July 17, 2020 

What Duke hiring Kara Lawson means, and what we can expect from her debut season

To find its next head coach, Duke took an unorthodox path, plucking a student of Pat Summitt away from the Boston Celtics

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(Image courtesy Duke Athletics)

— Kara Lawson needed a moment on Monday.

During a Zoom call with more than 70 people — ranging from curious media, to ecstatic Duke administrators, to her proud mother Kathleen — she got a bit choked up when a reporter asked about the relationships and bonds she had made in her year as an assistant coach with the Boston Celtics.

“You’re going to get me to start crying here on the Zoom,” Lawson said with a soft laugh. “It’s been an emotional three days. It’s been tough.”

She paused. Her eyes wandered. She searched for more words. She took a breath.

“I think it’s the relationships that make basketball special,” she said. “I’ve built a lot of deep relationships with these guys. Any coach that’s leaving a place and going to another place, knows that feeling. It’s hard to leave.”

It became clear, in that response and throughout the entire hour-plus-long introductory virtual press conference, that Lawson never holds anything back. Whether it’s chasing national championships at Tennessee, steering the now-defunct Sacramento Monarchs to a WNBA title, helping Team USA win in Beijing, broadcasting the game and educating viewers for ESPN, working with up-and-coming prospects on the USA’s 3-on-3 teams, or coaching the Celtics, Lawson was all-in. If you’ve seen her play, you already knew this.

And it’s apparent that she is going to bring that same energy, enthusiasm, fire and dedication to Durham as she attempts to restore prominence to a once-proud program in the Duke Blue Devils. Lawson, the first Black head coach in program history, inherits a side that hasn’t won an ACC title since 2013, before the conference’s current powers in Louisville and Notre Dame entered it.

Certainly, it was hard for Lawson to leave the Celtics, the team that took a chance on her and gave her a job in the NBA. But for her, Duke was one opportunity she simply could not pass up.

“This is a dream come true for me. I’ve wanted to be a coach since I was a kid. I took a circuitous route, but I’m here now,” the 39-year-old Lawson said. “When I look at Duke University and how special of a place it is… I can’t say I had it planned out. Most of the time I plan things out, they do not end up happening how you think.”

About a decade ago, this team was jockeying for position at Final Fours. The Blue Devils were squad that was a perennial contender for ACC championships. Fast forward to the present and it’s a program that needs repair — having inexcusably missed the NCAA tournament in two of the past five seasons — but the brand is still strong. The bones of the house are still good. It’s far from being the worst on the block, but there’s a few leaks and cracks. With hard work, it can be fixed. If it’s injected with some fresh ideas, it could live up to its potential. Its beauty could be restored.

Duke could have hired someone with a wealth of experience in college coaching, someone who had worked their way up from being a Division I assistant who has now had success as a head coach at a mid-major. They could’ve done what they did in 2007 and poached a coach from another Power 5 school. Duke could’ve made a hire that was obvious and simple, or they could’ve reached for nostalgia.

Instead, they zagged. They hired a savvy former point guard who studied under Pat Summitt, who worked in broadcasting, who spent a year in the NBA and who is immediately noticeable to recruits. To get the right candidate inside Cameron Indoor Stadium, Duke was willing to take an unorthodox path.

“It wasn’t lost on us who Kara Lawson is or has been. We know she has a brand. But I have to be very honest with you and say, that had very little to do with it,” Duke AD Kevin White said. “We wanted to hire the best leader that could take our program to the next level. This isn’t a press conference hire. Hopefully this is a very long-term relationship with Duke University. I think we looked at it pretty methodically. I’m absolutely convinced we got to the right place.”

Duke deputy athletic director Nina King added: “I think it was the sum total of all of Kara’s experiences.”

After accepting the job on Saturday, Lawson went to work right away from the NBA bubble in Orlando. By Monday’s virtual press conference and Tuesday morning’s carousel of local and national radio interviews, she had already been on the phone with current and former players, recruits, parents and AAU coaches.

One Duke recruit told The Next that Lawson is “an amazing hire.” One ACC assistant concurred, telling The Next that Lawson going to Duke was “unbelievable.”

Former Duke player Rebecca Greenwell agreed.

“I think Kara is a perfect fit. Her resume speaks for itself and is someone who will serve as a great role model and leader to student-athletes,” she told The Next. “She represents what the Duke brand is all about. I’m very excited for the ‘Kara Era’ and hope to see some banners hanging in Cameron soon.”

Indeed. It’s difficult to find someone who thought Duke swung-and-missed in finding the successor to Joanne P. McCallie. It seems like everyone — including Dawn Staley, Brad Stevens, David Cutcliffe, Jay Williams and Tamika Catchings — is rooting for her to succeed. Veteran broadcaster Debbie Antonelli thinks that Lawson could be coaching in a Final Four within five seasons.

“I think she’ll be a terrific college basketball coach. She’s got a great mind to the game. Obviously, the Celtics saw that when they hired her,” said Mike Thibault, who coached Lawson when she played for the Washington Mystics. “She was always thinking like a coach… I think she’ll be terrific at recruiting and she’s very smart. She’ll hire a good staff and I think that she’s going to have a great college coaching career.”

Lawson even received congratulations from McCallie, Gail Goestenkors and Lindsey Harding – the latter of which is a Duke alum who was a fellow finalist for the job. The search, led by King, lasted just 10 days. The search committee, bolstered by search firm Collegiate Sports Associates, evaluated about 20 candidates and narrowed it down to six. The Next previously reported that Harding and Rice head coach Tina Langley were also considered for the job.

King said that three Duke players — Jade Williams, Mikayla Boykin and Onome Akinbode James — participated in the process by talking to Lawson once Duke identified her as the top candidate. Lawson met with more of the Duke players via Zoom after accepting the job on Saturday.

With an NBA season to focus on this past year, Lawson didn’t watch much women’s college basketball. But shortly after accepting the job she filled the hard drive on her computer with tons of footage from the 2019-20 ACC season.

“We’re going to get down and dirty with the film, try and see exactly where we are,” Lawson said. “That’s one thing I love about film. As a player or as a coach, I used to watch the film right after the games when I played, get home and watch it, because it tells you where you are. You can think you’re somewhere else, you can think you’re somewhere above or below, but the film tells you where you are.”

Her next task will be filling out her bench with a staff full of one thing: “experience.”

“You want to put together a group that fits together, and that can extenuate each other’s strengths,” Lawson said. “That can cover each other’s blind spots, and when you do that as a team you have a really good chance to be successful if you build it the right way. I believe the same thing about a staff.”

And then, what will a Lawson-coached team look like? When coaching 3-on-3 basketball for Team USA, Lawson leaned on versatility and adaptability. She was willing to trash a playbook and try something completely different if it didn’t work for a certain group of players. She was open to modifying her schemes to fit her players’ strengths. That philosophy has helped her lead Team USA’s 3-on-3 teams to six gold medals since 2017.

“I’m not going to sit here and say we are going to play this way or that way,” Lawson said. “I think the ability to be adaptable and have players that are adaptable is vital. I am not going to make any statements of what we are going to do and who we are going to be but I am going to figure out what works for us and strive to master that.”

Duke’s mascot prances around during a Blue Devils’ home game vs. Pitt on Feb. 3, 2019. (Mitchell Northam / The Next)

Lawson has long wanted to be a head coach in women’s college basketball. Some two decades ago in Knoxville, a shy and introverted Lawson opened up to her coach – the late, great Pat Summitt – about some of her goals. Summitt told Lawson that, to be successful at anything in life, she needed to be an expert at communicating. As Lawson piloted four SEC Championship teams, Summitt encouraged Lawson to take communication courses and made it a point to bring her into as many postgame press conferences as she could, even if Lawson only scored two points.

After April and May came and went — the time of year that vacancies in college basketball are typically filled — Lawson figured she’d have to tuck her dream away for another year. This was fine by her. She relished her time in Boston and felt at home on Stevens’ staff with the Celtics.

But on July 2, she was standing in the locker room at the Celtics’ practice facility when her pocket buzzed. She pulled her phone out and was shocked to see McCallie had resigned. The moment stopped Lawson in her tracks. This job, at a school she had long admired and nearly attended, was open.

About a month earlier, Lawson was taking a walk with Brad Stevens and his wife Tracy. They talked about life and basketball and goals. Lawson told the Stevens’s then that she considered Duke, a school her mom wanted her to attend as an undergrad, to be one of her dream jobs.

“I knew if it ever came open, I would put my best foot forward and try to secure the position,” Lawson said. “That’s how highly I thought of the institution and the job. I certainly had no idea it would happen a year after I went to Boston, but when the right opportunity comes along, you must take it.”

Duke administrators may have not known that McCallie was going to resign with a year remaining on her contract in the middle of the summer and in the middle of a pandemic. But when the chance to hire a brilliant basketball mind like Kara Lawson comes along, you jump on it. No matter the circumstance.

Written by Mitchell Northam

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