Tim Benz: LeBron James pixie dust could go long way for Keith Dambrot, Duquesne

June 5, 2018

LeBron James wasn’t the first NBA player Keith Dambrot coached. He mentored a few others, including Carl and Charles Thomas. The twins were attending Eastern Michigan while Dambrot was an assistant there in 1987-88.

Both men are now assistants on Dambrot’s staff at Duquesne.

Back in late 1999 or early 2000, Dambrot made a call to the twins while they were still playing professionally in the CBA and Europe.

“I said, ‘Look, I don’t want to be disrespectful, but I’ve got a 14-year-old who is probably better than you are right now.’ They laughed,” recalled Dambrot during a phone conversation Monday. “And then everybody came and saw him play and just said: ‘Oh my gosh. This guy is unbelievable.’ ”

That “unbelievable” freshman went on to average 21 points and lead Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary to a 27-0 record and a state title in Ohio.

In the years since, Dambrot’s mentorship of James has turned into a friendship. It’s even, to a small degree, become a partnership.

“He’s an old soul,” Dambrot said. “He’s a guy who is very committed to those who have been good to him. He takes care of those who were good to him along the way.”

In just one year on the Bluff, Dambrot insists his association with James has already yielded dividends, especially in the area of recruiting.

“We get in a lot of doors because of LeBron,” Dambrot said. “It’s a big deal.”

Like all things in big-time sports, it’s not just about Dambrot’s relationship with James. It’s about his relationship with LeBron’s money guys. In this case Maverick Carter. That’s James’ longtime friend and business manager. Dambrot coached him, too. According to Dambrot, as a result, Duquesne and Ohio State have a unique apparel deal with James’ Nike line of gear.

That might not seem like much. But to a 17-year-old high school ball player, being one of the few college athletes to wear “The King’s” kicks gets some cred on Instagram.

And really, what else in life matters?

As Dambrot pointed out during our conversation, it’s a lot of the simple, tangential association with James that does wonders.

James is not allowed to do much more. As Dambrot explained, NCAA rules prohibit the NBA star from picking up the phone and asking James to recruit a kid on his behalf.

“Although I’m sure many people have broken that rule many times,” Dambrot groused.

It’s more like name association. The suggestion being, get coached by the guy who once coached LeBron James, and maybe you’ll go places, too.

“Any time you have an association with the best player in the world, people think you are a pretty good coach,” Dambrot said. “When you are attached to it, then people automatically feel that you are better than you are, maybe? It just helps our program to be attached to him.”

Dambrot marvelled at the seemingly simple things impacting would-be players he has recruited over the years. Things such as tweets about Dambrot as a coach, old footage of Dambrot working him out or LeBron playing with his former players. Even a clip of James name-dropping him after winning the title in Cleveland seems to draw a response.

How has this manifested after Dambrot’s first year? Well, his 2018-19 recruiting class is seven players deep, is the tallest class in Dukes history, and it includes multiple players from Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana who are highly regarded by recruiting services.

James Ellis, a 6-foot-11 recruit from Westinghouse, also will be in for the 2019-20 season if he meets academic requirements.

“It has helped us tremendously along the way,” Dambrot reiterated about his association with James. “We’ve been able to recruit high quality players because of the association.”

It would be overzealous to say just because Dambrot coached James for the first two years of his high school experience, the Dukes could now compete for the same talent you see jumping into major conference waters. A 2018 “one-and-done” version of LeBron probably won’t be stepping onto the Palumbo Center court any time soon.

But getting better quality Atlantic 10 players is certainly a large enough step in the right direction.

And who knows. LeBron does have that 13-year-old son who is already allegedly getting offers and ... OK, maybe I’m getting ahead of myself.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at tbenz@tribweb.com or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH.