- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
- 0 Shares
AKRON, Ohio -- The four LeBron James banners hanging over James A. Rhodes Arena's court at the University of Akron were on loan for the James' Nike-sponsored skills academy the first week of July.
Akron coach Keith Dambrot joked that maybe he should keep them up for the season.
But he's not really kidding. James' shadow is hanging -- figuratively and literally -- over the Akron program in a way that Dambrot hopes will only loom larger.
The NBA All-Star, two-time Olympian and Akron native never attended a class at Akron or any other university. But he has adopted his hometown school as his alma mater so much so that the Zips are beginning to benefit in a variety of ways.
Akron's athletics are sponsored by adidas, but the men's basketball program is now separate, after signing a three-year deal with Nike/James. The team will wear the "LJ23" line next season.
"They'll get everything: bags, uniforms, shoes, travel wear, the whole nine yards," James said as he watched high school-aged players compete during his event.
The gear is just the most recognizable contribution. But there are other veiled, indirect benefits of the James-Akron tie.
While some coaches gripe about trekking to Akron for the highest-profile evaluation event of the summer during the past two seasons, it has been a huge coup for Dambrot. Putting the LeBron James Skills Academy at Akron, the LeBron James King's Academy (a summer camp in late June) and the King James Shooting Stars Classic AAU event in April, Dambrot has received unprecedented advertising for his program.
Akron is in the Mid-American Conference, dwarfed by the major players in the Big Ten, so any advantage it can gain helps.
"There's no question that this allows us to get with better players now that we're one of his main people [in gear] and that he plays open gym here and put his camp here and the AAU event here," Dambrot said. "Perception is reality. We've found that the LeBron connection helps us. When we ask a kid if he's ever been to Ohio, a number of them will say that they played in the AAU event here [in April]. We're taking more shots at kids, and all it takes is to get one or two."
James' connection to Akron isn't limited to the distance from his home (his mother, Gloria, still lives in town). Dambrot coached Akron's St. Vincent-St. Mary High school from 1998 to 2001. He won two state titles with James in 2000 and '01, before joining Akron as an assistant in 2001. Dru Joyce replaced Dambrot at SVSM that same year, and James' former teammates -- Dru Joyce (the coach's son) and Romeo Travis -- went on to play at Akron for Dambrot.
"We kept [LeBron] around the program for an extended period of time," Dambrot said, referring to the connection between James and his friends even after he was picked No. 1 in the 2003 draft. "He likes me, but he loves them. I'm his coach, but those are his buddies. Just having them here kept him more tied to the program. We're his school if you ask him."
James agreed without hesitation.
"It's simple with me," James said. "I have a relationship with Coach Dambrot. He gave me my first opportunity to play high school basketball. The relationship continues to grow even after he left. This is my way of giving back to Coach Dambrot for everything he has done for me.
"He gave my friends an opportunity to play college basketball, and I'm giving back to [Akron]."
James said he recognizes that by putting the tournaments in Akron, he has given the city and the school a place on the college basketball recruiting map.
"Hopefully this can attract kids to come to Akron and make Coach Dambrot's program better," James said.
What's interesting is that the highest-rated recruit under Dambrot isn't citing the James connection as a reason to play at Akron.
Ezekiel Marshall, a 6-foot-11 center from McKeesport, Pa. in the class of 2009, committed to the Zips in May. Marshall, who was also being recruited by Pittsburgh, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Duquesne, is the type of long, shot-blocking center who is not found often in the MAC.
However, Marshall said he chose Akron because of its information technology department, along with his ability to connect with Dambrot and his staff. He said Akron was the first school to recruit him in the ninth grade, and even though a number of high majors were recruiting him, he is sticking with his commitment to the Zips.
"I would like to be the person that they can build on," Marshall said.
Marshall said he didn't even know there was a James connection to the school until he came for his visit.
"LeBron didn't make me see it, but when I did get here, I did realize that LeBron was an asset for the school," Marshall said. "I didn't know that he supported the school or that he grew up here."
The Marshall commitment is rare for Dambrot. The coach is hoping that as James' involvement increases, the Zips will be even more of an acceptable destination.
Of course, Dambrot has to win there first.
He did the past two seasons, just not enough to get into the NCAA tournament.
Two years ago, the Zips lost to Miami (Ohio) in the MAC final by one point. The Zips finished the season 26-7 (13-3 MAC East), and didn't even make the NIT. This past March, Akron lost to rival Kent State in the MAC tournament final, and did get an NIT bid. The Zips won at Florida State before losing at UMass in the second round to finish 24-11.
Dambrot is entering his fifth season as head coach after serving as an assistant for three seasons under Dan Hipsher. Scheduling became a bit easier within the past year, when the administration gave him $160,000 to buy three guaranteed games, something that a number of MAC teams can't afford. Teams at this level usually have to do only home-and-home series and can't afford to buy a team for a home game without a return.
Getting the James connection going is one step and winning postseason games continues the climb to prominence. But actually winning the MAC tournament is a must because the MAC hasn't sent two teams to the NCAA tournament since 1999. Akron hasn't been since 1986 -- their only tournament appearance -- when Bob Huggins was coach and the Zips were in the Ohio Valley Conference.
It will be tough to make the Big Dance next season because Akron will have eight freshmen (including six true freshmen) on the roster. The Zips also lost their top three scorers from last season.
"We've positioned ourselves to be a consistent winner, but the first thing we have to do is get in the NCAA tournament," Dambrot said. "This will be the true test for us with the freshmen. Can we win this year? If we can, then we have a great chance to propel instead of taking a step back. I believe we did the right thing by going with young kids to maintain this. We may not be as good, but we still will win our share."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.