By Daniel Uthman
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, March 19, 2009
PORTLAND, Ore., March 18 -- Chris McKnight joined in a pickup basketball game the first time he stepped on the University of Akron campus as a student and incoming scholarship basketball player.
One by one, his teammates decided whom they would guard, when one of them said, "Chris, you got LeBron."
Guarding LeBron James is both a benefit and challenge of being a men's basketball player for the Zips. Mostly due to a relationship with Akron Coach Keith Dambrot, who tutored a 13-year-old James and later coached him for two years at Akron's St. Vincent/St. Mary High School, James is one of the Zips' most avid and important supporters.
Akron, seeded 13th in the NCAA tournament's South Region, opens play Thursday against 4 seed Gonzaga. And though James is scheduled to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers at home against Portland instead of being at the Rose Garden, he will be represented by the Nike LJ23 logo on each Zips player's jersey and warm-up suit.
Akron is one of only two college basketball teams to wear the LJ23 brand (Ohio State is the other), but Zips followers claim him as their own. Last season, when archrival Kent State visited Akron's Rhodes Arena, students chanted, "LeBron's a Zips fan."
"I think he'd say that if he went to school right now, it would be the University of Akron," Dambrot said.
James was a 5-foot-11 boy late in his seventh-grade year when he met Dambrot, who sold stocks and bonds in Akron and also ran basketball clinics in the northeast Ohio city. Dambrot continued to coach James through two state high school basketball championships at St. Vincent/St. Mary before joining the Zips as an assistant coach in June 2001. Their bond endured.
"I think one thing you know about Lebron is, he has tremendous respect for anybody who has helped him," Dambrot said. "And he's a very loyal guy, and because of that loyalty he never forgot. That's a big deal, because we're not near the program without him as we are with him."
James holds his Nike-sponsored summer high school camps on Akron's campus, and the open gyms he holds there attract peers such as Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul. Dambrot points to the relationship as a significant boon for a mid-major team, even though James cannot come in contact with prospects until they are signed and on campus.
"If you ask kids around the country, they all relate to Lebron," Dambrot said. "Everybody knows that we're attached to him, and that's an unbelievable thing for recruiting-wise, just saying that this guy is part of our program."
James has the run of the facilities at Akron, but still maintains a respectful tone. Once during an open gym session he teamed with four players from hated Kent State and never stepped off the court. After that, Dambrot said, James approached him and said, "Sorry, Coach, I won't do that again."
Dambrot said he's never asked James for financial support, because he doesn't want to be one of the many people who do. Then he added, "When we do ask, it will be for a lot."
.James .initiated Akron's move to switch its men's basketball apparel license from Adidas to LJ23, according to Hunter Yurachek, Akron's executive senior associate athletic director. Yurachek said James told Dambrot he would push Nike to make the deal, which runs through June 2011.
"It's very influential for kids who are 17, 18 years old to know the world's greatest player has a relationship with the university and the community," Yurachek said.
McKnight, standing in the Zips' locker room in his blue and gold LeBrons, thought back to his first day on campus, when he drew his thrilling yet confounding defensive assignment.
"I was like, 'How am I supposed to guard this guy?'" McKnight said. "I'm a solid guy, but he's just a beast.
"He got me. I mean, I did hit one jumper over him, but he got the best of me."
In Dambrot's eyes, that's just another reason James is an asset to the Zips.
"That's the thing that's wild," Dambrot said. "They come in and play with him in the summertime and they figure out how bad they really are, comparatively speaking, and then they end up working hard."