PORTLAND – Keith Dambrot isn’t kidding himself.
“I wouldn’t be the coach here,” said the University of Akron’s fifth-year head man, “if not for LeBron.”
That’s LeBron, as in … oh, come on, how many LeBrons do you know?
The Cleveland Cavaliers star popularly known as “King James” was just a 13-year-old when he walked into Akron’s Jewish Community Center for one of the dollar clinics Dambrot used to run on Sunday nights. Their blossoming relationship helped resurrect Dambrot’s career, which takes another big step today when the 13th-seeded Zips meet Gonzaga in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
James never played for the Zips, of course. But he did play for Dambrot at St. Vincent-St. Mary’s High School before jumping directly to the NBA. He’s featured in the Akron media guide and treated like an alumnus, and returns the favor.
Someone wondered Wednesday whether James, who has been known to light it up at the Rose Garden, had called with any tips.
“The last time he came in here he had 51 (points), I think,” Dambrot said. “If we could get one guy to have half of 51, we’ll be in good shape.”
James – who actually scored 34 in that most recent visit – holds his annual skills academy for college players at Akron. That was where Gonzaga’s Austin Daye crumpled to the floor last summer with what was initially diagnosed as a serious knee injury.
“The program benefits from just the connection,” Dambrot said. “Our guys get to play with him. And he taught me as a coach.
“He’s the greatest player in the world, or one of them – I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings – and if that guy can be so unselfish, you shouldn’t coach anyone who has any selfishness at all. I saw that guy do some things as a 14- or 15-year-old that most pros can’t do, so I’ve never been in awe of any team.”
But that might have been true before. Dambrot’s father, Sid, starred at Duquesne in the 1950s, and his uncle Irwin was MVP of the 1950 NCAAs for CCNY – leaving Dambrot to say that “I was the worst male member of my family.” So he turned to baseball and wound up as a third baseman at Akron – his claim to fame being the 28 times he was hit by a pitch, a Zips career record.
“When you’re as poor athletically as me, you figure out ways,” he said. “I coach the same way. When you’re not great, you have a chip on your shoulder.”
He carried that chip with him through small-college coaching stops at Tiffin and Ashland and several assistant jobs – and it probably cost him in his first Division I head coaching gig at Central Michigan, where he was fired after using racially objectionable language in a locker room exhortation. He spent five years in basketball purgatory after that, before his connection with James led to the high school job, and then landed him back at Akron.
“I have to face it – I was very lucky,” he said. “LeBron is a very loyal guy, and we love LeBron.”