For the first time in Duke basketball history, a Black head coach led the Blue Devil sideline.
Duke began the “Kara era” with a 94-64 win against Longwood in Cameron Indoor Stadium Wednesday afternoon, anchored by breakout performances from freshman point guard Vanessa de Jesus and sophomore wing Jaida Patrick.
After one of the most momentous offseasons in program history, the Blue Devils looked invigorated, eager and spry despite the fact that they were playing another team for the first time since March.
Having Lawson at the helm, someone many players in a majority-minority sport can directly look up to, is undoubtedly a key in that.
“[Lawson] has been someone that you can look up to, as far as being a Black woman, because she's so powerful,” senior point guard Mikayla Boykin told The Chronicle last week. “She always has a lot of knowledge. I can relate to her on a different level, because we have some of the same experiences—or might not be the exact same, but we can relate to each other.
"So if I have any problems, I can go to her knowing that she'll know what I'm talking about, because she can relate to it. And I find that's the biggest thing, having her being one of the first Black coaches in Duke women's basketball is big time…. I know my team is majority Black, so just her being able to be there and have her constant support, as a Black woman, helps me a lot too.”
Lawson’s speeches in practice, many of which were posted on the @DukeWBB Twitter account, had already made it clear what a great basketball coach she is. But her first real public moment at Duke was the Black Lives Matter protest Aug. 27, when she spoke on the anxiety of being a Black American. In a moving scene, Boykin came up to and put her arm around Lawson as the first-year head coach became choked up, and the rest of the team followed.
Despite Black players making up 45 percent of Division I women’s basketball players in the 2018-19 campaign (the latest data the NCAA has), just 17 percent of DI head coaches were Black women. In the WNBA, Black women have coached just 14 percent of all team seasons in league history, despite currently making up 67 percent of the league’s players.
But the discrepancy is starting to improve. Niele Ivey and Nikki McCray-Penson, currently the head coaches at Notre Dame and Mississippi State, respectively, joined Lawson this past summer as former Black WNBA players taking over their own college programs.
“[Lawson]'s helped me a lot, grow[ing] as a point guard and as a person off the floor as well,” Boykin said. “I feel like we have a relationship where we can have these tough conversations off the court, and then go on the court and it makes us even closer.... I feel like that connection, it's like a string: you have that connection off the court, you have an even closer connection on the court.
"And that's one of the brightest things about having Coach Lawson as our coach—she can have these deep conversations off the court, then come back and we're in ‘go mode.'"
Those connections are surely a big part of why the team came out and played so unified despite having just a month of team practice and no inter-team scrimmages during the preseason. They're also how Lawson can build the kind of team she wants: one that’s tight-knit on and off the hardwood.
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None of the significance of Lawson's place in the greater history seemed to be weighing on her mind Wednesday, though, even if she did have to stop and take in the significance of the win in her own life.
“I had to put down my phone [before the game]—just the support from my family, my friends, other coaches: NBA coaches, men's college coaches, women's college coaches, everybody in the coaching community that really understands what this is like to prepare a team and prepare for your first game,” Lawson said in the postgame press conference. “Every coach in the country has had a first game, right?
"Just the support of our community here at Duke, and of the people that I'm close with, and my players as well, means a lot too. I told the players in the locker room after the game, ‘I'll always remember this game. No matter how long I live, you're always gonna remember your first game,’ and just thanked them for that great memory.”