Sometime after the Celtics’ season came to an end in the second round of the playoffs, coach Brad Stevens sent Kara Lawson a text message asking her if she had a few minutes to talk.
Lawson, a former WNBA standout who had become a well-respected basketball analyst at ESPN and for the Wizards, had covered some of Stevens’s games when he was at Butler, and then later called a few Celtics games on the radio. The two had become friends.
Lawson wasn’t sure what the text was about, but she had an idea. She knew Celtics assistant coach Micah Shrewsberry was leaving the team to return to Purdue. She had been in this situation before.
“The last couple of years I’ve talked to a number of teams,” Lawson said Wednesday. “Typically, it’s someone on their team reaching out, whether it’s the coach, or the GM, or the team president. Usually, at least the last couple of years, [asking about] my desire to be in the league in some capacity. It hasn’t always been coaching, sometimes it’s been front office. I don’t want to say I knew it was that [with Stevens] but based on past precedent I thought it would be something about a job.”
Despite these other conversations with NBA teams about front office and coaching roles in recent years, she had not been hired. Sometimes it was because she was not offered the job, and other times it was because she did not feel the opportunity was right for her.
But in talking to Stevens, Lawson could tell there was something different about this chance.
“For me this was a good fit,” she said. “I wanted to go somewhere where I’d be challenged, I wanted to go somewhere where I’d be allowed to coach, and I wanted to go to an organization that was going to be playing in big games to be able to get a sense of that last frontier of coaching, which is being able to do it in pressure situations in the regular season and the playoffs. When I talked to Brad in a number of different conversations, it felt from a personality standpoint that he was going to be a good fit for me as I start off doing this. I think it’s important when you start off as a rookie that you’re surrounded by a good group, a knowledgeable group, and a good leader, and Brad checked all those boxes for me.”
Now, Lawson is the first female assistant coach in the history of the Celtics. She is the latest hire in a league that is diversifying at a rapid pace. In 2014, the Spurs hired Becky Hammon as an assistant. Last summer the Mavericks brought in Jenny Boucek and the Wizards hired Kristi Toliver, and this month the Cavaliers hired Lindsay Gottlieb as an assistant coach.
Lawson understands the significance of her arrival. (None of the current Celtics assistants had news conferences when they were hired.) But she also does not want to be defined by her gender.
“My mind-set is being the first to do something is great,” Lawson said. “I want to be the best. I don’t want to be the best of my gender, I want to be the best in the league. So obviously that’s easy to say when I’m on my fifth day, but I’ve got a lot to learn and I’ve got a steep mountain to climb. But I don’t like qualifiers when it comes to judging things. Every time somebody talks about me, I don’t want it to be about my gender, at least when it comes within the confines of a competitive environment.
“Obviously from the outside, from a societal standpoint, that’s going to happen because that’s unusual still. Hopefully it won’t be down the road. But that’s a responsibility I think everyone who’s been in this position before has to do well, so it’s no longer unusual.”
Still, Lawson said, from the age of 22 to 36, no NBA teams reached out to her. And now, several have. So she is pleased to see the progress.
Lawson played for Hall of Fame coach Pat Summitt at Tennessee before going on to a 13-year WNBA career that ended in 2015. She was a member of the gold medal-winning US Olympic team at the 2008 Games in Beijing.
The chance to work with Stevens and the rest of Boston’s staff was intriguing, but there were other selling points for Lawson, too. She appreciates the history of this franchise — she still remembers when she was a child and her father introduced her to one of his co-workers: Red Auerbach’s daughter, Nancy.
And she is quite intrigued with the young, talented roster Boston has assembled, from Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to the four draft picks she has been working with at summer league practices this week.
“Just her opinion on how she sees the game [is helpful],” rookie guard Carsen Edwards said. “Different ways to make decisions, different ways to get shots, picking spots, off-the-ball mistakes on defense, she’s able to pick those details from me and help me not make them again.”
Lawson said she was fortunate to get an up-close look at the Wizards while serving as their television analyst the last two years. And she believes she can be helpful to this Celtics team because she has held just about every role in her career. She went from being used sparingly as a rookie to becoming an All-Star to ending her career with a role off the bench.
“Most of the things that they experience, emotionally, most of them, I’ve experienced, too,” Lawson said. “So I cannot just understand, but I can relate to their ups and downs.”