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Can Kara Lawson Build Duke’s Next Basketball Powerhouse?

The former WNBA All-Star left an assistant coaching gig with the Boston Celtics for the chance to run the Duke women’s basketball program. Four seasons in, Lawson is working to establish the kind of sustainable greatness that Coach K cultivated on the men’s side. “If you build it right,” she says, “you’ll never build again.”

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There’s an urgency about Kara Lawson. You can hear it in the way she speaks, you can see it in the way she moves. Her eyes expand, her shoulders stiffen. When the Duke women’s basketball coach leans forward, you feel the power of her undivided attention. Each word has weight, a hidden parable.

“There’s three things that can never drop,” Lawson says, “and that’s your work ethic and your focus and your discipline. Those have to stay high.” Her cadence begins to quicken. “There’s different things that will ebb and flow,” she continues. Emotions. Fatigue. Luck. But work ethic, focus, and discipline? “Those things we have to fight to keep high.”

She’s explaining one of her team’s mantras for the season. It’s a Saturday afternoon in late November, and she’s sitting on the couch in her hotel room in Palo Alto, California, preparing for a matchup against Stanford the following day. She wears a bright orange Nike “The Sisterhood” sweatsuit, the color of her alma mater, Tennessee. Lawson was just as fiery when she starred as the Lady Vols’ floor general from 1999 to 2003 and led the team to four straight SEC championships and three NCAA Final Fours. All guts and passion, she’d knock down dagger 3s and, at 5-foot-9, fearlessly drive into the paint, where she’d often flash Kobe Bryant underbite after improbable and-1 finishes through contact.

Lawson, the daughter of a Vietnam War veteran, learned discipline from a young age. She can’t stomach giving anything less than her best and has always had an uncanny drive. At 3 years old, inspired by Evelyn Ashford, Lawson declared she would become the fastest woman in the world. She played tackle football with boys. By college, she was so obsessed with watching hoops that her Lady Vol teammates nicknamed her “DaDaDa,” a nod to SportsCenter’s iconic theme song.

Lawson has achieved nearly everything there is to achieve in basketball. During her 13-year WNBA career, she helped the Sacramento Monarchs to a WNBA championship in 2005, made the All-Star team in 2007, and won a gold medal at the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing. After retiring in 2015, she continued to work as a TV broadcaster and analyst for NBA and college basketball games before moving into coaching with USA Basketball women’s 3-on-3 team, which competed in FIBA competitions. She was then hired as an assistant coach for the Boston Celtics in 2019-20, becoming the first woman to hold that position since the franchise started in 1946.

For her next chapter, she’s striving to return a struggling college program back to prominence. Duke made the Final Four in 1999, ’02, ’03, and ’06 and punched their tickets to four consecutive Elite Eights, from 2010 to 2013. But when Lawson took over in 2020, the program had been languishing. Duke had failed to finish in the top three in the ACC in four of its last seven regular seasons. It had not advanced beyond the Sweet 16 since 2013. And it missed the big dance entirely in 2016 and 2019.

Lawson has been steadily rebuilding. In her first season, Duke opted out of playing on account of the COVID-19 pandemic. In her second, the Blue Devils finished 17-13. Last season, she led Duke to its best season in recent history: 26-7 overall and 14-4 in the ACC, the most conference victories since 2012-13, plus a second-round NCAA tournament appearance.

Now, back in her hotel room, the fourth-year coach is preparing for her team’s biggest challenge of this season. Stanford is ranked no. 6 in the country, and they’ll host the unranked Blue Devils in a nationally televised game. Seven of Lawson’s 10 rotation players are freshmen and sophomores. They’ve never played in that kind of fishbowl against a team of that caliber. Lawson is eager to see how Duke measures up.

It’s getting dark outside, but Lawson hasn’t eaten since breakfast. There is too much film to dissect. And she is so locked in—talking about the difference between working hard and competing, between maturing and aging—that she doesn’t realize, or doesn’t care, that afternoon has blended into dusk and it’s getting hard to see. As another hour passes and dusk yields to darkness, she still has more to say.

Lawson didn’t sit the entire Stanford game; she never does, except during TV timeouts. She tends to be relatively restrained on the sidelines, usually crossing her arms or tucking her hands into her pockets as she scans the court. She remembers the no. 1 rule of being a point guard—and it applies to coaching, too: never look rattled, or your troops will be rattled. Her players matched her steady demeanor—even as they found themselves down early to Stanford, at one point trailing by 17.

Veteran Cardinal All-American Cameron Brink and Kiki Iriafen dominated the Blue Devils inside. Duke, meanwhile, showed every bit of its youth, committing fouls and turning the ball over. But Lawson’s calm eventually settled into her players. They clawed their way back with hard-nosed defense, also a mark of Lawson’s influence. “They were extremely physical, and [Lawson] was a physical player,” says Tara VanDerveer, currently in her 38th season at the helm at Stanford. Sophomore Duke guard Ashlon Jackson drained a career-high six 3-pointers, and a trio of freshmen—Delaney Thomas, Oluchi Okananwa, and Jadyn Donovan—made key play after key play down the stretch. “We knew that in order to make a name for ourselves—in order to show people who we actually are—we had to fight,” says Jackson.

What was expected to be a Stanford cakewalk turned into a bucket-for-bucket overtime duel. Duke made up for its lack of height with heart and physicality, so much so that VanDerveer would later call the game a “heavyweight fight.” Maples Pavilion was stunned as Duke looked prepared to pull off its comeback win.

But Stanford was too poised, and too experienced, as the clock dwindled. Duke lost in overtime, 82-79. The gut-wrenching defeat felt like a microcosm of where Duke stands: close but not quite there. When Lawson walked up to the postgame podium, she took a beat. Disappointment lingered, but there was deep pride in her voice. “We battled and battled and battled,” she said. “Just really proud of my group.

“We got to learn how to compete in these environments,” she said, “and now we have to learn to win in these environments. And that is a big difference.”

But as she and her team head back to Durham on a red-eye, Lawson is reflective. As badly as she wants to close out those kinds of hard-fought contests, it was exactly the kind of game she had in mind when she made the difficult decision to leave the Celtics. “I took this job because I felt like I could inspire and motivate the next generation of female leaders,” she says. “And there’s never been a greater time in the world for female leadership. Everywhere, every sector, every part of life, we need more female leaders.”

At Duke, Lawson has a greater responsibility than she ever did as a player, broadcaster, or coach: to run an entire program. In the college ranks, that means preparing her players not just for tough matchups against Stanford but also for their lives at Duke and beyond. “I have a majority-minority team,” says Lawson, who is the first Black head coach in program history.

“I’m a minority woman. I’ve walked their path,” she says. “I know what it’s like. I’ve faced those challenges, overcome those obstacles, struggled with those obstacles. … They’re going to be appreciated less, paid less, promoted less, given less second chances, if any second chances at all. That’s the facts.”

Part of Lawson’s job, as she sees it, is helping her players grow without becoming weary of their pursuit. Each day, Lawson feels an invisible clock hovering over her shoulder, reminding her she has only four years to give her players everything she has. “I have to help prepare them … so when they leave, they can change the world,” she says. “And that’s not pie in the sky. That’s not giving in to hyperbole. That is real.”

There are more immediate challenges, though. Duke, now 5-2, will face no. 1–ranked South Carolina at home on Sunday on ABC. It’s another chance to dethrone the best of the best. To take another leap forward in the sometimes daunting challenge of turning Duke around.

But Lawson appreciates this moment. She finds meaning in being en route, beauty in the almosts and the not-yets, glimmers of goodness on the way to greatness.

“We’re building something special here,” she says. “And whenever you’re building, you have to take moments where you sit back and appreciate where you are. Because if you build it right—and that’s a big if, we’ve got to build it right—you’ll never build again.”

Building, however, takes patience. Time.

“And that,” she says, “is the challenge.”

Not a day goes by when Lawson doesn’t think of Pat Summitt, her former coach at Tennessee, whose 1,098 career wins (against only 208 losses) were the most in college basketball history at the time of her retirement in 2012. The two had remained close until Summitt’s death in 2016.

Memories of the Hall of Famer surface at random moments. The day before the Stanford game, as Lawson and her players boarded the bus for practice, the driver recognized her: “I knew I knew you from somewhere!” he said. “I’m from Tennessee. Jackson. Man, I used to watch you!” Then he started talking about Summitt’s influence on the game.

Something in Lawson softened. Summitt influenced not only Lawson’s coaching style, but also how she views her role in her players’ lives. Summitt taught Lawson that the relationship between player and coach is sacred. Lawson chose Tennessee back in 1999 because she felt Summitt was the coach she “needed.” She understands that a player isn’t picking just a college, but also a coach. Someone who will have a permanent place in their memory. “I want it to be a happy place. I want it to be a safe place. I want it to be an empowering space,” Lawson says.

Coach Pat Summitt and Kara Lawson talk

She calls it a “responsibility” to live up to that goal: “It’s heavy for me because I know they’re trusting me. They’re giving me themselves and their future and saying, ‘I believe that you’re the person that can help me.’

“Whoa, that’s a lot,” she says, pausing, composing herself. “Yeah, that makes me emotional.”

Lawson quickly shifts back into game mode. Arms crossed, eyes ablaze. She wants people to think of Duke when they think of the top women’s hoops programs in the country. She has the blueprints to get there, the wisdom from her mentors, but the gap between hungry, up-and-coming tournament team and powerhouse is vast. “I am here to be memorable. I am here to impact people. I am here to effect change,” she says. “Am I here to win? Am I here to help my players graduate? Am I here to do all these things?” She nods but acknowledges: “It’s so much bigger than basketball. And I’ve always felt since I was young that my impact would not be exclusive to the sport that I devoted my life to.”

Yet even as Lawson acknowledges her ambitions, she feels deeply uncomfortable talking about herself. She turns down most interview requests. And she shies away from branding and social media, even as they’ve become a bigger part of college basketball. Some of her motivational speeches have gone viral on Duke’s official accounts—most notably “Handle Hard Better”—but she never prepares what she’ll say beforehand. Afterward, she often forgets what she said.

“I’m different,” she says. “I’m not interested in being popular, and I’m not interested in being cool and everybody’s favorite and the it coach.” What she is interested in is competing. Winning. Mentoring. She studies so much film that she “never shuts [it] off,” says Tia Jackson, Duke’s associate head coach. “We wonder if she’s even sleeping.”

But Lawson prefers the spotlight to be on her players. “When I was a player, it was my time,” she says. “And now I’m not a player, it’s no longer my time. … That’s the circle of life.

“My job is to lift them up,” she says. “It’s not to stand in front of them.”

Still, women’s basketball needs more coaches like Lawson—former players who have returned not just to give back to the game but to grow it. A new generation of former WNBA players—including South Carolina’s Dawn Staley, Notre Dame’s Niele Ivey, Arizona’s Adia Barnes, and Old Dominion’s DeLisha Milton-Jones—is doing just that.

As of 2022, women held just 42 percent of head-coaching positions in Division I women’s sports—a slight increase from the year before—and just under half of the assistant-coaching spots, according to the Racial and Gender Report Card compiled by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. For D-I women’s basketball specifically, women made up 66 percent of head coaches, and Black women made up 18.5 percent.

“There has been progress,” Milton-Jones says, “but are we where we ultimately want to be? No. … Coaching women’s sports, you need strong women that have done it at the highest levels to be able to come back and do that.”

Milton-Jones says giving long-term contracts to female coaches is “critical.” It takes years to build, let alone sustain, a winning program. Summitt coached for 38 seasons. Recently retired Duke men’s coach Mike Krzyzewski coached for 42 seasons. Does Lawson see herself following a similar trajectory? She hesitates. It isn’t a fair question. Summitt and Krzyzewski began their coaching careers in their 20s; Lawson took the Duke job at age 39. “If I do it 40 years, I’m 80,” Lawson says. “I can’t go that long. So, no, I’ll not do it as long as Pat or Coach K or anybody else.”

She pauses. Her fire returns. “But … I can’t see myself not coaching.”

Some former athletes move into coaching to soothe the loss of playing, but Lawson never had a wound to nurse. She’s longed to become a coach since she was a kid. “She’s made for it,” says James Mitchell, a close friend of over two decades. “You just always knew it was in her. … She played like a coach.”

But Lawson didn’t think she’d get a shot to run her own team this quickly. She had imagined she’d stay with the Celtics for more than one season. Her 2019 hiring was part of a larger breakthrough for women coaches in the NBA. A record 11 women, including Becky Hammon (Spurs), Teresa Weatherspoon (Pelicans), Kristi Toliver (Wizards), and Lindsey Harding (Kings), served as assistant coaches that year. Still, no woman had become an NBA head coach, and with women still so underrepresented in the assistant ranks, Lawson felt pressure to perform. Having never coached NBA players before, she wondered: “Do we have to do something different? Is there a different way to talk to the young men than the young women? … Do I need to be more aggressive? Do I need to be more forceful?”

But the more Lawson worked with the Celtics players, the more she realized she could be herself. “All the guys loved and respected her,” says Celtics star Jayson Tatum. “We’re all basketball players. We’re all hoopers. And I think we all connected and respected each other on that level.”

That connection only deepened. “I understood and felt, and the rest of the guys [did], that she cared. That she truly cared about you as a person first,” Tatum says. “As a player, when you have a coach that cares, it’s easier to listen. You want to listen more because you know that they have good intentions.” Lawson is still close with many Celtics players today. “I loved my time in the NBA,” she says. “I loved those young men.”

Boston Celtics v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Kent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images

Lawson still considers Brad Stevens, who coached the Celtics until 2021 and is now the president of basketball operations, a mentor. During practices and games, she would try to sit as close to Stevens as she could to soak up wisdom. “She’s a basketball junkie,” Stevens says. The former Celtics coach noticed not just how passionate she was about helping players, but also how effectively she explained concepts to them. “She’s just a tremendous communicator,” he says.

“She really balances a genuine warmth with real demand and does so in a way that I think people know that she not only wants the best for them, but she’s going to push them to be their best,” Stevens says. “She’s got a gift for that.”

Lawson felt keenly aware of the many young women watching her and the stakes for future female coaches. “I was mindful that I needed to do well,” she says. “If I did poorly, there were greater stakes. There would be more of a reverberation than if a male assistant doesn’t do well. … ‘This is really important that you crush it and that you don’t eliminate the opportunity for other people, because if you don’t do well, will Boston ever hire another female coach?’

“And I love Boston, and I love [team owners] Wyc [Grousbeck] and Pags [Stephen Pagliuca] and Brad [Stevens], so I think they would. … But I’m saying my thoughts coming in, for women in general—will this organization do it again? Will the NBA continue to do it if we don’t do well?”

She did more than well; those Celtics reached the Eastern Conference finals, and players respected her work ethic. When Tatum was in the gym late at night shooting jumpers, she was there, too. “I would always see her there, working on film,” Tatum says. “She was just hungry.”

“You could tell that she didn’t take the opportunity for granted that she was in the NBA,” Tatum says. “She wasn’t just happy to be there. She wanted to grow. She wanted it more.”

When the Duke opportunity arose, she knew she couldn’t pass up the chance to become a head coach. But it was tough. She had created meaningful bonds with members of the Celtics. Tatum remembers talking with her as she weighed the decision. She longed to run her own team and didn’t know when that opportunity would come again. At the same time, she wanted to finish what she’d started with Boston. “She was a little nervous how we might feel if she left,” Tatum, a former Blue Devil, says. “And I remember I just hugged her, and I was like, ‘No. You have to go. You have to take this opportunity.’ … Everybody was extremely happy for her.”

The decision to come to Duke just felt right. “I just felt called,” Lawson says. “That’s probably not the right way to say it. But I just felt … that was where I needed to be.”

Nearly four years later, “called” feels even more apt. Coaching at Duke isn’t just work for Lawson. “This job moves you,” she says. “This job moves me in a way that broadcasting never did. This job moves me in a way that playing never did. … It moves me in a way that no job I’ve ever had [did].”

Lawson was excited to finally run her own team. This was the opportunity she had been waiting for since she was a young girl. When she arrived in Durham, though, it wasn’t exactly an easy transition. She had to settle into a new place, adjust to working with college kids and an entirely new staff, and implement a new basketball system—all with the pandemic wreaking havoc around her. Lawson focused on what she could control: work ethic. Focus. Discipline. She began to instill a team identity based on gritty defense. “A team that doesn’t give up, that doesn’t back down,” says forward Camilla Emsbo.

The attention from her speeches and viral moments—the way more people began identifying her as the “Handle Hard Better coach” than as the “Duke women’s basketball coach”—isn’t what’s most rewarding to her. Rather, it is the reactions from people on so many different walks of life. People who are enduring all kinds of hardship: the death of a loved one. Cancer. Academic struggles. She realized how many people need support.

Lawson realized the power in her own voice.

“If you think about what you want your time to be here on this earth, what do you want it to be?” she asks. “One of the most valuable things that you can do for people is to inspire and motivate them and get them to believe in things. … That video showed me that I have the ability to do that for people.”

Lawson wasn’t always so sure of herself. She was so shy when she arrived at Tennessee as a college freshman that she barely said a word. “I need you to be louder,” Summitt would say to her in practice. She made Lawson do a presentation in front of the team. Lawson was so nervous that her voice quivered, and she stared at the back wall the entire time. Then Summitt signed her up for a speech class. Each week, Lawson had to deliver a presentation to a room of students. And each week, Lawson had to push herself. Feel uncomfortable. Grow.

Now she understands. Now she sees: Just as Summitt was known for her intensity and toughness, Lawson has developed a similar rep. But as hard as Summitt pushed her players, she loved them harder. Lawson operates similarly. “I love them,” Lawson says of her Duke players. “I love their spirit. I love how moldable they are. I love their competitiveness. They compete.

“Think about when you want something for someone else you love. You’ll do anything. Anything!” she says. “How many times you talk to parents and they’re like, ‘I would do so much more for my kid than I would for myself.’

“It’s the same thing,” she says. “I would do so much more for my players than I ever would for myself.”

Many people don’t see these moments when Lawson’s hard shell softens, her fire cools. “I cry all the time in front of my players,” Lawson says. She’s not joking: “Most of the time I’m crying, I think it’s happy tears.” In true Lawson fashion, the happiest moments aren’t inspired by wins or achievements, but rather by grit and connection. They happen when she pushes her team beyond their beyond and they find ways to rally. And they happen when a recruit calls her and verbally commits to the program.

She often tells her players that there’s no team she’d rather be coaching. They notice how she goes out of her way to say “good morning” to each player walking into the film room. “Sometimes people get intimidated from the outside because she is so driven,” says WNBA legend Tamika Catchings, her former Tennessee teammate. “But inside … her heart for the people that she loves—she has one of the biggest hearts. And it takes a minute to get there, but when I think about her with her players … you would run through a brick wall just listening to her.”

After Duke’s gutting loss at Stanford, Lawson stood in front of her players in the visiting locker room. A tear streamed down her cheek as she told them how proud she was. Then she cracked a smile, as if to say: We’ll be back. This is only the beginning.

About a week later, back in Durham after a brief Thanksgiving respite, Lawson and her staff begin a film session with clips of mistakes from the Stanford loss. Defensive error after defensive error.

Okananwa, the freshman guard, remembers Lawson conveying to the group that “A, she’s not afraid to call us out if we’re giving anything less than our best, and B, she’s never going to get tired of it. She said that she’s like our personal alarm clock for our time here, of constantly reminding us to keep pushing, keep getting better, and to not settle,” Okananwa says.

Lawson is pushing herself, too. She still views herself the same way she did when she played. “I’m just starting in coaching. I have a lot of room to grow,” Lawson says. “I have a lot of things I need to get better at.” She reminds herself to stay patient. She isn’t “coaching scared,” says Cameron Broome, her longtime friend from college.

There is reason for optimism in Durham. Building on last year’s top-10 recruiting class, Duke has secured the verbal commitment of five-star forwards Toby Fournier and Arianna Roberson, ranked no. 9 and 19, respectively, in the 2024 recruiting class. But Lawson tries not to get too far ahead of herself. Tries to remain present. Next possession, next game. South Carolina. Sunday.

She feels joy to be here, even if she has not yet achieved her ultimate goal of a national championship. Her joy “is not contingent on that,” she says, “but I don’t want it any less.”

She takes a deep breath. A player texts her. Lawson has to get back to film. Her jaw stiffens just a little. Her words come out, clear and smooth:

“We’re coming.”

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