Inside the main entrance of the Palumbo Center, 20 yards from cars humming along Forbes Avenue, hang eight black-and-white images honoring Duquesne's storied basketball program.
There are stills from the Dukes' 1955 NIT champion squad. There are faces that serve as a reminder of greatness. Chuck Cooper, the first African-American player drafted by an NBA team when the Celtics chose him in 1950. Donald 'Dudey' Moore, who coached the 1953-54 team that was ranked No. 1 in the country. Dick Ricketts and Sihugo Green, back-to-back first overall picks in the 1955 and 1956 NBA drafts.
It is a past that is forgotten by many in Pittsburgh, but not Keith Dambrot. The chance to revive that history motivated him to accept an offer in March to become Duquesne's head coach after a successful 13-year run at Akron, this despite close friends and colleagues telling him they doubted the program can ever return to prominence.
Their skepticism is not unwarranted. Dambrot chose to take over a long-suffering program that won 10 games last season and has not reached the NCAA Tournament since 1977. It's the challenge he's always wanted.
More than 24 years after being fired from his first Division I head coaching job for using the n-word in a halftime speech, Dambrot, 58, is now coaching at the school where his father helped make history on the basketball court.
He knows how it feels to have lost it all, and how difficult the climb back to the top can be.
Now he’s trying to do the same for Duquesne.
“This isn’t easy,” Dambrot said. “It’s a challenge, but it’s an unbelievable opportunity as well. When people say you can’t be any good and now you are good, that’s a great opportunity, isn’t it?”
[caption id="attachment_392455" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Dambrot and longtime Duquesne SID, Dave Saba. - LONG HONG / DKPS[/caption]
Before he won three Mid-American Conference championships at Akron and before he coached a teenaged LeBron James, Dambrot was a child flipping through his father’s scrapbooks inside the family’s home in Akron, Ohio.
Sid Dambrot worked at Ford Motor Company and his wife, Faye, was a psychology professor at the University of Akron, where she was also the tutor for the men’s basketball team and started the women’s studies department.
Basketball runs in the Dambrot family. Sid was a guard and forward at Duquesne from 1951-1954. He played on a team with three future professionals, helped the Dukes reach the Elite Eight in 1952 and was a member of the only Duquesne team to be ranked No. 1 by the Associated Press. Irwin Dambrot, Sid's brother, was a first-round draft pick of the Knicks in 1951 after being named MVP of the NCAA Tournament in City College of New York’s run toward the championship game.
Sid passed along his love of the sport to Keith, the couple’s only child, through stories of his time in Pittsburgh. The two would attend games at Duquesne when the family visited Faye’s mother in Squirrel Hill and Keith would flip through the black and white photos inside his father's scrapbook, transporting him back to a time when his father’s teammates brought basketball glory to Pittsburgh.
“He’s always had a special place in his heart for Duquesne,” Keith’s wife, Donna, said. “I remember him always talking (about) the old days with his dad.”
As a child, Keith's talents in baseball far exceeded those in basketball. He was an outstanding third baseman, earning a spot on the University of Akron’s baseball team. There he was a three-year starter, a captain and team MVP, even finishing his career as the leader in hit-by-pitches when he graduated in 1982.
While pursuing his MBA at Akron's business school, Dambrot, despite not having played basketball since high school, was offered a graduate assistant position on Bob Rupert's staff. Rupert coached him in high school and was hired as Akron’s men's basketball coach prior to the 1981 season. When another assistant coach left after two seasons, Dambrot was promoted to a full-time assistant. “I kind of just fell into it,” Keith joked.
Dambrot ascended quickly through the coaching ranks. At 25 years old, he became the head coach at Tiffin, an NAIA program, in 1984, followed by a stint as an assistant coach at Eastern Michigan and three years as the head coach at Ashland, a Division II program in Ohio. Finally, in 1991, Dambrot became a Division I head coach at Central Michigan — a rising star in the coaching profession.
His star came crashing down two years later.
“It was hard to believe how somebody who is not close to being racial got labeled that for using a bad term,” said Terry Weigand, who played for Dambrot at Tiffin and has been one of his assistant coaches since 2004. “That was just the unbelievable thing. When people were saying that, it’s like, ‘Wow, are we talking about the same guy here?’ ”
Amere May was captivated the first time he heard Dambrot speak. Dambrot was unlike any coach he had met — young and energetic but tough. They had come from two very different worlds, but quickly formed a bond.
When May arrived on Central Michigan’s campus in 1992, Dambrot would often pull him aside to share advice about fatherhood; Amere’s eventual wife, Kenya, gave birth to their son, Amere Jr., when Amere was 18 years old. Dambrot wanted to make sure his talented freshman was present as a father.
“He was more of a father figure than anything,” May, who is now a pastor in North Carolina, said in a phone interview. “He shared with me the responsibilities of a man, and how to take ownership of my situation. He was genuine. He was tough, but you knew he cared. He was a family man.”
It was much like Dambrot’s relationship with other players. He’d have them over for dinner and took them out on the family’s boat on Portage Lakes near Akron. That coaching philosophy was inherited from his father along with others, particularly his father’s experiences at Duquesne under Moore, who did not tolerate lackluster play on defense, yet maintained a close bond with his players.
“That’s kind of really how I built my whole career,” Keith said.
May’s recruiting class was somewhat of a coup for Central Michigan. The eight talented freshmen arrived after the Chippewas went 12-16 in Dambrot’s first season and represented a potential building block for the program.
Before the program could be built, though, there was a home conference game against Miami of Ohio on Jan. 20, 1993.
Central Michigan was losing at halftime, when Dambrot — infuriated by a lack of defense and toughness — addressed his players. With 11 African-American players in the locker room, including May, Dambrot asked for permission to use the racial term he heard them saying amongst each other, according to May and Dambrot's testimony in a civil lawsuit.
“He said, ‘I need you guys to play tough,’ May recalled. “‘I need you to play like some n***as in the inner city.' Nobody was offended by it because we knew the relationship between coach Dambrot and ourselves. We knew he wasn’t racist. We knew he was by the book. He cared about all of us.”
Central Michigan lost that game by 16 points, but the impact went far beyond one night. It later came out that Dambrot had also used the n-word in a separate instance. Two months before the halftime speech, Dambrot allegedly used the term after some of his players misbehaved in class. At the end of the season, a former player, Shannon Norris, reported Dambrot for using the word, and Dambrot was suspended pending an investigation.
Two weeks later, he was fired.
“It was not very smart,” Dambrot said. “It was stupid. Anybody who was there knows. The whole team backed me. It just wasn’t very smart. It’s a good learning tool for everyone else now that, ‘Hey, you can be headed to the top, and if you make a bad decision it can all be taken away.’ "
Dambrot filed the lawsuit against Central Michigan, arguing his First Amendment rights were violated. Five of his players — including May — also joined in the lawsuit. Dambrot wanted to phrase his speech in a manner in which they could relate, according to May and a civil lawsuit filed by Dambrot in the U.S. District Court in Bay City, Mich. To some, however, the choice of words came across as inappropriate and offensive.
"I was kind of shocked that he used that word being a coach and all because he -- I didn't think that was appropriate for him to use that word, him or any coach, talking to a group of mostly young adult black males," Corey Henderson, one of Dambrot's players, said according to court testimony. "I didn't think it was right for him to use that word."
Dambrot lost his appeal. The judge found that Dambrot’s rights were not violated by the firing.
“It was heartbreaking,” May said. “It messed a lot of people up. I think America is very hypocritical. Unfortunately I don’t think he got his justice in the civil case. I’m still thankful to the Lord that he was given a second chance."
[caption id="attachment_231853" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Dambrot paces the sideline in his final season at Akron. -- AP[/caption]
The gym at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron is quiet. Not even the air conditioning is blowing on a humid July day, and the bleachers are tucked away.
It is now called LeBron James Arena after James donated $1 million to replace the wooden bleachers and put in a new hardwood floor in 2013. To the left of the double-door entrance is a mural honoring James and his high school teammates. The gymnasium is lined by 26 banners, including two recognizing state championships won by the boys' basketball program.
This is where Keith Dambrot’s road to redemption began.
After being fired at CMU, Dambrot was blacklisted from coaching. He moved back to Akron and worked as a stockbroker for five years, managing people’s investments and plotting out his next move at night, a difficult adjustment for a man with no hobbies. Basketball was it, and Dambrot was determined to find his way back.
He searched online for coaching jobs unsuccessfully, being denied both at his own alma mater, Firestone High School, and nearby Central-Hower High School. On the request of a friend, Dambrot began holding Sunday clinics at the Shaw Jewish Community Center. What started with a handful of kids grew into almost 150. That’s when he first coached a group of 10-year-olds: Dru Joyce, Romeo Travis, Willie McGee, Sian Cotton and LeBron James.
“When he got back into coaching, I saw him come alive again,” Donna said.
A friend of Dambrot’s who worked for the city knew Fred Ost, president of St.Vincent-St. Mary High School — a private school powerhouse. The friend recommended Dambrot for the vacant head coaching position. He was hired in 1998. Joyce decided to enroll one year later. After the parents of the other players spoke to Dambrot about what happened at Central Michigan, they followed suit.
“Once you sit and talk to him you realize that’s not who he is or what he stands for,” said McGee, now the athletic director at St. Vincent-St. Mary. “We took it with a grain of salt. We knew it was an incident. Everyone deserves a second chance. He owned his mistake and learned from it.”
McGee learned quickly how much Dambrot cared for his players. After completing a basketball workout as a freshman, he and his teammates went to the junior varsity football game with Dambrot.
One of their friends sacked the opposing quarterback, who promptly kicked the player in the groin after the play. The St. Vincent-St. Mary athlete then grabbed the quarterback’s leg, pulled him up and kicked him in the rear end to exact his revenge. Parents screamed from the stands at the coaches on the sideline. Dambrot quickly stood and told the parents to let the coach handle the matter. But he made sure to pull the player aside after the game to scold him.
“It always resonated with me how he stood up for him,” McGee said. “There was a balance of, ‘I’m going to protect you, but I’m going to tell you when you’re wrong.’ After that point, we were running through walls for coach Dambrot.”
Over the next three years, Dambrot led the program to a 69-10 record, including back-to-back state championships with James on his team.
After three seasons, Dambrot’s second chance came in 2001.
Akron coach Dan Hipsher needed an assistant, and Akron’s athletic director, Mike Thomas, knew Dambrot well, since his son had attended those Sunday clinics. Hipsher did not think he had a chance to hire Dambrot since the job paid roughly $35,000 a year. Dambrot had two children and a mortgage, but this could be his last opportunity to return to college coaching. He calls it the most difficult decision of his life, next to the one that brought him to Duquesne.
“I felt like it was my only way to make a comeback,” Dambrot said. “I just didn’t like how it ended. I said, ‘Oh, well. I’ll do what I have to do and I did it.’ I left LeBron, which wasn’t easy to do. Not many people would have done that, but it worked out for me.”
In 2004, Dambrot was named Akron’s head coach. What followed was an unprecedented run for the program. Dambrot led the Zips to three NCAA Tournament appearances, three Mid-American Conference championships and was named the conference's coach of the year three times, winning 305 games in his 13 seasons there. He was able to accomplish it where his mother taught and where he discovered his passion for coaching.
Now, he’s trying to resurrect a program that means so much to him and his father.
“Guys my age generally are in retirement mode, but I’ve got this chip on my shoulder,” he said. "I can’t stand the fact that people don’t think Duquesne can win. Indirectly, they’re saying that I don’t care what you’ve done because you can’t win either. That kind of drives me. I just don’t understand why Duquesne can’t win.”
[caption id="attachment_392459" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Dambrot shares instructions. - LONG HONG / DKPS[/caption]
It's 8 a.m. on a Wednesday morning in June, when Dambrot, sitting at his office inside the Palumbo Center, stops mid-sentence and quickly pulls out a photocopied newspaper article from 1954 containing a photo of his father alongside three future pros: Ricketts, Green and Jim Tucker.
Dambrot treasures the history of the program. That’s what made March 27 such a difficult day for him. Dambrot was frustrated. After a 24-win season in 2016-17, Akron lost in the conference championship game, sending the Zips to the NIT. South Florida was interested in hiring him, but he declined. That’s when Duquesne athletic director Dave Harper called. It was the second time in five years his father’s alma mater came calling.
“This time just seemed different,” Donna said. “He just didn’t seem as fulfilled. It all boils down to that last game. If you don’t win that championship game the season just ends. That just wasn’t enough.”
Dambrot would have made $450,000, plus incentives, this season at Akron in a contract that ran through 2023, so it would have been easy for him to choose to remain there until retirement. He and his wife have what he calls his dream home in Portage Lakes and his father, who will turn 87 in January, still lives in the area.
But the more Dambrot thought about it, the more he wanted to prove to everyone that, after everything he had been through in his coaching career, he's the one who can return Duquesne to prominence.
Success likely won't come early, though. Sophomore guard Mike Lewis II, who averaged a team-high 14.1 points per game last season, is one of eight returning players but two promising bigs — Isiaha Mike and Nakye Sanders — transferred. Dambrot added four freshmen and six transfers, five of whom won't be eligible to play this season.
It's a process that won't happen overnight, but Dambrot does not see it ending how it did for the coaches who preceded him.
“The last eight guys got fired,” he said. “I don’t really think that statistic is going to hit me. That may sound arrogant. When eight guys in a row get fired, that’s a systemic problem, not a coaching problem. … I just think Duquesne got caught in a rut. Duquesne people, Pittsburgh people, coaches around the country don’t think you can win here. But I don’t see it.”
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