Why LeBron James is rooting for a Pittsburgh Catholic school in NCAA tournament

LeBron James is a longtime supporter of the Ohio State basketball team.

The Buckeyes, however, did not make the NCAA men’s basketball tournament this year.

James’ oldest son, Bronny James, plays for USC, but the Trojans’ season ended with their 70-49 loss to Arizona in the Pac-12 tournament quarterfinals last week.

Nonetheless, James still has a rooting interest during March Madness. The Lakers superstar appears to be putting his support behind a private Catholic school from Pittsburgh making its first NCAA tournament appearance in 47 years.

It’s not as random as it may sound. The Duquesne Dukes, surprise winners of the Atlantic-10 Conference tournament last weekend, are led by head coach Keith Dambrot and associate head coach Dru Joyce III. As the No. 11 seed in the East Regional, they’re playing No. 6 Brigham Young on Thursday.

Long before James became the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, Dambrot was his coach and Joyce was his teammate and close friend in Akron, Ohio, first at a youth basketball clinic and then at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School.

James gave a shout-out to his two old friends Sunday after Duquesne defeated Virginia Commonwealth 57-51 in the Atlantic-10 championship game to qualify for the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1977.

“YESSIRRR!! Punch that to the Big Dance @DuqMBB!!!” James wrote on X (formerly Twitter). “CONGRATULATIONS!!!!! Love you Coach Dambrot & @CoachDruJoyce.”

James also retweeted a post from Duquesne that showed Dambrot after cutting down the net and was captioned: “Keith Dambrot. Mission Accomplished.”

“THE BEST!!!!!!” James wrote, along with several raised hand emojis.

Dambrot told reporters Monday that he received a congratulatory call from James the previous evening.

“It just shows how much he cares about us,” Dambrot said. “When a superstar like him calls you after a game, that means something, right?”

When he first crossed paths with James, Dambrot was several years removed from a scandal that had derailed his once-promising coaching career. In 1993, during Dambrot’s second season as head coach at Central Michigan, he used the N-word during a speech to his team. He is said to have asked for and received permission from his players, most of whom were Black, to use the term in that instance.

Word got out, however, and Dambrot was fired. He filed (and eventually lost) a wrongful termination lawsuit against Central Michigan citing a too-vague policy against discriminatory language, with every Black player on the team joining the suit in support of their former coach, the Cleveland Scene reported in 2000.

Unable to find another job in coaching, Dambrot became a stockbroker and started running a youth basketball clinic at a Jewish community center in Akron. That’s where he met a 13-year-old James, who much later wrote about getting to know Dambrot and the circumstances surrounding his firing from Central Michigan before making any judgment about him.

“According to court records, he said he had used the term to connote ‘a person who is fearless, mentally strong and tough,’ in the same vein that players themselves used the term in referring to one another,” James wrote, along with co-author Buzz Bissinger, in a book excerpt that appeared in Vanity Fair in 2009.

“At least eight black players on the team subsequently said that Dambrot had always treated them fairly. I believe them, because I got to know Coach Dambrot as well as anybody and never ever did I see him act in any way that was racist. It just wasn’t in the man.”

James, Royce and their teammates grew close with Dambrot, who landed the coaching job at St. Vincent-St. Mary in 1998. That group joined their coach at the high school the following year and won state titles during James’ freshman and sophomore seasons, before Dambrot left to take an assistant coaching position at his alma mater, the University of Akron.

“I’m just thankful to have the relationship with him,” Dambrot said of James during Monday’s news conference. “He’s a better — this is a hard statement — he’s a better human being than he is a basketball player, which tells you a lot. He did a lot for our community.”

Dambrot was named head coach at Akron in 2004 and led the Zips to three NCAA tournament bids (but no tournament wins) over the next 13 seasons. In 2017, he took the head coaching job at Duquesne, where his father had played for the then-national powerhouse Dukes in the 1950s.

On Monday, the 65-year-old coach announced he will be stepping down when the Dukes’ March Madness run comes to an end.

He said that he was 80% sure this would be his final season over the summer and then later became 100% convinced when his wife, Donna Dambrot, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Even though Donna is well enough to travel with the Dukes this week, Dambrot told reporters “I think it’s time” to step away.

Dambrot informed school officials and his assistants of his plan months ago but told few others. He didn’t even tell his most famous former player during their phone conversation Sunday night.

Even so, Dambrot said of James, “he knows me well enough to kind of have an inkling that this was going to be it for me.”

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