ORLANDO — When asked about her 12 months with the Celtics, the relationships she’s built, the work she’s put in, the knowledge she’s passed on as well as acquired, Kara Lawson was moved to tears.
The Celtics’ first female assistant coach is leaving with fond memories and cherished friendships. Duke University officially named Lawson its head women’s basketball coach Saturday, and, from the Celtics’ Orlando bubble, Lawson was formally introduced on a Zoom call.
Lawson becomes the first Black coach in Duke women’s basketball history and she comes off a stint in the NBA where she became revered and highly respected for her acumen and coaching skills.
“It’s been an emotional three days,” she said before pausing several moments to gather herself. “I think it’s the relationships that makes basketball special. I’ve built a lot of deep relationships with these guys and I think any coach that’s leaving a place [and] is going to another place knows that feeling and it’s hard to leave. Certainly the relationships that I’ve built all over the roster, all over the staff, yeah, it’s difficult.”
Several Celtics players were emotional Sunday after meeting with Lawson for the last time. Jayson Tatum expressed pride she was joining his alma mater. Jaylen Brown said he will now be Duke fan while Enes Kanter asked for courtside seats.
“It’s difficult, you’re with these guys every day,” she said. “We’re with each other all the time and they’re special. Our team is special and I had a chance to talk to them. Every day since it’s happened they’ve told me congratulations. The guys are thrilled for me.”
Lawson said she had taken a long walk around Boston with Celtics coach Brad Stevens and his wife Tracy and told them privately that she wanted to coach in a big-time Division 1 program, and Duke was on her short list of schools that would lure her away from Boston.
“I didn’t share that with very many people, probably just my family and Brad,” she said. “I knew if it ever came open I was going to try to put my best foot forward. That’s how highly I thought of the job. I certainly had no idea that it would happen a year after I went to Boston.
“I didn’t intend to have a 12-month stay in the NBA. I thought I’d be there for a while. I confided in Brad a lot during this process. He’s somebody with a tremendous amount of experience. Him and his wife Tracy were vital for me and I went through the process.”
Lawson inherits a program that has high expectations considering the success of the men’s program but has never won a national championship and has struggled recently to overcome powers Louisville and Notre Dame in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Previous coach Joanne P. McCallie resigned because of uncertainty entering the final year of her contract. The Blue Devils missed the NCAA Tournament in two of her final four years.
“I’m not going to sit here and say we are going to play this way or that way,” she said. “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.”
Stevens said the team will wait until the offseason to replace Lawson. For now, staff member Tony Dobbins will sit behind the bench in Lawson’s spot and G-League coach Brandon Bailey will join the club in Orlando to complete the staff.
Lawson said her experience as the Celtics’ first female coach was rewarding and she bonded with Allison Feaster, the team’s director of player development who joined the club in the same month.
“It was fantastic,” she said of the experience. “I was with Allison Feaster a lot, even though she was not a coach on the court with us. She is a part of the front office and what a special person she is. We have a unique bond going through our first year together, her in the front office and me in the coaching staff. It didn’t feel very lonely because I always had somebody there. They made me feel so welcome. People would ask me a lot throughout the year what it was like when you went in the locker room or around the guys and it just felt normal. I never felt like I stuck out. I always felt a part of the staff and part of the team and I am going to miss seeing everyone every day.”