Former basketball great and longtime TV analyst Kara Lawson was introduced as Duke’s new head women’s basketball coach Monday, achieving a lifelong goal.
“This is a dream come true for me,” Lawson said. “I’ve wanted to be a coach since I was a kid. I took a circuitous route, but I’m here now. I’m so excited about the opportunity to shape young women, grow their games and their personalities through their collegiate career.”
Lawson, 39, has coached USA Basketball’s 3X3 teams, but is a first-time head coach with the Blue Devils. Athletic Department officials said they were impressed with her broad range of experience, her knowledge of the sport, and her character.
Nina King, Duke’s senior deputy director of athletics, said she evaluated 20 candidates for the position, interviewed six and had two finalists.
“We were looking for a contemporary leader,” King said.
Athletic director Kevin White called Lawson genuine, and said her vision for the Blue Devil program matched the school’s.
“Kara is very authentic, which really jumped out at me and has jumped out at me at the time I’ve known Kara,” he said. “She’s extraordinarily comfortable in her own skin, which is one of the truly great leadership characteristics, and Kara has that in abundance. She possesses a contemporary vision for women’s collegiate basketball and notwithstanding for college athletics, generally.”
After playing for Hall of Fame coach Pat Summitt at Tennessee from 1999-2003, Lawson began a 14-year broadcasting career in which she became one of ESPN’s top college women’s basketball analysts. During this time she played in the WNBA, where she won a Championship in 2005.
In 2017 she became the primary analyst for the Washington Wizards, and last year she left to become an assistant coach for the NBA’s Boston Celtics. Lawson said the Duke job was the right coaching opportunity at the perfect time.
“I knew I wanted to coach, but a lot of this is timing and being in the right situation to learn and grow,” she said. “I knew it would happen later, because I was playing for 13 years in the WNBA and didn’t want to coach at that time. I didn’t become focused on coaching until I finished my playing career.”
“The summer of 2016 was my first summer I didn’t play in the WNBA, and I began giving some real thought to what I wanted to do post career. I started trying things, and that’s how I got involved in USA Basketball, and I fell in love with it. I wanted to continue to be around the game and find places I could coach.”
Lawson said she learned a significant lesson in coaching on the world stage. In coaching a 3X3 team for the Youth Olympic Games in 2018, she led them to a gold medal win. The next year, in World Cup play, Lawson had a new set of players. She began to implement some of the same schemes as she had with the previous team, but found that “it was not a fit.”
“I remember going home after the second night of practice and ripping up the play book saying, this is not going to work,” Lawson said. “We had to find something that worked for them and aligned with their skill sets. We changed.”
She said being open to change and implementing basics will be cornerstones in her program.
“I think [Dr.] Kevin [White] brought up a good word … adaptability,” Lawson said. “I’m not going to sit here and say we are going to play this way or that way. 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. If you keep it simple in terms of your goals that gives you a chance to really achieve them.”
Lawson said observing and talking to so many coaches and programs during her broadcasting career taught her many things.
“I think the main thing I learned is that there a lot of ways to be successful,” she said. “Not every coach practices the same way….they find what works for them and what works for their players, and then they hold all the people in their program to a standard.”
Coming to Duke is a bit of an irony for Lawson, as her mother wanted her to play there. But playing for Summitt proved to be the best training ground.
“What would Coach Summitt say to me? Oh man … I think she would be really excited,” Lawson said. “She obviously knew it was a goal of mine to become a coach. That was why I went to play for her because I wanted to learn from the best. That was what led me to Knoxville.”
“I could not have had a better experience playing for her, learning from her and I think she would be pretty excited.”
Lawson said she has received an outpouring of support via phone calls, including many from Blue Devil basketball alumni. Former Duke standout Alana Beard posted a video saying she was excited about the future of the program.
Since being named to the position Lawson has spoken to her players, and said everyone is “excited.” She is in the process of closing out her job with the Celtics, and plans to be on campus when students start classes Aug. 17.
In constructing her program, Lawson will take a people-first approach.
“I think my philosophy would be relationships, and building relationships,” she said. “I think that’s important. If you want to be able to push players to achieve, to push them to be great, I think you have to build a strong foundation with your relationship with them. So I would say philosophically, a relationship-based program.”