Kara Lawson has always wanted to coach at Duke University — a fact the first-time college basketball coach hadn't shared with many people.
When the Blue Devils' top job opened up earlier this month, the Boston Celtics assistant jumped at the opportunity to lead the women's program in Durham, North Carolina.
"I knew that if it ever came open, I'd try and put my best foot forward and try to secure the position. That's how highly I thought of the institution and the job," Lawson said during an introductory Zoom call Monday. "I had no idea it would happen a year after I went to Boston. It wasn't in the plans, so to speak."
Lawson said her mother, Kathleen, had wanted her to attend Duke as an undergrad, but she ended up choosing Tennessee and having an illustrious playing career for the Lady Volunteers under legendary coach Pat Summitt.
"Mom was the one who wanted me to go to Duke," Lawson said. "Dad wanted me to go to Stanford. I picked Tennessee."
Lawson pointed out her mom was on the Zoom call and wearing Duke blue.
The 39-year-old coach said that she knows Summitt, who died in 2016, would be excited for her.
"She knew a goal of mine was to become a coach. I wanted to become a coach and learn from the best, and that led me to Knoxville," Lawson said. "She'd be pretty excited. I don't know if she'd be wearing blue."
Lawson appeared in three Final Fours with Tennessee and then played in the WNBA from 2003 to 2015, winning the 2005 championship with the Sacramento Monarchs. She also was part of the U.S. Olympic women's basketball team that won a gold medal in Beijing in 2008. She had also worked as a TV commentator for NBA and college basketball games before the Celtics hired her in June 2019.
"It's been an emotional three days; it's been tough," said Lawson, who is in the NBA bubble at the Walt Disney World Resort near Orlando, Florida. "I think it's the relationships that makes basketball special. I've built a lot of deep relationships with these guys. Any coach that's leaving a place and going to another place knows that feeling. It's hard to leave."
Lawson inherits a Duke program that hasn't won a league title since the Atlantic Coast Conference added national powers Notre Dame (2013) and Louisville (2014) to what was already a top-flight conference. She replaces Joanne P. McCallie, who led Duke to at least a share of the regular-season title four times and three ACC tournament titles while also making 10 trips to the NCAA tournament, including four straight trips to the Elite Eight (2010-13).
The Blue Devils, though, have failed to finish in the top three of the league's regular-season standings in four of the past seven years since the most recent wave of league expansion.
Lawson knows one of her first tasks will be to hire assistants. What she's looking for is simple: experience.
She has already reached out to many of the Duke alums, some of whom were former teammates or opponents of hers in the WNBA.
"The legacy at that program that I know she wants to uphold and create her own journey and energy," said Los Angeles Sparks guard Chelsea Gray, who starred at Duke from 2010 to 2014.
"She's a great basketball mind. They did an excellent job choosing Kara. ... I'm excited for the next chapter at Duke, and they picked a great person to lead them in that journey."
Duke is the second ACC program this offseason to hire a Black female head coach, and the first also came from the NBA. Notre Dame hired Memphis Grizzlies assistant Niele Ivey — a former Fighting Irish player and assistant — to replace storied coach Muffet McGraw in April.
"I'm excited for all those women with their opportunities," Lawson said. "I spoke with Niele yesterday, (South Carolina coach) Dawn (Staley) this morning, (Virginia coach) Tina Thompson over text. People I've known for a long time."