Kara Lawson's first game as Duke women's basketball coach will be her first game as a coach in any capacity at the college level. That is a feature rather than a bug, according to the new coach and the administrators who hired her at one of college basketball's flagship programs.
"The diversity of my experiences are my strength," Lawson said Monday.
Announced as the fifth coach in program history following Joanne P. McCallie's surprise resignation on July 2, Lawson spoke to the media for the first time Monday from Orlando, Florida, where she is inside the NBA's bubble as a soon-to-be former assistant coach with the Boston Celtics. Her last day is Tuesday.
Lawson was joined on the call by Duke athletic director Kevin White and senior deputy athletic director Nina King.
Although Lawson has no college coaching experience, she has no lack of basketball credentials. In addition to a 13-year professional playing career in which she won a WNBA title and an Olympic gold medal with Team USA, she worked extensively as a broadcaster, head coach of USA Basketball's 3-on-3 youth national teams and most recently as an assistant with the Celtics for the past season.
All of that after Lawson was an All-American under legendary Tennessee coach Pat Summitt. Lawson said it was her desire to learn about coaching from Summitt that helped her choose to attend Tennessee instead of Duke, her mom's preference.
"Kara is a highly seasoned champion at every level, where she has a peerless track record of success," White said. "If you don't know that at this point, then you're living under a rock. It's very clear if you're paying attention."
She is the second former WNBA player with no college coaching experienced hired in the past two years by a program that has been to the Final Four, joining University of Minnesota coach and fellow Olympic gold medalist Lindsay Whalen.
King said Duke employed the same search firm responsible for six other active head coaches at the school. A list of what she described as "more than 20 serious candidates" was pared to six candidates who were interviewed and two finalists who had additional interviews.
"She's spent thousands of hours at practices and talking to coaches and around student-athletes during her time as a broadcaster," King said of Lawson. "And then again during her time as USA Basketball 3-on-3 coach, she's been with the college student-athlete. So she's not coming into the college scene from scratch. It's just a different and unique experience. So I think in kind of looking at the total package, Kara had it all for us."
The first Black head coach in Duke women's basketball history, Lawson said she was pleased to be one of a growing number of women of color hired by prominent programs. That list includes Notre Dame's Niele Ivey and Mississippi State's Nikki McCray-Penson, both hired this year. Lawson drew a parallel between increasing diversity in that regard and her experiences.
"We're having a lot of needed conversations about diversity," Lawson said. "If you really believe in it you know that it creates great value for your organization. I think the same about experiences. I think 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 the coaching perspective, from the media perspective, there's so many things that I've experienced. So I think I'll bring all of that to the position.
"I think that's what made me a unique candidate for this position."
At times emotional as she described the bonds she formed with members of the Celtics organization, including Duke product Jayson Tatum and first-year director of player development and personal growth Allison Feaster, Lawson said she leaned heavily on Celtics coach Brad Stevens and his wife both during this process and generally in developing her career goals.
The Celtics posted a tribute to her on Instagram on Monday night.
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It's been an emotional few days for me. And, while I couldn't be more excited for the opportunity in front of me at Duke University, I would be remiss if I didn't talk about the team I'm leaving behind. These men have changed my life. I have loved my time with the Boston Celtics. Our players are authentic, intelligent, creative and passionate men. They motivated me every day to be my best for them. They surprised me last night by all wearing @DukeWBB T-shirts for an incredible show of support before I head to Durham. I cried. They would probably laugh and tell you I've cried a lot these last few days but I will tell you having relationships with players that move you to those kinds of emotions is the most meaningful pursuit one can have as a coach. I love them and I will miss them.
She said she in no way expected her stay in the NBA to last only one year.
"I confided in Brad a lot during this process," Lawson said. "Obviously he's somebody with a tremendous amount of experience. Fielded a lot of offers when he was at Butler, in terms of opportunities, whether it was other colleges, whether it was the NBA. Brad and his wife, Tracy, were vital for me during this process, just to be able to bounce ideas off of them because they had been through it."
Lawson said she expects to have her players on campus soon. Duke recently announced it planned to begin its fall classes on Aug. 17, with a mix of in-person and online instruction. There will be no fall break, with exams ending before Thanksgiving.
At least in that regard, the newest coach in women's college basketball has as much experience as any of her colleagues in navigating the start of a season during a pandemic.
"I wanted to be a coach since I was a kid," Lawson said Monday. "I guess you would say I took kind of a circuitous route to get there, but I'm here now."