Duquesne's Keith Dambrot earns 'El Diablo' nickname
Zeke Marshall couldn't resist taking a shot at his coach.
Five years ago, Marshall and his Akron teammates were in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, for a basketball tournament. They went to dinner one night at a restaurant whose name Marshall said reminded him of coach Keith Dambrot.
“We were at El Diablo,” said Marshall, a 7-foot center from McKeesport. “It means the devil in Spanish. We started calling him El Diablo. It was a joke around the team.”
Marshall and Dambrot laughed at the memory one morning this week. Dambrot had just concluded practice with his new team, Duquesne, and Marshall, 27, was working out on his own — with Dambrot's blessing — after he was recently released by the Grand Rapids Drive of the NBA G League.
If Dambrot was hard on his players during their time at Akron — devil-like, perhaps — Marshall said he wouldn't have wanted it any other way.
“When he talks bad about you on the court, and he's a little too hard on you,” Marshall said, “he'll take you to his office — never on the court — and apologize and say, ‘I'm sorry I did this. This is why I'm doing it.' ”
Marshall watches how Dambrot deals with Duquesne's players and sees a different coach than the one he knew at Akron.
“He's a lot tamer than he was then,” he said. “He'd get in your face a lot more. It was warranted. You see what he does, how he turns programs around.
“I understood it then; I understand it now. It translates into something tangible.”
Dambrot is in the middle of trying to transform Duquesne's program from a team that hasn't qualified for the NCAA Tournament in 40 years to one that is among the best in the Atlantic 10.
Duquesne (15-8, 6-4) faces another serious test Saturday when it meets St. Bonaventure (15-6, 5-4) at Palumbo Center.
Dambrot said the situation at Duquesne is different than it was during Marshall's time at Akron, when the Zips won two Mid-American Conference regular-season and two MAC Tournament championships.
“I had really high expectations for (Marshall),” Dambrot said. “I also knew he needed love off the court and massaging off the court.
“Sometimes, I feel bad, but the end result is if he gets what he needs and that's a professional contract, I did a good job.”
At Duquesne, he's dealt with what he calls “some confidence issues.”
“So, I had to be hard, but I had to tell them they are better than they are. They are better players than what they even realize.”
Graduate senior Rene Castro-Caneddy briefly considered transferring last year when Dambrot replaced Jim Ferry, who was fired. Dambrot coaxed him to stay by dangling the carrot of playing time, and now he's the only player to start all 23 games.
“He's very aggressive on the court,” said Castro-Caneddy, who is averaging 13.5 points in the Atlantic 10. “But off the court, he's just like family.”
The day after Duquesne won 75-73 at George Washington on Wednesday, Dambrot had a conversation with junior guard Tarin Smith, who usually gives the Dukes a spark coming off the bench.
He's averaging 12.3 points and has scored 20 or more points three times when he wasn't in the starting lineup. But Dambrot expects more from Smith.
“I hit him with, ‘Tarin, you're probably one of the best athletes I've ever coached,' ” Dambrot said. “You should get eight assists a game, you should average 15 points, you should be the best defensive player in the league. It's all in what you believe and what you care about.
“I try to make them understand what they really are and what they have to do to get better.”
If that conversation doesn't translate into a productive game for Smith on Saturday, Dambrot said, “I'm going to quit talking to him.”
Marshall might tell you there's little chance of that.