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March Madness: How LeBron James helped revitalize a spurned college coach's career

It was a simple gym inside a Jewish community center on the west side of Akron, Ohio; wood floor, a few baskets, in need of a facelift.

This was the late 1990s and this was a most unlikely spot for the confluence of basketball fortunes and figures that would converge there each Sunday night.

It led to the rebirth of one of the most successful mid-major coaching careers ever, the reshuffling of a city’s (and a state’s) high school basketball fortunes and, most notably, serve as the early development of a then-anonymous but soon globally known basketball prodigy.

For Keith Dambrot, that gym played a direct role in how he found himself on a bus Tuesday headed to his fourth NCAA tournament, this time leading Duquesne to its first March Madness since 1977. The Dukes will play BYU on Thursday.

Seated on that same team bus was Dru Joyce III, now a 39-year-old assistant coach who back then was a 13-year-old Akron kid who wandered into the community center to attend a clinic Dambrot was running.

Dambrot was a financial planner looking to still teach the game after a controversy derailed a promising college coaching career that left him seemingly unemployable.

Dru was an ambitious, if undersized point guard, looking for ways to improve his game. He also had a best friend that he’d soon start bringing along.

LeBron James.

“Love you Coach Dambrot,” James wrote on social media Sunday, after Duquesne earned a bid to the NCAAs.

Duquesne University men's basketball coach Keith Dambrot sits next to the Atlantic 10 Championship trophy during a gathering in Pittsburgh celebrating Duquesne earning a berth in the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament for the first time since 1977 Monday, March 18, 2024. Dambrot announced that he is retiring after his team's NCAA tournament run. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Keith Dambrot sits next to the Atlantic 10 championship trophy after Duquesne won the conference title, earning the school's first berth in the NCAA tournament since 1977. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

This story starts with Dambrot, who in 1991 was a hot name in coaching, just 32 when he took over at Central Michigan. He’d already won 71 percent of his games across four seasons at a couple Division II schools.

In his second season at CMU though, he made a racial comment in front of his team. While the players and others rallied in his support, Dambrot couldn’t survive the pressure to dismiss him.

Suddenly out of the game — no college or high school would employ him — he returned to his hometown of Akron and got into financial planning. He still wanted to teach basketball though. He decided to start offering a free youth basketball clinic at the Jerry Shaw Jewish Community Center.

The first few weeks just three or four kids showed up, Dambrot said. No matter. He was thrilled.

“I couldn’t coach, so I created my own coaching environment,” Dambrot told Yahoo Sports on Tuesday. “I just wanted to help young players get better. It was almost like a fix for me.”

He didn’t think much would come of it, but word spread about the quality of the instruction. Dambrot is a no-nonsense guy, direct and to the point. He took it seriously, running drills like he was still prepping for the NCAAs.

Kids got better. Other kids took notice. Word spread. Soon there were 100 players in there every week. The community center eventually asked for $1 a kid to cover costs.

Dru Joyce III was one of those young players who decided to check it out. Dambrot began putting the seventh grader through advanced drills. A few weeks later, LeBron arrived, which surprised no one since he and Joyce were virtually inseparable and Dru’s father, Dru Joyce II, was a father figure.

“Dru brought LeBron,” Dambrot said.

James was about 5-foot-10 at the time, thin and just 13 years old. Dambrot was immediately impressed, not just with the physical ability.

“He was like a sponge,” Dambrot said. “He listened. He learned really well. He wanted to be better. He was just impressive, even at that young age.”

LeBron, meanwhile, said later that he loved the intensity of the workouts.

“Coach Dambrot set the foundation for me; it was all fundamentals,” LeBron said. “Dru and I were trying to get better and better and here was this coach willing to work with us.”

The once humble clinics, meant to be therapeutic for Dambrot, turned into more than that. He was reenergized. Meanwhile, he was spreading goodwill throughout Akron, reinforcing the strong reputation he and his family have always maintained there. Dru Joyce II and others, including later LeBron, looked into the situation at Central Michigan and believed it to be isolated and not reflective of the man they knew. Dambrot was, and remains, their guy.

The clinic work likely played a role in a fairly small private high school, St. Vincent-St. Mary, hiring Dambrot as its basketball coach in 1998. It wasn’t a huge job; SVSM hadn’t won a state title since 1984. It was a job though. Dambrot was coaching again. That’s all that mattered.

LeBron and Dru — along with friends Sian Cotton and Willie McGee — were just entering the eighth grade. They planned on attending Buchtel High School, a large historic athletic powerhouse. Dru Joyce II was already an assistant basketball coach there.

Plans changed, though, when Dru Joyce III heard the Buchtel head coach thought he was too small to play for the varsity anytime soon. Ditto for Cotton.

Dru suddenly didn’t want to attend Buchtel and due to his relationship from the clinics with Dambrot, he had an option elsewhere. He told his dad he wanted to go to SVSM, where he could play varsity as a freshman. Cotton said he was coming as well.

“Dru and I formed a strong relationship and he thought it was in his best interest to play for me,” Dambrot said.

It was only a matter of time that LeBron would follow.

“Dru and LeBron were always going to be together,” Dambrot said. “Dru convinced LeBron.”

McGee came along and later a fifth AAU teammate, Romeo Travis, transferred to SVSM as well. A dynasty was born.

UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 08:  High School Basketball: Prime Time Shootout, St, Vincent-St, Mary LeBron James in action, making dunk vs Westchester, CA, Trenton, NJ 2/8/2003  (Photo by Al Tielemans/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)  (SetNumber: X67716)
LeBron James followed Keith Dembrot to St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, where he became the No. 1 high school player in the country. (Al Tielemans/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images) (Al Tielemans via Getty Images)

In hindsight, the Buchtel head coach at the time, Harvey Sims, probably should have just told Dru and Sian Cotton they would be on varsity. That isn’t how he could coach a team that was full of older talent, though.

“I called it like I saw it,” Sims told the Akron Beacon Journal years later. “Dru was going to be a possible JV, freshman [team guy], and Cotton was going to be a JV guy. They did not have the skill level of LeBron and I had [many players] coming back from a state championship [appearance].”

Of course, he also said he didn’t know LeBron would become LeBron.

“LeBron’s ninth-grade to 10th-grade year, I think he grew inches and he must have gained about 30 pounds.”

The rest is history. As freshmen and sophomores, LeBron and Co. won state titles and defeated Buchtel in regular-season play. That success led to Dambrot being hired as an assistant coach at the University of Akron.

Dru Joyce II took over as head coach at SVSM and led them to another state title in the guys' senior year. He’s won six more since then, becoming an Ohio high school coaching legend. Buchtel, meanwhile, didn’t fully recover until 2023, when it finally won a state title again.

As for Dambrot, he was promoted to Akron’s head coach in 2004, and over the next 13 years the Zips averaged 23.5 victories a season, an astounding level of consistent excellence for a mid-major team. They reached three NCAAs and five NITs. Among his players at UA? Dru and Romeo Travis, both of whom proved to be excellent players on their own.

LeBron, meanwhile, also achieved some success.

Dambrot established himself as one of the best coaches in the country — albeit out of the spotlight — and in 2017 took the Duquesne job. The Dukes had mostly struggled for decades, but Dambrot was looking for a challenge. Plus his father had played ball there and his son was playing soccer at nearby Pitt.

“It just all came together,” Dambrot said.

On Sunday, the Dukes won their first Atlantic 10 title and ended a near half-century NCAA drought. Dambrot joined a small list of coaches who have led two separate schools to the tourney.

“Every NCAA trip feels like the best one, but this is big,” Dambrot said. “Just seeing everyone so happy after all the years of anguish.”

Dambrot, now 65, announced Monday he would retire at the end of the season. His wife is battling a cancer diagnosis and he feels he’s both given and received all he needs from the game. Dru Joyce III is a candidate to replace him.

In the meantime, Dambrot is basking in every last glorious coaching moment, one last championship run in a second chance that, if not for that Jewish community center and the local kids who nearly three decades ago walked in every Sunday looking for some coaching, might never have happened.