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Kara Lawson took many detours on trailblazing road to becoming Duke women’s basketball coach

Alexandria native Kara Lawson, the 1999 Washington Post All-Met Player of the Year who served as an assistant with the Boston Celtics this season, was named Duke's women's basketball coach in July, becoming the first African American in that capacity in school history. (Charles Krupa/AP)

DURHAM, N.C. — Like many children who took to basketball at an early age, Kara Lawson aspired to make a professional career out of the sport. The difference between the Northern Virginia native and many other youthful dreamers was Lawson’s inclination toward coaching, not just playing.

That’s how Lawson’s former high school coach at West Springfield, where the Spartans went undefeated in her final two seasons on the way to consecutive state championships, tells it when recounting a conversation they had her junior year.

It began with Lawson showing up at Bill Gibson’s office, as his point guard had on many occasions since arriving at the school one year previous. During this visit, they discussed, among other topics, Lawson’s plans not only several years down the road but also where she envisioned herself perhaps over the ensuing decades.

“She goes, ‘Well, I want to become a coach,’ ” Gibson said. “And I said, ‘Well, a high school coach isn’t that.’ And she goes, ‘No, I don’t want to be a high school coach.’ ‘Oh, you want to be a college coach?’ ‘No, I don’t want to be a college coach. I want to be an NBA coach.’

“I said, ‘Damn, if you need an assistant, call me.’ ”

The two did speak recently, but Lawson wasn’t offering Gibson a job — at least not yet. Gibson instead wanted to congratulate his prized pupil on becoming the Duke women’s basketball coach, with a mandate to invigorate one of the sport’s iconic brands that had fallen into relative disrepair.

From 1998 to 2013, the Blue Devils reached the NCAA tournament regional finals 11 times and appeared in four Final Fours, twice losing in the national championship game. Since 2014, Duke has not advanced beyond the round of 16, and it missed the NCAA tournament in two of the past four seasons.

Former coach Joanne P. McCallie resigned early last month with a year left on her contract, and 10 days later, Duke made it official by announcing the 1999 Washington Post All-Met Player of the Year as the fifth coach in program history, Lawson’s first college job.

“Anything she does, she does her homework,” Gibson said. “She studies the game. She really analyzes it. She’s a student of the game, and she’s always been like that. That was part of what made her above everybody else. She understood what was going on in the game, what was being done and how to react.”

Countless hours absorbing the minutiae of the sport also led to a career in broadcasting, which served as a springboard to her first professional coaching stint when the Boston Celtics’ Brad Stevens hired Lawson, now 39, to join his staff as an assistant last year.

But before securing a reputation as one of the most respected analysts on television, Lawson had to learn how to become a master communicator. For that life skill, she leaned on Pat Summitt, who had won a recruiting battle to bring Lawson to Tennessee. Stanford and, coincidentally, Duke were in the mix down to the wire.

‘One of the smartest players’

Lawson arrived in Knoxville, Tenn., in the summer of 1999 with a decorated high school résumé, a preference for passing rather than scoring and a command of the sport’s finer points belying her first year at a program that was the gold standard in women’s basketball.

Yet to claim true ownership of playing point guard for the Lady Vols, Lawson had to be able to impart her wisdom throughout the locker room by speaking in front of her teammates in a clear, decisive and, at times, inspirational manner. The process was fraught with obstacles.

Summitt, the winningest coach in Division I history when she retired in 2012, would have Lawson talk to the team about random topics, placing the finance major in uncomfortable situations as the freshman starter continued to grow into the responsibilities as the primary decision-maker on the court.

Lawson, at the urging of Summitt, enrolled in a public speaking class. The nerve-inducing experience has served Lawson immeasurably in the years since, transforming the self-described introvert into an authoritative voice from the bench or on camera.

“Pat, one of her superpowers was honing in on your weaknesses as a person early on as a young woman and working with you to grow those areas,” said Lawson, who is a member of the school’s board of trustees. “I’ll never forget one of the first things she told me was, ‘Kara, you’re one of the smartest players I’ve ever had.’

“She said: ‘You’re one of the hardest-working players I’ve ever had, but your ceiling is always going to be lower if you don’t learn how to communicate. So you can be hard-working and you can be intelligent, but if you can’t communicate with people, you’re not going to be able to reach those higher levels of leadership.’ ”

So proficient did Lawson become at public speaking that, after directing Tennessee to four SEC championships, three Final Fours and two berths in the national championship game, she joined ESPN in 2004 as an analyst for the NCAA women’s basketball tournament.

While also playing in the WNBA — Lawson was selected fifth in the 2003 draft — she became an NBA courtside reporter in 2006 and an analyst for men’s college basketball in 2010, both with ESPN. During that time, she won a gold medal with the U.S. women’s national team at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

Two years after retiring from the WNBA, including her final two seasons with the Washington Mystics in 2014 and 2015, Lawson joined NBC Sports Washington, then known as CSN Mid-Atlantic, as the primary analyst for Washington Wizards broadcasts. She was the first woman to serve in that capacity in franchise history.

Working in her home market suited Lawson professionally and personally, given her devotion to the Alexandria neighborhood where as a child she played basketball at the local park. She’s simply Kara when she comes back to visit, regardless of what high-profile position she may be holding.

“Last night one of my neighbors is helping my mom edging her lawn,” Lawson said. “That’s the kind of neighborhood I grew up in. It’s just great support. I’m at peace the most when I’m at home in my neighborhood in Alexandria because you can be yourself. I can go outside in my pajamas and get the paper, and I’m not worried about anything.”

'I didn’t think it would be this soon’

Lawson didn’t remain in the D.C. area for long when the opportunity arose to work with Stevens, who’s considered one of the more innovative young coaches in the NBA. As part of her agreement, Lawson requested Stevens delegate the exact same responsibilities to her as to his other bench assistants.

He didn’t hesitate, confident Lawson was more than capable, given her wealth of strategic knowledge as a former player and TV analyst. She also had gained coaching experience with USA Basketball’s three-on-three teams at FIBA competitions and in advance of the Tokyo Olympics postponed this year because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“I observed. I took notes,” Lawson said of Stevens. “I asked questions, had conversations with him, knowing that at some point — I didn’t think it would be this soon — I would lead a team. You don’t know where it’s going to be. You don’t know what level it’s going to be. But you want to prepare yourself, so when it does happen, you’re ready.”

She also had the benefit of playing for the winningest coach in WNBA history, Mike Thibault, first with the Connecticut Sun and then with the Mystics.

Lawson doubled as a player-coach in many regards with the Mystics, learning game management and player evaluation techniques from Thibault. He also provided insight into the daily routine in the NBA after serving as an assistant with the Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls, among other franchises.

One of Lawson’s lasting contributions during her time in the District was mentoring Natasha Cloud, a second-round draft pick in 2015. Her extensive work with Cloud, who has emerged as one of the top two-way guards in the WNBA, underscored Lawson’s coaching acumen.

“It was funny: I talked to Natasha one time about a year after Kara had been done playing, and she said, ‘Boy, I miss those day-to-day conversations,’ ” Thibault said. “You don’t really know if they’re that important at the time you’re hearing them. But now when you’re the one running the point, those things start to come back to you.”

Lawson was with the Celtics in the NBA’s Florida bubble last month when Duke announced she would be the school’s next women’s basketball coach.

In her brief time with the Celtics, Lawson made such an impact that players and staff celebrated the moment by donning gray T-shirts with “Duke” across the front and posing with her for a picture she posted to social media.

There were more than a few tears before Lawson, the first African American female bench assistant in Celtics history, bid farewell to her former team and embarked on the 600-plus-mile drive north to begin another job in which she would be a pioneer.

A first at Duke

Lawson typically had talked around inquiries as to her place in wrecking stereotypes, reasoning that at practically each of her professional stops outside of playing in the WNBA, she was the first woman, the first African American or both.

Then the month before Lawson accepted the Duke job, protests across the country escalated following the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other unarmed African Americans.

She answers questions about race with more clarity of thought in the aftermath, especially given North Carolina’s history of bigotry, including white supremacist violence and, more recently, three since-fired White police officers in Wilmington, N.C., advocating the killing of Black people.

Lawson is the first African American basketball coach in Duke history and one of three Black head coaches across the school’s 27 varsity sports.

During Lawson’s introductory news conference, Nina King, Duke’s deputy director of athletics, referenced her own role as a woman of color leading the search, emphasizing the benefits of diversity, particularly with African Americans making up the majority of the women’s basketball roster.

The gravity of Lawson’s hire even has compelled North Carolina supporters, she said, to wish her success when they see her out and about.

“It’s different now in the time that we’re in, in our country, and understanding how powerful representation is,” Lawson said. “People seeing an African American woman running a program, and not just any program — Duke, right? That’s powerful.

“I will say I embrace that more than ever now because I understand the value and the inspiration it gives, not just to minority women but all women. People have reached out to me, and it’s been overwhelming at times but really positive.”

This story previously stated that Kara Lawson was the first African American female bench assistant in the NBA. Lawson was the first African American female bench assistant with the Boston Celtics.

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