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Akron basketball grew into a MAC powerhouse with a little help from LeBron James

The revival of Akron basketball has been sparked by hometown kids, fueled by the most famous one of them all.

Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

AKRON, Ohio—Every so often, the stars align when they aren't supposed to. For Keith Dambrot, it's happened twice. Both times, it happened in Akron.

First at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, Dambrot coached a group of freshmen, including LeBron James, to a state championship. Now at the University of Akron, Dambrot has built the most consistent winner in the Mid-American Conference.

On a cold, early February night, having just coached the Akron Zips another win closer to a MAC title, Dambrot realized just how many things had to go right, and wrong, to lead him to this place.

Dambrot was a rising star in the head coaching ranks 25 years ago at Central Michigan. But after being fired in 1993 for using a racial slur when addressing his players, he returned home to Akron, in basketball exile. In the following years, he worked his way back up the coaching ranks in this city -- from a stock trader and evening basketball trainer to LeBron James' high school coach to helming the hometown university back to the top of the MAC. It's not where the once-hot coaching prospect would've planned on being at age 57, but for Dambrot, it's perfect.

"It's probably a below average job, except for me," Dambrot said. "It's a good job for me because I'm from here. I played little league baseball with this guy, I played basketball with this guy, I went to kindergarten with this guy. So for me, it's a good job."

Dambrot is comfortable in Akron in a way he never could have been comfortable elsewhere. As he walked off the floor, through an old, navy blue gym, he passed his players' lounge, where there stands a larger-than-life picture of LeBron James --€” yet another reminder that the best player in the world, the one who made Dambrot's redemption possible, is an honorary Akron Zip.

LeBron James, Keith Dambrot and Akron basketball probably shouldn't have fallen into place together. But ever since they did, they've worked together to build an unlikely powerhouse for their city.

* * *

There are two histories of Akron basketball --€” the LeBron era, and the era that contains everything before that. The LeBron era is why any basketball fan in America knows about Akron, Ohio. But before LeBron, Akron had an impressive but lesser-known basketball history as a basketball-crazy city in the days before the NBA. The Akron Firestone Non-Skids (whose roster included Chuck Taylor in the early 1920s) and Akron Wingfoots were founding members of the National Basketball League and brought home three titles before the league folded in 1941.

Basketball in Akron grew in popularity out of those industrial teams and through the University of Akron, which hired 26-year-old former player Wyatt Webb in 1969. Webb, in his playing and coaching career, led the Zips to NCAA Division II prominence, making the national title game in 1971-72.

Then in 1984, the year LeBron James was born, the Zips hired Bob Huggins. He would take the program to the NCAA Tournament and go 43-17 in his final two seasons before moving on to bigger jobs.

The basketball played by the Non-Skids and the Wingfoots is hardly comparable to the excitement James and his teammates brought to St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, or even what the Zips bring to Rhodes Arena. But one similarity has defined both eras.

In Akron, everything's connected to what came before.

"I think the one thing, if you study Akron basketball, know a lot about Akron basketball, the guys that have been successful here have been local guys, or relatively local," Dambrot said. "(Bob Huggins) is about an hour from here, Wyatt Webb, all these guys are Akron guys."

To even get to LeBron James, you have to tell the story of Dambrot. In Akron, everything's connected to what came before.

Dambrot played baseball in college for the Zips, but he comes from a basketball family. His father, Sid Dambrot, played for Duquesne. His uncle, Irwin Dambrot, won both the NCAA Tournament and the NIT in the same year with City College, before being drafted seventh overall by the New York Knicks.

After college, Dambrot stayed in Akron as a graduate assistant with the basketball team under Huggins. He parlayed that experience into a career in basketball, going on to coach at Division II schools Tiffin and Ashland, with a stop in between as an assistant coach at Eastern Michigan. He took Ashland to two NCAA Division II Tournaments, including an elite eight, before leaving for Central Michigan.

Any head coaching job is great for a 32-year-old, and if he'd continued along that trajectory it's very likely that Dambrot would be coaching in a major conference today. But everything changed when, in 1993, he tried to motivate his team by telling them they "needed to play more like n---ers." After initially only receiving a suspension from the administration, Dambrot was eventually fired.

As quick as his ascent had been, Dambrot was tossed out of the profession even faster. So he left Mount Pleasant, Mich. and moved back to his home city, where he sold stocks and bonds and gave basketball lessons part-time. This was no triumphant return of a native son — it was exile back to his beginnings, because nobody else would take him.

Even in Akron, despite his early success and his strong familial ties to Akron basketball, coaching was out of the question. "I didn't get the job at my own high school, and think about it, I'd been a college coach for a lot of years," Dambrot said. "Everybody in town knew me and my family, knew what I stood for, so I didn't have to sell myself as a person, but they still wouldn't hire me. And then I tried to get the Central-Hower job over here, and they didn't hire me. And I understood it."

St. Vincent-St. Mary was his last chance, an opportunity he was fortunate to even have open for him, considering the serious reason for his dismissal from the college ranks. Dambrot knew the president and the football coach of the Irish, who were able to use their clout, as part of a private school, to get him hired. After a five-year absence, Dambrot was back in the game —€” from Division I college basketball to a private, Division III Ohio high school that cared more about football than basketball.

Didn't matter. The Akron guy had another shot in Akron and that's all that counted.

* * *

rhodesarena

Honorary Zip LeBron James' influence looms large over Dambrot's program.

LeBron James gets credited with building St. Vincent-St. Mary's program and Akron basketball into what they are today. In reality, there's no St. Vincent-St. Mary or Zips powerhouse without Little Dru.

Dru Joyce began going to Dambrot's basketball lessons in middle school, and he quickly bonded with Dambrot because both of them were short.

"Dru was just a little guy, and we kind of hit it off because I was little, and I had a lot of respect for how hard he worked," Dambrot said.

It just so happened that Dru had a best friend named LeBron James.

Dru and LeBron went to Dambrot's lessons and camps throughout middle school, but both planned to go to Buchtel High School, where Dru's father was an assistant coach. But it turned out there was another option --€” to play with Dambrot at St. Vincent-St. Mary.

"He kind of knew that he may get lost in the shuffle at Buchtel, so he decided to play for me at St. V, and then all four of those guys came," Dambrot said. "Basically, what it came down to was that Dru decided for all of them. That's what it came down to. This is a better place for me, and we're all going together, so you guys are coming with me."

"Those four" were Dru Joyce, LeBron James, Sian Cotton and Willie McGee, who were joined the next year by Romeo Travis.

Four kids turned their backs on their neighborhood schools, four black kids chose to play for a coach who was fired from his last job for using a racial slur. The players knew the depth of Dambrot's comment and that it had virtually disqualified him from every other job in the country. They decided they knew enough of Dambrot from those private lessons to trust him publicly.

"It was my parents that made me comfortable with the situation," Joyce said. "They were honest about it, they talked to me, I didn't see it from him. You don't have to be banned for life for a mistake you make."

"With him coaching us in Sunday night leagues, we felt like we knew who he was, and we felt like we're all going to make mistakes," McGee said. "Obviously, our parents had some concerns. They talked to him, as well."

That trust is why Dambrot is where he is today, and he knows that. Dambrot had proved that he was a good coach early in his career. But in an ego-driven business, he can now readily admit that he just got lucky. Connecting with that group of four players at that time gave him his career back.

"I'm proud of it, so it doesn't affect me," Dambrot said. "I think, obviously, (LeBron) is one of the main reasons we've been successful. I have people come up to me all the time, little kids say, ‘Hey can I get a picture with you?' because I was LeBron's coach, not because I'm Akron's coach."

LeBron went on to the NBA, but Travis and Joyce followed Dambrot to Akron, where he was an assistant with the Zips. "I just wanted to show my city, my fans, people that didn't believe in me, that I wasn't someone who was just latching on," Joyce said. "I always felt like people had this judgement about me that I only played because of my relationship to LeBron. If there was anyone I wanted to show that to, it was my own city."

At first, it didn't work out. The St. Vincent-St. Mary stars went just 13-15 as freshmen under coach Dan Hipsher, who was fired after the season. Dambrot got promoted to head coach, a move that kept Joyce and the core of the team from transferring.

In 2004-05, with a virtually all-Akron cast —€” Dambrot, Joyce, Travis and fellow Akron native Jeremiah Wood —€” the Zips won more games (19) than they had in any season since 1989-90.

"We hit it right here, too, that's what's crazy about it," Dambrot said. "They were all Akron kids and two of them played for me in high school. So I had instant credibility with those guys, and all I did was just change the mindset to the defensive end. And that team became very, very good instantly."

Since then, Akron has won at least 20 games in every season. The Zips have also made three NCAA Tournaments. They were ranked for the first time in program history in 2013.

Recognizing the value of that connection has changed Akron basketball into a top mid-major. It's what's lured people there and what's been passed along via veterans of the program ever since Dambrot's arrival. By 2003, of course, LeBron was in the NBA, but he still made time to help Dambrot recruit. Current Texas head coach Shaka Smart had just taken an assistant job on the bench alongside Dambrot at the time.

"I had never met (Dambrot) before I got there," Smart said. "So my very first day on the job, Keith took me at lunchtime and he said, 'I want to introduce you to someone, and he took me to a little rec center gym, and we were sitting in the gym, and I can see a Hummer pull up, and I could see it was LeBron."

For the next month-and-a-half, Dambrot and Smart worked out the best player in the world ahead of his rookie season.

"He taught me one thing that I would say is the foundation of his program and has also become the foundation of our program, and that's just the value of spending time with players off the court," Smart said. "That was huge. He always emphasized spending time, spending time, spending time. It was a genius move on his part."

For a team with few other resources, Akron has kept itself a top mid-major program, thanks to Dambrot and his connections. "He's made that program what it is," Smart said. "People talk about coaching jobs and they say this is a good job or this is a bad job or whatever. Keith has made Akron a way better job. If you look at the history, there wasn't a ton of consistent winning."

rhodesarena

5,500-seat Rhodes Arena.

Walk into Rhodes Arena at the University of Akron, and you will likely be unimpressed. It's small, with dark corners and an awkward layout. It's old, but not in the enchanting Hinkle Fieldhouse sort of way — in the "this hasn't been renovated since the 1980s" sort of way.

The day before Akron faced Central Michigan in early February, Dambrot was quick to list all of the schools in the MAC that have better gyms than the Zips. Central, Eastern, Ohio, Western, the list goes on.

"Everybody's got a better (arena) than us, but we have things that offset that," Dambrot said. "We've got LeBron. That gets you in the door with almost everybody that's a mid-major player."

The most obvious high-major part of Akron's program is its shoe deal. Despite being an Adidas school, Akron has a Nike deal to wear LeBron gear for basketball. It's one of four schools in the country that has such a deal, along with Ohio State, Kentucky and Miami. LeBron made sure Akron was among those major-conference schools.

"The name Akron is kind of booming in a way." -Zips freshman guard Noah Robotham

This isn't just the case of a school capitalizing on marketing a famous fan. LeBron is the one who pushed for the shoe deal, according to Dambrot —€” the Cleveland Cavaliers declined to make LeBron available for this story — and he's always around the program.

The LeBron logo is all over the program, which receives 100 pairs of shoes per year from the deal, and he even debuted his custom Akron shoes at the university.

"LeBron's a big part of this program, even though he's still playing, and probably without him, we couldn't have got it done," Dambrot said.

Indirectly, LeBron's clout and connection to Dambrot have worked wonders to bring the best mid-major players to Akron. More connections means more money, and Akron has turned that money into a great travel budget, cost-of-attendance scholarships for players, and all the amenities players at larger schools enjoy, like iPads and focused academic support.

Dambrot is the one coaching, and the one who ultimately has to recruit, but LeBron still gets Akron in the door.

Take the case of Noah Robotham, a guard from powerhouse Las Vegas high school program Bishop Gorman. How the hell does the Nevada Player of the Year end up at a school in Northeast Ohio? LeBron.

"First and foremost, LeBron, this is the best player in the world, good Nike deal," Robotham said. "You knew you were going to play in big games, and you knew you have LeBron right there.

"The name Akron is kind of booming in a way."

The name is booming, because winning begets winning —€” as Dambrot says, "we win because we have won."

That is, until March. Dambrot's luck has mostly run out around NCAA Tournament time. In 2009 and 2011, the Zips shot the ball poorly, which can't happen for a team looking to pull an upset. Perhaps the Zips' best chance at advancing was in 2013, but star point guard Alex Abreu was arrested and suspended late in the season, and two other players missed the first round game against VCU, an 88-42 drubbing, with food poisoning.

This year's Akron team is on track to head back to the NCAA Tournament, having won the MAC regular season championship, and the Zips rank 34th nationally in the RPI ratings —€” ahead of larger Ohio brethren Ohio State and Cincinnati.

The next step? Well, the stars need to align just one more time.