During the two years LeBron James played for Keith Dambrot at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, the criticism James and his teammates received from their coach in practice was so tough to take that more than once they walked off the court.
“It was just too much for us,” James said. “We were like, ‘We don’t understand why you’re getting on us, we didn’t do anything wrong.’
“He was so demanding, but it made us who we were.”
James, the three-time NBA MVP, met Dambrot, now-University of Akron coach, when he was 13 at the $1 clinics Dambrot held at the Shaw Jewish Community Center in Akron. By the time he was 14, Dambrot had realized James’ potential and turned up the volume.
“It was definitely hard for me to understand his methods, the way he coached me at the beginning,” James said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “It was hard to adjust to it.”
Asked if Dambrot yelled at him every day, James replied, “Damn near,” and laughed heartily.
UA senior center Zeke Marshall can definitely relate. Marshall’s mother, Nicole Bozeman, said her son felt such venom for Dambrot as a freshman that he referred to Dambrot as “Diablo,” the Spanish word for devil.
“ ‘Diablo, I hate him, he’s always calling me. What do you want now?’ ” Bozeman recalled Sunday. “That first year he was not liking coach D at all.”
Dambrot thinks Marshall got off easy.
“We pampered Zeke compared to LeBron,” Dambrot said Monday after practice at Rhodes Arena. “It wasn’t even close.”
But there is a reason Dambrot badgers rather than babies those with the most potential.
“I’ve always been hardest on my best players,” Dambrot said. “That’s the way it should be. Why yell at a guy who can’t play? That doesn’t make any sense. It also makes the guys know that the stars aren’t going to get pampered.
“Ask LeBron. I’m probably the only guy who ever told him his breath was stinky because I knew he was going to be a great player. It was my obligation to make him great.”
After what might seem a long journey, that might be what’s starting to happen with Marshall, a 7-foot senior center. Aided by Marshall’s improved defensive presence, UA will make its third NCAA appearance in five years and the fourth in school history Thursday night. With the Zips earning their highest NCAA seed at No. 12, they face No. 5 VCU at 9:45 p.m. in South Regional action at The Palace of Auburn Hills.
“I’m extremely happy for him and proud of him,” said James, who talks to Dambrot frequently and worked out with him during the 2011 NBA lockout. “I’ve always rooted for him, for his success at Akron. It couldn’t be happening to a better coach.”
UA might not be in this position if Dambrot’s message hadn’t finally sunk in with Marshall. Armed with a stronger body and more confidence thanks to Dambrot’s prodding, Marshall speaks of nothing less than the Zips winning the NCAA championship.
“I had never been coached like that before, so it took a long time to get used to it,” Marshall said after practice Monday. “I knew down the road, as hard as it looked, it was going to pay off in the end. Sure enough it is right now.
“It’s really going to pay off when we’re six games in. That’s why I continue to follow what he does.”
James figures Marshall and the Zips are better equipped to handle Dambrot’s extreme coaching style.
“They’re college kids,” James said. “Just imagine a 14-year-old. He would always get on me and say, ‘You may not understand it, but I’m doing it for your own good. You have to work harder than everybody else out here. I’m going to get on you more than anybody else out here. I’m doing it for your own good.’
“I didn’t want to hear that. I had no idea what he was talking about. But he knew.”
James said he and the Fighting Irish saw the results of Dambrot’s nonstop badgering during games.
“We saw how much harder we worked than the opposing team,” James said. “We always said our practices were harder than the game. We won two state championships with him and only lost one game in back-to-back seasons. Whatever he was doing was definitely working.”
James figures he might not have become one of the best to play in the NBA and led the Miami Heat to the championship last season had it not been for Dambrot.
“To this day I always say he was one of the best coaches I ever played for,” James said. “He always said I could be great and realized I could go places no one could ever foresee. Between him and [St. V-M coach] Dru Joyce, they saw something in me I didn’t see at the beginning. I just wanted to play the game of basketball, play free and have fun. I didn’t see the hard work that had to be put into it until I met coach D and coach Dru.”
That’s the same lackadaisical attitude Marshall had when he arrived at UA, Bozeman said. As a freshman, Bozeman said Marshall “couldn’t lift the [bench press] bar, was physically not fit, was fundamentally not as sound as he should have been and didn’t really love the game.”
“I love coach D,” Bozeman said after UA’s NCAA watch party at Rhodes Arena. “He saw something in my son that other people just either didn’t want to see, didn’t care if it was there or felt, ‘I don’t have time to develop that.’
“He was willing to put the time in. He was willing to deal with those moments when they bumped heads because he knew ‘If I keep polishing, I keep pressing, I keep developing you, I keep pushing you, you’re going to be great.’ And here comes great.”
Dambrot realizes that Marshall is far from a finished product and has told his mother as much.
“Zeke had to grow up as a man,” Dambrot said. “He came here as an immature, nerdy, geeky guy, and he turned into a man. He’s still in the process of developing even further into a man.”
James stands alone among those Dambrot has coached, with Marshall second. Dambrot said James could take his mental pounding, while Marshall was another story.
“From Day One. I really didn’t have to get on LeBron much,” Dambrot said. “He was easy. He wanted to be great.
“I’m a perfectionist. So when you’re a perfectionist every little thing becomes important, and you try to convey that. What I tried to teach LeBron was how to do it the right way on a daily basis. That’s the same thing I tried to teach Zeke, was how to be a professional. That took time with him. LeBron didn’t take too much time. He understood it.”
Marshall recalls the “Diablo” days, perhaps not fondly.
“He’s lightened up,” Marshall said. “It was all for good reason. He was looking out for my best interest. As much as I hated him at times, I had to suck it up and keep pushing and look at where I am now. He always said, ‘You’ll be laughing all the way to the bank if you listen to me.’ ”
Marshall said that Dambrot’s words started to sink in after his junior year, and that he began to work harder in practice and in the weight room. Now Marshall, like James, has come to appreciate Dambrot’s methods, as tortuous as they once seemed.
“If you actually have potential, he’s going to get on you,” Marshall said. “When he’s yelling at me or [Nick] Harney, he does it because he knows what we’re capable of. That’s what coach D excels at, unlocking players’ potentials.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.