Next Generation: Duke's Kara Lawson Part Of New Era Of Basketball Coaches

Nov 25, 2020

Duke women's basketball coach Kara Lawson, arrives on stage to speak to the crowd before Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign event at Riverside High School in Durham, N.C., Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020.
Credit Carolyn Kaster / AP

On Nov. 7, the Associated Press and several other news outlets called the 2020 U.S. presidential race for former Vice President Joe Biden. A countless number of his supporters flocked to social media to rejoice in his victory and to applaud him, but only a fraction of those folks were able to tweet a video clip of the President-elect quoting them.

Kara Lawson could do that.

"A great coach, Coach Lawson," Biden said on Oct. 18, at a drive-in campaign event at Durham's Riverside High School. "You said, 'Working hard is absolutely essential, but competing is even more consequential. You can work hard, but did you compete with everything you had?' Competing because you know what's at stake, what is at the heart of winning."

Biden grabbed that Lawson quote from a pre-practice speech she gave to the Duke Blue Devils' women's basketball team back in September. The video went viral and now has more than 2.6 million views.

Lawson had spoken before Biden at that event, endorsing him for president. She doubled down on her support for the Democratic ticket a few days later, appearing alongside Biden's running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, in Charlotte. When Biden and Harris were declared winners, Lawson tweeted out the video of Biden quoting her along with a short message: "Love the way you competed. Congratulations, Mr. President!"

It is uncommon for college basketball coaches to emphatically endorse a presidential candidate, much less speak at multiple campaign events on their behalf. Back in 2008, the University of North Carolina went out of its way to clarify that men's coach Roy Williams had not endorsed then-presidential candidate Barack Obama after he had played a pick-up game with the Tar Heels. In 2004 though — after they retired — former UNC coaches Dean Smith and Bill Guthridge campaigned for Democratic nominee John Kerry. Most active college coaches have steered clear of politics, treating it as a third rail.

But Kara Lawson is not like most basketball coaches. In less than five months at the helm of the Duke women's team, she's proven that — at the very least — she is much different than the generation that came before her. And on Wednesday at noon inside Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium, she'll make her head coaching debut when Duke takes on Longwood University.

Lawson represents a new era of leaders in women's college basketball through her identity, her path and her actions. She did not follow the typical route to taking the reins at Duke. She is not the ordinary choice an ACC team would make when considering a hire. And by appearing at rallies and campaign events — and standing up for and beside her new players — she has been emblematic of the ongoing civil rights and social justice movement in this country.

A diversity of experiences

"We talk about social justice issues all the time. In our one-on-one meetings, they're just a regular part of the fabric of the environment – being an African American woman coaching a team that is majority African American," Lawson said on a Zoom call in August. "It's my life. It's their life. It's something that we talk about because it pertains to us in a very real way."

Days after she said that to media members, Lawson spoke at a Black lives matter event on Duke's campus, emotionally vocalizing the fears, frustrations and anxiety she's had to deal with as a Black woman in America.

The players she had known for less than two months rushed to her side as she tried to find the right words. Senior point guard Mikayla Boykin put her arm around Lawson. In that moment, Lawson wasn't just a coach – she was a role model, a symbol and spokesperson for Black women, a group that has been historically marginalized and silenced far too often.

"There's great responsibility that comes with being the first Black basketball coach at Duke," Lawson told the ACC Network on Oct. 27. "And so, leading a team that is majority minority women, and being a minority woman myself, I understand what they go through, I understand what they are going to go through when they leave here, and it's my job as a leader of young women to equip them and to help build them into young people that are going to be able to be built to last to withstand whatever comes their way."

Now 39-years-old, Lawson began growing into the outspoken leader she is today about two decades ago, when she was playing basketball at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville for the late and legendary Pat Summitt. Lawson was a well-rounded and versatile guard who could score and pass as well as anyone in the country. A 5-foot-8 product of Alexandria, Virginia, she led the Lady Vols to four SEC titles and three Final Fours. She was a two-time All-American and is still top six all-time in program history in points, assists and three-pointers made.

"There's great responsibility that comes with being the first Black basketball coach at Duke." - Kara Lawson

Lawson went on to excel in the pros as a player, winning a WNBA championship with the now-defunct Sacramento Monarchs in 2005 and capturing an Olympic Gold Medal in 2008. Long before Lawson's playing days ended in 2015, she began prepping for the next phase of her career. On Jan. 12, 2007, she became the first woman to work as an analyst on a nationally-televised NBA game. She'd later call games for ESPN and NBC Sports Washington.

In 2017, Lawson was ready for a new challenge. She took on a role within USA Basketball and started coaching its 3-on-3 teams. She's steered them to six gold medals since. Last summer, Brad Stevens hired her as assistant coach onto his staff with the Boston Celtics, making her the first woman to be a coach for the team in its 73-year history. She didn't expect that job to last less than a year.

"The diversity of my experiences are my strength. This is a day and age that we are talking a lot about diversity. We are having a lot of needed conversations about diversity. If you really believe in it, you know that it creates great value in your organization. I think the same about experiences," Lawson said at her introductory Zoom press conference in July. "Understanding the game as a player from the college perspective, from the pro perspective, from the women's perspective, from the men's perspective, from a coaching perspective, from a media perspective – there are so many things that I've experienced."

And Lawson has been successful through all of those experiences.

Kara Lawson works with Duke players during her first practice as the school's head women's basketball coach on Oct. 14, 2020
Credit Duke Athletics

'This isn't a press conference hire'

When former Duke women's basketball coach Joanne P. McCallie resigned in the middle of the summer after 13 seasons on the job, Duke's administration had every option available to find her successor. Duke is one of the best-known brands in college athletics and its sports are played on a campus with top-notch facilities. Its women's basketball program has a history of success.

Duke could have tried to recapture its glory days by rehiring Gail Goestenkors, who led the Blue Devils to eight ACC titles and four Final Fours between 1998 and 2007. After stepping away from the sidelines for a bit, Goestenkors was ready to return to coaching and had some Duke alumni advocating for her, but the search committee quickly ruled her out. The Blue Devils could have hired one of its very successful former players, like Lindsey Harding, who now works for the NBA's Sacramento Kings. They could have plucked a winning coach from the mid-major ranks, like Rice's Tina Langley. Or they could've opened their checkbook to lure a big name away from another Power 5 job – like Texas did in the spring, pulling Vic Schaefer away from Mississippi State.

Instead, Duke zagged. They hired someone with zero head coaching experience at the Division I level, but a person who is regarded by many as having one of the brightest minds in basketball. Lawson has seen the game from the court as a WNBA player, from the bench as a Boston Celtics assistant and from the broadcast booth as a television analyst.

"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 Athletic Director 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."

Lawson is Duke's first Black basketball head coach ever, and she is just the second Black woman to be the head coach of a basketball team at an ACC school in North Carolina, following Charlene Curtis, who was the head coach of the Wake Forest women from 1997 to 2004.

Overall, Lawson was one of 31 women hired as a head coach in Division I women's college basketball this season for 36 vacancies. She's part of a growing trend of athletic directors hiring more women. In 2019, 32 women were hired to just 10 men.

Lawson is one of three Black women who will be head coaches in the ACC this season for women's basketball. She joins Tina Thompson at Virginia and Niele Ivey at Notre Dame. Ivey was also hired this offseason, pried away from the Memphis Grizzlies to succeed Muffet McGraw, a two-time national champion. Lawson and Ivey knew each other and shared a bond as being women coaching in the NBA. When Duke hired Lawson, one of the first texts she received was from Ivey.

The two will coach against each other for the first time in South Bend, Indiana on Jan. 31.

"We have a great, really good relationship. And I think that it's going to be definitely a new era of women's basketball," Ivey said. "We always talk about the new era here, at Notre Dame, but I think just new energy, young coaches… there's more African American head coaches. And I think that's incredible."

Winning time

Duke didn't just hire Lawson for what she represents or for her viral motivational speeches though. They hired her because they believe she can win – often and big. The Blue Devils haven't been to a Final Four since 2006 and haven't won the ACC since 2013.

To accomplish Duke's on-court goals, Lawson surrounded herself with an experienced coaching staff. Beth Cunningham was McGraw's top assistant for several seasons at Notre Dame, Tia Jackson has long been lauded as a top recruiter — and previously coached at Duke under Goestenkors — and Winston Gandy has coached in college and the pros. Lawson has already landed one of the top recruits for the 2022 class in Shay Bollin, who chose the Blue Devils over nearly 40 other scholarship offers.

"I'm really excited to be coached by her." - Miela Goodchild

In Lawson's first season as Duke's head coach, she'll be tasked with proving her peers and the media wrong. In the ACC's preseason poll, the Blue Devils were picked to finish 11th in the conference by head coaches and 10th by the media. They received just a single vote in the preseason AP Top 25 Poll.

After having their postseason hopes ended last season by the coronavirus, Lawson's players are ready for a fresh start and they're looking forward to being led by her on the hardwood.

"She's an absolute GOAT," Duke junior Miela Goodchild said of Lawson, using an acronym for Greatest Of All Time. "I'm really excited to be coached by her. You learn something new from her every single day. She's achieved what a lot of us want to achieve – playing in the WNBA, coaching at the highest levels… We're ready to put our hard work into games."

The speech that Lawson gave about the difference between working hard and competing was meaningful to Joe Biden, whose granddaughter attends the same high school Lawson did. Now, Lawson needs that message to resonate with the Blue Devils too as she attempts to build an inclusive and welcoming environment at Duke that encourages players to do both.

"Your culture is really what you do every day, right? It's who you are. And we're a relationship culture," Lawson said. "We want our players to feel comfortable. We want our players to know that they're cared for, know that we support them."

Duke's hope is that Lawson's culture will translate into winning for the Blue Devils.