The Akron Non-LeBrons

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

Traveling Violations: The return of "The Jerome"

AMHERST, N.Y. – Sometime late Thursday night, after his duel with the Dallas Mavericks, LeBron James almost certainly tracked down the final score of his favorite college basketball team – the Akron Zips.

If he didn't immediately call his boys on the bus as they rolled back to Ohio to congratulate them on the impressive 87-69 victory over Buffalo, he certainly would do it by Friday morning. It would be another chance to connect with his hometown team that has so many ties to James that you could call them "The LeBrons."

Or even better, "The Non-LeBrons."

For Akron, now 23-6 and surging toward a Mid-American Conference title and perhaps the NCAA tournament, it starts with the coach, Keith Dambrot, who was James' coach at Akron's St. Vincent-St. Mary High School for three years.

Then there is leading scorer Romeo Travis and starting point guard Dru Joyce Jr., boyhood friends of James and his teammates at SVSM. Finally there is the Zips' top rebounder, Jeremiah Wood, also an Akron native who has been friends with James since childhood.

Which is how King James, the biggest name in basketball, became the biggest fan of what historically has been anything but a big-time college team.

James seemingly is always hanging around the program as he proudly watches his still best friends and former coach lead UA to potentially its greatest season ever.

"Our friendship is beyond anything I've ever been a part of," James said Tuesday. "We've been best friends since we were nine years old. I try to follow them as much as I can. I talk to them a lot, so it's easy to keep up with what's going on."

What's going on – much to James' enjoyment – is a bunch of people stepping out of his considerable shadow.

LeBron James is basketball in Akron, the mid-sized blue-collar city in Northeast Ohio best known for its rubber factories. He was the undeniable leader of the SVSM team that captured three state titles and the 2003 mythical high school national title.

His talent and star power were so all-encompassing that it was easy to underestimate everyone around him, to consider them just coattail riders.

Was Dambrot really a good coach or just a guy with arguably the greatest high school player ever at his disposal? Were Joyce and Travis any kind of players or could James have taken any four guys off the street and made them champs?

Back in high school, James consistently pumped up his teammates, but few were listening. Now, after a year like this at the college level, it turns out he was right all along.

"If you asked LeBron back then, he would say, 'My teammates have great understanding and knowledge of the game,' " Dambrot said. "I always used to say even without LeBron they had a chance to win a state championship.

"It's one of the reasons I'm proud of these guys. A lot of people didn't think [they] could play."

But they sure can. Travis is a do-it-all talent with a knack for scoring. He is the school's all-time blocks leader and is averaging 15.4 points per game this season. Joyce, whose dad took over as coach of SVSM his junior year when Dambrot left for UA, is the school's all-time assist leader and a smart, effective player. Wood is a burly inside battler who just gobbles up rebounds.

Despite their six losses being by just 20 combined points, the Zips probably need to win the MAC tournament next week to get into the NCAAs. But no matter what happens, these guys have proved themselves to everyone. They may not be LeBron James, but then again, who is?

"[In high school] we always understood LeBron was the star and the main focal point," Joyce said. "But inside the lines we knew championships were won by a team. He couldn't do it without us. We couldn't do it without him.

"We've stepped out of that shadow a little bit," Joyce continued. "It's been good. You hear the doubters and you always want to prove them wrong."

James genuinely loves it.

"I'm very proud of them," he said simply. "It's unbelievable."

The ties here run deep. Travis and James first met when they were on the same peewee football team at age 8 ("I was the tight end; LeBron was the running back," Travis said). Joyce didn't meet James until age 11, when they got together on the same traveling basketball team. Wood knew LeBron from early on because for a while they lived in the same neighborhood.

To this day, despite the fame, fortune and varying schedules, they all remain tight and try to remain together.

The AU guys might get up to a Cavs game in Cleveland or join LeBron at a SVSM game or just hang out at his house. They call, they text, they get LeBron to come over to watch practice.

His presence has been a boon for Dambrot. The two, now freed from the coach-player dynamic, have forged their own close friendship, and Dambrot is savvy enough to know having No. 23 around sure doesn't hurt recruiting for his soaring team.

"He's adopted our program," Dambrot said. "He's around all the time. He holds his AAU event at our place. His Nike camps are going to be at our place.

"That connection is huge for us. LeBron James is a big deal in recruiting in the state of Ohio."

For the guys, it is a little different. Sure, James is a star, but to them, he still is that kid they grew up with. There is too much history to see him any other way.

"I don't look at it as friends, I look at it as family," Travis said. "Everyone is off doing their own thing now, but when we do see each other, nothing has changed. It's right back to high school. It's just love. We still kick it, laugh, chill with each other."

James, like any good Zips fan, knows a showdown with arch-rival Kent State looms Sunday, the MAC Eastern title on the line. Then there's the league tourney in Cleveland and hopefully the NCAAs.

He wants them in the NCAA tourney so they can get that one shining moment on the national stage that only March can provide. And if they play on the opening Thursday, the schedule might even allow him to jet in and watch in person.

"I would love to see it," James said. "I would just love to see it."

But first Kent State, first the MAC tourney, first a couple more chances for the Akron kids to show the world that their famous friend wasn't the only great player, the only winner, the only success story from their group.

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