Duquesne’s Keith Dambrot, LeBron James’ high school coach, to retire at end of season

By Tess DeMeyer, Joe Vardon and Jason Lloyd

Duquesne’s NCAA Tournament bid, which was already historic given it’s the Dukes’ first time at the big dance in 46 years, just got an added dash of sentimentality as coach Keith Dambrot announced Monday that he will retire at the end of the season.

The news comes a day after the Dukes beat VCU in the Atlantic 10 championship to secure their spot in the bracket.

Dambrot got his first Division I head coaching job at Central Michigan in 1991, though he only lasted two seasons. After a stint coaching at a Jewish Community Center, he got hired by St. Vincent-St. Mary’s High in Akron in 1998. There he guided a team led by a teenaged LeBron James to two state titles before leaving to become an assistant at Akron. He eventually became the Zips’ head coach and went 305-139 in 13 years, where he often won or finished high in the standings but lost in the league tournament.

He made the move to Duquesne in March 2017 and considered retiring last summer to take care of his wife, Donna, after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. The Dukes finished the 2023-24 regular season with a 20-11 record before collecting four consecutive wins in their conference tournament to earn their Selection Sunday shoutout. Donna was in attendance for all four games at Barclays, the first games she has attended this season.

Entering the NCAA Tournament, Dambrot has an overall head coaching record of 708-440. His record at Duquesne stands at 115-95. The Dukes will try to bump that to 116 when they take on BYU in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday.

The origins of Dambrot’s career

Keith is fortunate to have known Dru Joyce III.

What? You were thinking LeBron? Well, here is how Dambrot first became a high-school coach, an experience that re-launched his successful tenure in the college ranks.

Dambrot knew Joyce by coaching in some Akron summer leagues and at the local Jewish center. Joyce’s father was an assistant coach at Akron Buchtel, one of the top public schools for basketball in the area, and in the summer of 1999, Dambrot was entering his second season as coach at Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary’s High School.

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Joyce, meanwhile, was barely 5 feet tall and was entering his freshman year the same summer. He had three close friends, one of whom you’ve definitely heard of, and they all wanted to go to school together. Joyce, even though his dad was on the Buchtel staff, didn’t think he would get a chance to play there, and he had met Dambrot on the local courts. Dambrot, like Joyce, was a small point guard, and the two hit it off in their conversations.

Joyce agreed to attend St. V., and his friends came too. Including LeBron Raymone James. Dambrot’s next two teams, with James, won Ohio state titles, and he was hired to return to the college coaching ranks at his alma mater — the University of Akron.

In subsequent years, as LeBron rose in the NBA, James often credited Dambrot for the discipline and toughness he taught as James’ first high school coach. Dambrot is Akron’s all-time winningest coach and is in the Summit County Sports Hall of Fame (Akron is the county seat). I’ll admit, I lost track of his career as he went to Duquesne, but will forever admire the college career he built after having left LeBron, and I know it was a strong partnership with James because LeBron still remembers him, too. — Joe Vardon, senior NBA writer

James and Dambrot needed each other more than either realized. James has often referred to Dambrot as one of the most influential people in his development as a basketball player. James was 13 when he met Dambrot at one of the open gyms Dambrot hosted at a local Jewish Community Center.

Dambrot was fired from Central Michigan in 1993 in a messy scandal and couldn’t find another coaching job. With few alternatives, he entered the business world and volunteered at the community center running popular basketball clinics just to stay attached to the game. That’s when he met James. Dambrot was tough. He treated the boys like men and held them to high standards on the court.

Eventually, Dambrot was hired at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in 1998. James and his friends followed Dambrot to St. V prior to his second season there. As James’ star ascended nationally, Dambrot grew stricter with his best player. He was harder on James than any of his other players. It had to be that way. He was a father figure to a number of his players, James included. Dambrot wanted to be sure James didn’t fall victim to his own hype and fail to reach his immense potential.

Dambrot left St. V after two seasons with James and two state championships to return to the college ranks at the University of Akron. Each one helped the other at a time they needed it most. They remain incredibly close to this day. — Jason Lloyd, senior columnist 

Required reading


(Photo: Mike Stobe / Getty Images)

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