- Walter Novak
- The contrite coach: Dambrot has made the most of his second chance in Akron.
Keith Dambrot's cell phone rings. For the third time in three hours, it's his wife. He had to miss his kids' soccer games for his St. Vincent-St. Mary boys basketball team practice, and she's relaying winning scores.
One of the nation's top-ranked sophomores zips down from the bleachers and presses his ear to his coach's, sandwiching the phone between them, shouting "Hello? Hello?" into the air. Nearly a foot taller, 15-year-old LeBron James encloses Dambrot like a giant parenthesis. Eventually, Dambrot gives in and hands the phone to James, who has a short, pleasant conversation with Donna Dambrot.
"Outside of basketball, he's my friend," James says of his coach.
Dambrot, 42, starting his third season with the Fighting Irish of Akron, is still glowing from last year's Division III state championship.
When they enrolled last year, James and a group of friends who had played in leagues together since grade school had the usual freshman questions about program and coach. But for parents of black players especially, there are always extra questions for Keith Dambrot.
His success follows five years in exile, after his former career crashed on a word.
"It's past him, and he's started something new," James says. "God forgives everybody."
What would the Almighty need to forgive in a mild-mannered, (nearly) 5-foot-8 stockbroker who looks vaguely like a thinner Paul Reiser?
The only child of Sid and Faye Dambrot was a baseball MVP at the University of Akron, but upon graduation he turned to the family sport: hoops. His dad played in college; his uncle Irwin was the New York Knicks' first-round draft pick in 1950. After a series of assistant and head coaching jobs at small colleges, Dambrot made the fast break to Division I at age 32 with the head job at Central Michigan University. It was a losing team, "building" during his two years there.
Eleven of Dambrot's 14 players were black, and throughout his career he had been steeped in street language -- maybe too much, he says today. Players often used the word "nigger" among each other -- a word, says Dambrot, they used to designate someone who's "fearless, mentally strong, and tough." So during or after yet another loss in 1993 -- no one can remember exactly when -- he first asked permission to speak as they did, then described the hardest-working, most aggressive players as "niggers" and others as "half-niggers" or "not niggers." In an earlier talk, he had told them to act like "niggers" on the court, but not in the classroom (some had intimidated a white female professor by being too fearless and tough in class).
Somehow, a walk-on who quit the team earlier heard about the speeches and complained to the university's affirmative-action officer, leading to discipline, publicity, outcry, and firing. But the rest of the team united behind Dambrot -- all 11 black players joined his wrongful-termination suit, claiming the university's policy against discriminatory language was too vague. Dambrot lost; the students prevailed, overturning the school's language policy.
Seven of the eight freshmen Dambrot recruited for that season left CMU, but kept in touch through him. One, Torrey Mills, told The Detroit News: "It wasn't right, what happened to Coach Dambrot."
"I really have no problem with people saying what I said was unprofessional or naive or dumb -- but beyond that is ridiculous," Dambrot says.
Dambrot came home, where people know him as the son of the woman who founded the University of Akron's women's studies program and who complained about lack of minority hiring at Inventure Place, the downtown inventors' hall of fame.
"It's a little easier for me in Akron," he says.
He finally put his MBA to work, selling stocks, bonds, and securities. But he missed the squeak of shoes on polished wood floors. "There's only a couple things you do well in life, and I thought I was a pretty good basketball coach."
For five years, every school said no. He understood.
Then St. Vincent-St. Mary launched an emergency search for a part-time coach. Administrators decided Dambrot deserved a second chance.
"I can understand why a college would let a coach go in that situation," says Headmaster David Rathz. "We would."
But a Christian school practices forgiveness, and Rathz says Dambrot has become an object lesson for a diverse student body -- both for what to avoid and how to recover from monumental misjudgment.
"He's been great with the kids," Rathz says. "He's one of those coaches who attracts kids to the school."
In Dambrot's first year, the Irish made it to the playoffs, losing in the regionals to the eventual state champions. Last March, they won the title with a 27-0 record. ESPN.com calls Dambrot "one of the best coaches in the Midwest."
"It would have been very easy for me to never coach again," Dambrot says. "But what does that teach anybody? My kids can look at me and say he got to Division I on his own, he fell flat on his face, and he picked himself up."
Faced with inevitable questions from parents, Dambrot hands over CMU players' affidavits.
"I told Coach Dambrot I would judge him from the time I met him forward," says Dru Joyce II, assistant coach and father of sophomore Dru Joyce III. "He's a good man. All the parents of the kids here, they recognize who he is and what he's done. There's some entities that keep wanting to bring [the past] up."
Here's what parents see so far: His teams win. He treats their children well. He helps get them into good colleges.
Dambrot says his job is to make his kids better students, people, and players. Practices start with an hour of homework; academic stragglers study extra on Saturdays.
He's heard every single theory on the power of language and authority in the last seven years. So he tells players his story and what words can do. But he questions whether he has a right to tell minority youth how to speak.
"It's not my job to tell them they can't use ['nigger']," Dambrot says. "It's my job to explain the ramifications if they use it. I tell them I don't want them to use it around me, because when I hear it I cringe."
The players still hear murmurs, taunts from competitors: "How can you play for that guy?"
"They don't know how hard we work here," James says. "They can't say anything right now -- we won the state championship."
Bottom line: Winning equals job security.
The Irish are attracting college scouts. Stan Heath, an assistant coach at Michigan State University -- who played under Dambrot when he was an assistant at Eastern Michigan University -- watches an informal workout. The squad fluidly picks teams for a marathon of shirts-and-skins, the players resembling a flock of sandhill cranes in ocean-going Nikes.
"He's got some terrific young players," Heath says. "They've got a guy who really knows the game."
The discipline in Dambrot's program gives his players a boost, Heath adds, because scouts think the players will make an easier transition from high school to college -- a transition that may eventually include Dambrot, according to whispers.
"He should be in college," Heath says. "He's a great coach."
But Dambrot says there are too many talented coaches for a school to take one with baggage.
"I'm a realist," he says. "I'm happy with what I do. That's not to say if someone came to me and asked . . .
"I'd say I have three-quarters redemption at this point. I'm looking for full redemption."