Akron celebrates the return of LeBron James

by Ryan Isley

(Originally published on More Than  A Fan on July 14, 2014)

This past weekend in downtown Akron, the Italian-American Festival was held for the 67th straight year. Only for the 2014 version of the festival, the sun was brighter, the people were friendlier and hell, even the beer went down smoother. All because of three words that changed things on that Friday afternoon.

“I’m coming home.”

Yes, those three simple words changed Akron and all of Northeast Ohio.

Those were the words of LeBron James in his essay explaining where he would be signing after opting out of his contract with the Miami Heat and becoming a free agent. It had come down to returning to Miami or Cleveland, and this time, home was where LeBron’s heart was.

AEveryone had been on pins and needles waiting for LeBron to make his decision and inform us all of where he would be playing in 2014 and beyond, but for days, all we heard were rumors of meetings and speculation of when the decision would be made. We refreshed Twitter at what had to be a record pace, and even crashed LeBron’s website on more than one occasion.

We went from euphoric to worried based on every rumor that was floated out there, no matter the validity. Some people even tracked the private plane of Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, forcing the owner to make his plane no longer traceable to the public.

We were told that the decision would be announced on his website at this time or that time. We were told that the police were informed to have heightened security around LeBron’s Bath Township home on Thursday afternoon because an announcement would be coming at 3:30 pm – as in 330 – the area code of Akron, his hometown. It all seemed logical, if not even genius.

Only it never happened.

For a week, minutes turned into hours and hours turned into days. As the saga dragged into Friday, people were wondering if it would not have been a better idea to just do another television special, if only to give people an actual timetable as to when the announcement would be made.

And then out of nowhere, it happened. Shortly after noon on Friday, July 11th, the tweet we were all waiting for was posted. But it wasn’t from LeBron James. It was from Sports Illustrated. Lee Jenkins had scored the exclusive with LeBron and helped the 29-year-old superstar pen an essay entitled “I’m Coming Home.” The kid from Akron who spent his first seven seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers was headed to back to where it all started.

Like that, the speculation was over and the celebration in Northeast Ohio (and crying in Miami) began.

I was interested to see the reaction in LeBron’s hometown, because even though the hate towards LeBron in Akron was not as fierce as it was in Cleveland, there were still people who harbored resentment towards him. When I would wear my “Witness” shirt over the past few years, I would get as many dirty looks as I would nods of approval. There were those like myself who had proclaimed our support for LeBron over the past few years, but there was still a portion of the city who vowed they would never forgive him for leaving, especially with how it transpired.

Once the announcement was made, I tossed on my LeBron James No.23 Cavaliers shirt – it had been waiting for days to be worn – and headed to the grocery store with a smile plastered on my face that even a few idiotic drivers couldn’t erase. As I walked through the store, people were coming up to me and giving me high-fives as they exclaimed their excitement for the return of their hometown kid.  This was not completely surprising to me – after all, people in Akron had been quicker to forgive LeBron than those in Cleveland over the past few years – but it still caught me a little off guard. While I knew the excitement might be over the top, I underestimated that everyone would already know what had happened. After all, the announcement came in the middle of the day on a Friday.

That’s when I decided that my next stop on Friday had to be downtown, where it was the perfect night for a festival. Wearing the same No.23 Cavaliers shirt, I headed down to meet up with a friend for a few hours. The first thing that I saw once arriving was that the marquee on the Akron Civic Theater had been changed to read “Welcome Home LeBron.” Walking around the festival, everyone started counting LeBron shirts and jerseys, and they were plentiful, as were Cavaliers shirts being worn by people who probably no longer owned a LeBron one.

It isn’t hyperbole when I say that people genuinely seemed nicer over the course of the evening. There were random high-fives and fist bumps between total strangers, and conversations between those same strangers about Cavaliers basketball. In July. It was as if the Cavaliers had just won the NBA title, not gone 33-49 this past season and 97-215 over the past four seasons combined. I returned to the festival on Saturday evening wearing my “Witness” shirt and it was more of the same.

As I was leaving on Saturday, I ran into Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic, who happened to just be walking around. As I went to talk to him and tell him it was a good week for the city, he shook my hand and agreed. He then proceeded to stand there and talk to me for about five minutes about LeBron, the city,  and the Cavs. He told me he wasn’t surprised that LeBron was returning home, and that he had supported no matter what the hometown hero did. It reminded me of the night of “The Decision” when I interviewed Mayor Plusquellic about 90 minutes before LeBron announced his intentions.

“I wear three hats in this situation,” Plusquellic told me that night. “I have the family hat, the personal hat and the Mayor hat. As a family man, I understand that he has to do what is best for his family and that does not always mean going with the most money.

“As the Mayor, of course I hope he stays. He has been good for the city of Akron and even if he leaves I believe he will still be committed to the city. Most of all, I just hope he makes the right decision for him.”

Another guy who never wavered in his support of LeBron James was the guy who coached him for his first two years at Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, Keith Dambrot. The current men’s basketball head coach at the University of Akron, Dambrot continued to support “his guy” despite LeBron’s decision to leave the Cavaliers.

“I love LeBron, I don’t care what anybody thinks,” Dambrot told me in November 2010, just months after LeBron’s departure. “When you live in the situation that he lives in, people are never going to be totally happy with you. I wouldn’t be the coach here if it wasn’t for him. I am going to back my guy regardless of what he does.”

I wish I could say that I stood loyally by LeBron from day one the way that Plusquellic and Dambrot did. Instead, it took me about a year. I rooted for the Dallas Mavericks to win the championship in that first year that LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh teamed up. I was still mad over the way LeBron left and that the Cavaliers would now be irrelevant in the NBA landscape.

And then something funny happened. After the Heat lost that series to Dallas, LeBron returned home. To Akron. He held his annual bike-a-thon for the kids and donated money to the Boys and Girls Club of Akron. Those gestures made me realize that LeBron didn’t leave his hometown, rather he left the team for which he was playing. To me, that was a simple distinction. He still cared about Akron, and that was enough for me.

Starting then, I was happy for LeBron each time something positive happened, like winning his third and fourth NBA MVP awards or another trip to the NBA Finals. I was happy for him when he won his first NBA title and just as happy that he won the second. After rooting against LeBron and the Heat in the 2011 NBA Finals, I found myself rooting for them in the 2012, 2013 and 2014 NBA Finals.

When I would go out to watch the games, some people understood where I was coming from, as they were from Akron as well. I understood to an extent where people were still upset, but I tried to remind them that LeBron was still from our city, the one where we were sitting in at that moment, watching him on the NBA’s biggest stage. Some people were not receptive of the concept, with some of them being respectful about it while others spewed ignorance.

Some people refused to let go of their feelings of hate towards LeBron and let me hear it as often as they could. It seemed as if the number of those people went down from 2012 to 2013 to 2014, but there were still those who had to be vocal. I refused to back down, with sometimes the evenings turning confrontational. But I didn’t care – I wasn’t going to be pushed around just because I was supportive of LeBron.

That is why I felt the need to see the reaction in Akron. I had to see for myself if the mood had changed and if LeBron was now going to be universally accepted in the city in which he grew up. I had to see if wearing my LeBron gear was now acceptable once again and if I would receive more nods of approval than dirty looks. Was all forgiven by the people in his hometown?

The answer was a resounding ‘yes.’ The fans in Akron had seemingly forgotten that night in July of 2010 and were able to look past the four years in which LeBron played for the Heat. It was like LeBron had donned a black suit, white shirt, black tie and a pair of Ray Bans and had come into possession of one of the neuralyzers from “Men in Black” to use it on the people of Akron and Northeast Ohio.

But it wasn’t the nueralyzer that was used to erase those memories of the past four years. This time, it was the written word. More specifically, the words of LeBron that appeared in the well-written, thought out piece for Sports Illustrated, making it clear how much he loved his hometown and how he felt about Northeast Ohio. The 951 words all but trumped his made-for-television special from 2010 and seemed to heal the deep wounds left when he announced on national television that he was leaving.

The excerpts where he showed that he understood Northeast Ohioans, ones like “In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have,” resonated with those who have spent their entire lives here.  He told them that he wanted to give them hope, that he realized now what he didn’t realize four years ago – “My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball.”

He said that while he still would have left for Miami in 2010, he wishes he would have done it differently. He had said this before, but this time it weighed heavier because it was coming directly from him to the people he had hurt. Those words that came from LeBron James made his return more important than his departure.

In 2010, LeBron told the world on national television “I’m going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat.” In 2014, he told the people of Northeast Ohio “I’m coming home.”

It took 14 words to become a villain and just three words to return to being a hero.

Welcome home, LeBron – your fans await with open arms.

Comments? Questions? You can leave them here or email Ryan at ryanisley23@gmail.com You can also connect with him on Twitter @isley23.

Keith Dambrot’s success goes beyond winning and losing

When you have a consistent track record of success, people will find anything they can to criticize you. This has happened over the past couple of weeks for Akron Zips basketball coach Keith Dambrot.

Since Akron’s 70-65 loss to Kent State in the Mid-American Conference championship game on March 11th, some have questioned the success of Dambrot as a head coach. They have referenced his 3-6 record in nine appearances in the MAC championship game, so let’s start right there, shall we?

While Akron has won just three of its nine appearances in the game, the Zips have been in the championship game nine times in the last 11 seasons which includes seven in a row from 2007-2013. Both of those are claims no other school can make since the tournament began in 1980.

DambrotDambrot’s nine appearances as a head coach in the MAC championship game put him in elite company when it comes to championship games in the MAC. That list? It’s Dambrot. That’s all. Charlie Coles is the only other coach who comes close, with eight (two at Central Michigan and six at Miami). In fact, Dambrot has led the Zips to more MAC championship games in the past 11 seasons than all but three other schools have been to the game since 1980.

Overall in the MAC Tournament, Dambrot is 27-10 as the leader of the Zips.

As far as winning overall? Dambrot has that covered, too.

When the Zips defeated Bowling Green on January 5th this season, Dambrot became the school’s all-time winningest basketball coach with his 289th victory to surpass Russell Beichly. With Akron’s win over Houston in the first round of the NIT, Dambrot currently has 305 wins at the school.

Consistency has been the key to success for Dambrot and the Zips.

This season was the 12th straight in which the Zips have won 21 or more games. In fact, they have won 23 or more games in nine of those seasons which includes a program-record 27 wins this season. Its current streak of 21+ win seasons puts Akron in a class that includes just the Zips, Gonzaga, Duke and Kansas with current streaks of 21+ win seasons. The only season under Dambrot in which Akron didn’t win 21 or more games was his initial season in 2004-05, when the team won 19.

One of the reasons Akron has been able to remain consistent is because of Dambrot’s ability to adapt as a coach. Instead of trying to force a square peg into a round hole by making each team play by the same parameters as the last, Dambrot is able to use his team’s talents to its fullest. If that means they become a team that relies on 3-point shooting, so be it. If that means learning how to play inside out, that’s what they do. Whether it’s playing offense at a slow pace or at a faster pace, Akron always figures out a way.

The Zips have averaged as few as 66.8 points per game in a season under Dambrot and have also averaged as many as 77.2 points per game this season.

While the offense is adaptable, the defense is non-negotiable. If you want to see the floor as a Zip, you will play hard on the defensive end.

“If you don’t guard, you don’t play around here. That’s how we built the program,” Dambrot said after a game in January 2014. “We’ve got to bang them up, bruise them up, slop it up, beat ass. That’s what we have to do if we are going to win. Simple.”

And defend they do.

In Dambrot’s 13 seasons at the helm, Akron has held its opponents to less than 66 points per game nine times and to 42.0% or worse shooting nine times. Even in a season like this one where they allowed the highest points per game under Dambrot (70.4), the Zips still had a scoring differential of +7.2.

As strange as it may seem, coaching isn’t just about the wins and losses. It can also be about how a coach connects with his team, interacts with his players and the respect the players have for the coach.

And Dambrot has that down, too.

Dambrot has always shown a special connection to his players, and that connection has led to many moments where the head coach has had the back of one of his players through difficult times.

When Quincy Diggs was suspended by school administration for the 2013 season, it was Dambrot who stayed in the player’s corner. Diggs was reinstated for the 2014 season and was able to give advice to other players who were having a tough time because of the lessons he was taught by his head coach.

“He taught me about handling adversity,” Diggs said of Dambrot after a game in 2014. “He told me you have to fight (through it) and that’s exactly what I did.”

One of the more newsworthy off-court issues that has arisen during Dambrot’s reign at Akron was undoubtedly the arrest and suspension of point guard Alex Abreu right before Akron took on rival Kent State in the regular season finale in 2013. Despite the criticism Abreu took from most people, Dambrot said after the game that night that he was still going to back his player through his toughest of times.

“I am going to stick behind him. It is my obligation to stick behind him and get him through his difficult times,” Dambrot said that night. “Nobody knows better than me that people make mistakes. If anybody can forgive him, it’s going to be me.”

“I did tell our guys we have to give him more love than we have ever given anybody in our life because that’s what you do to a brother that is in trouble. We are going to be there for him. That’s all you can do and that’s why people come to Akron because that’s what we built the program on.”

Yes, that’s exactly what Dambrot has built his Akron program on – love for each other and the togetherness of a family.

It isn’t just about the public showing of support for a player when it comes to Akron’s coach that makes him special, though.

There was the night of February 21, 2015.

Freshman guard Noah Robotham had been averaging 8.9 points per game for the Zips when he injured his right knee. After the injury, Robotham went to the free throw line, where he hit one of two free throws before coming out of the game. The confirmation of a torn ACL wouldn’t come until a couple of days later, but if you saw Dambrot after the game, you didn’t need an MRI to know the truth.

After waiting for Dambrot to come into the media room following the game for what seemed like forever without Dambrot making his way in, another reporter and I asked about the coach. We were then led to the training room, where Dambrot was sitting on a table, head down, jacket off, tie loosened, top button of his dress shirt already unbuttoned. It was the look of a kid who had just lost his puppy.

It was then that we knew we wouldn’t be seeing Robotham again that season.

The look and body language from Dambrot? It wasn’t self-pity, even though nobody would have blamed him if it was. It was a genuine concern for one of his players – no, one of his sons. It’s one of those things that sets Dambrot apart.

So you can go ahead and judge Dambrot’s “success” based on just his record in the MAC championship game. As for me, I will judge him by the entire body of work.

After all, it’s a pretty impressive body of work.

Comments? Questions? You can email Ryan at ryanisley23@gmail.com or connect with him on Twitter @isley23.