RICHMOND, Va. – Shaka Smart probably expected to spend his first day of work at Akron watching film or browsing the school’s recruiting database. Instead, he helped Keith Dambrot work out LeBron James at lunch.
It was the Spring of 2003, and Smart was a precocious 26-year-old basketball junkie who had just landed his first Division I assistant coaching gig. Dambrot was also an assistant under Zips’ Coach Dan Hipsher and had previously coached James at Akron Saint Vincent-Saint Mary’s High School. James was a couple of months away from being the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft and was already one of the best basketball players on the planet. Although they’d never met before, Smart helped Dambrot work our James for the next couple of months.
“I didn’t really say much for the first few times because I was in awe,” Smart said of James. “But that was a great experience. But that’s the type of guy [Dambrot] is.”
Smart and Dambrot became fast friends. When Dambrot was tapped to replace Hipsher in 2004, Smart stayed on as one of his assistants. Although Smart left in 2006 for Clemson and then eventually worked at Florida before becoming VCU’s head coach in 2009, he and Dambrot remained close.
It turns out, LeBron was lucky. He had two excellent coaches during that spring in 2003. The Zips have won at least 20 games in eight of Dambrot’s nine seasons and have reached three NCAA Tournaments. He’s the school’s all-time leader in victories, impressive when you consider that Bob Huggins once worked the bench at Akron. Smart’s achievements are well-documented to VCU fans. In four seasons he’s won 110 games, and the Rams have reached the last three NCAA Tournaments, including the Final Four in 2011.
Through all their successes, Smart and Dambrot continued to talk several times a week, continued trade advice on hoops, continued to share teaching points. When they weren’t coaching their own teams, they tried to watch each other’s games as often as they could.
“Keith is my best friend in coaching, and I don’t have a lot of friends in coaching,” said Smart. “He was unbelievably good to me while I was at Akron, [he] really took me under his wing, and he didn’t know me from anyone, and I didn’t know him.”
“I love Shaka, that’s my guy,” Dambrot Monday. “I can’t say that I’m closer to anybody else. He’s a family member of mine.”
They openly rooted for each other. Before this year’s MAC Tournament, Smart recorded a short motivational message for Dambrot’s team, which eventually won the championship.
Although Smart doesn’t make many trips to Akron, he and Dambrot cross paths during recruiting and make a point to spend time together at the Final Four.
“We always kid each other about who’s going to buy dinner,” Smart said.
But Smart and Dambrot won’t be sharing any dinner tables this week in Auburn Hills, Mich. Smart’s fifth-seeded Rams have been selected to play Dambrot’s 12th-seeded Zips in the NCAA Tournament Round of 64 Thursday at the Palace of Auburn Hills. It’s a match-up that promises to be emotional and somewhat awkward for two coaches who share a deep mutual respect for one another.
“I thought we’d be a 12 [seed] or a high 11, so as soon as I saw the five come up for VCU, I said, ah, it’s going to be one of those years. I just knew it was coming,” Dambrot said.
This will actually be the third meeting between Smart and Dambrot, none of which have been of their choosing. VCU and Akron were paired together for ESPN’s BracketBusters event during the 2009-10 season at the Siegel Center and played a contractually-obligated return game in Akron last season. The Rams won both games, including a 76-75 come-from-behind overtime victory on Dec. 29 last season in Akron.
Afterwards, Smart and Dambrot vowed they wouldn’t play each other again.
“I’d rather not coach against him because he’s someone that I have such a history with and have such respect for,” Smart said that night. “But I can promise you this, we won’t be scheduling Akron anymore because I’d rather on a night like tonight, both of us win, and tonight that was impossible.
It turns out, they didn’t have a choice.
Instead, they’ll lock horns again in the biggest game of their seasons, albeit reluctantly. Both promised they’d be able to set friendship aside and get down to business.
“This game isn’t about me and him,” Dambrot said. “I think he’s one of the best coaches in the country, but that’s not what this is about. This is about two teams playing in a very, very important game and we’ve got to separate ourselves at the hip, I guess, and do our thing. That’s the way it goes sometimes, and I guess when we told each other we’d never play again, I guess we don’t have much control over that, do we?”
“My first conversation with him was, I still love you man, and he said the same thing,” said Smart. “But he’s a competitor. He’s going to do everything he can to have his team ready to win, and so will we.”
Over the course of a given season, Smart and Dambrot will probably talk to each other about their teams hundreds of times and watch as many of each other’s games as possible. Dambrot said Monday that many of Akron’s play calls are the same VCU’s. Smart says much of his coaching philosophy is adopted from Dambrot. College basketball coaches are usually more cloak and dagger than the CIA, but between Smart and Dambrot, there might not be many secrets left.
“It’s funny because I know all of his stuff and he knows my stuff, so it’s kind of like, what did we do to each other,” Dambrot joked. “The bad thing is he could coach our team and I could probably coach his team. That’s how much we know about each other.”
But on Thursday, Shaka Smart will be coaching the VCU Rams and Keith Dambrot will coach the Akron Zips. Somebody will win. Somebody will lose. Afterwards, they’ll still be friends. The victor will advance, and the defeated will become a loyal fan.
Should Thursday not go in his favor, Dambrot will have head start transitioning back to Smart’s corner. Last year, Dambrot’s wife bought him a VCU t-shirt. After Sunday’s NCAA pairings were announced, she tweeted an old photo of the Akron coach wearing the tee.
“I told you guys, look, when I’m not rooting for the Akron Zips, I’m rooting for the VCU Rams, and their fans are great, and I’ve got to support my guy,” Dambrot said. “But I don’t know what to do with that damn shirt now.”