Lawson and Director of Player Development Allison Feaster worked together as they broke barriers and showed the valuable contributions women can make in the NBA.
Perhaps most importantly, though, was the bond Lawson formed with Stevens. Beyond just colleagues, Stevens became a trusted friend.
“He's still a great mentor for me—I talk to him weekly,” Lawson said in a press conference this past summer.
Stevens has also been singing her praises for the past year.
“I think the world of Kara. She’s a special coach,” he said during a presser on International Women’s Day.
A dream fulfilled
A few months into the 2019 NBA season, Lawson confided in Stevens and his wife Tracy while on a walk that her dream was to coach for a Division I team, and she listed schools that could lure her away from the Celtics, Duke being one.
While her presence will surely be missed in Boston, the team is nothing but excited that she has the opportunity to follow that dream. To show support, they even surprised her by all wearing Duke women’s basketball T-shirts for a photo, with former Blue Devil men’s basketball star Jayson Tatum standing front and center with Lawson.
Now, as Lawson takes the next step in her accomplished career, she will look to use all those lessons from her vast background.
“I've learned from all the coaches that I've been able to not just play for and not just work with, but that I was able to sit in their practices,” Lawson said. “And when I was broadcasting for ESPN, I learned from coaches all across the country. I think there's something you can take from everybody.”
Editor's note: This article is one of many in The Chronicle's women's basketball season preview. Find the rest here.