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Weiss: Personal Reflections Of A Special Season With Duquesne Basketball

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OMAHA, Neb. — The task was simple, a self-starting treadmill, moving as fast as possible for 10 seconds with a large group of individuals all watching as breathing became optional.

This was the task faced during a summer workout and little did anyone know that treadmill would incline all the way to an NCAA Tournament appearance and a historic run for the ages Duquesne Men’s Basketball fans have been waiting for since 1977.

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So why was I on a treadmill?

It was a Friday during the summer and an opportunity to introduce myself to the many new players and build relationships that could help tell the story of this season.

Unfortunately, I found out from coach Keith Dambrot that his team was not practicing that day but instead going to work out in the weight room, which I was more than welcome to watch.

Dambrot understood why I was there, he always did.

Duquesne Associate Athletic Director/Sports Medicine and Performance John Henderson put them on the aforementioned treadmill for three different rounds which they were challenged to go as fast as possible and maintain speed.

After the third round, multiple players needed to go off to the side to catch their breath, having given everything and in my mind, it was imperative to get on that machine.

I expressed my desire to Henderson to get on the machine for a 10 second round for multiple reasons. For one, I always love a good challenge, secondly, I have a very athletic mindset in everything that I do and third wanted to earn the trust of the new players from the jump.

Henderson seemed willing to give it a go, but Dambrot was a bit wary. He did not want an injury and I immediately informed him that any waiver would be immediately signed.

Moments later, Andy Barba had a medicine ball in his hands and when asked how much weight, I asked him to give it to me and quickly did 20 twists. Dambrot looked on with a twisted smile and gave me permission to go on the machine.

At the end of practice, Kareem Rozier grabbed everyone to go over and watch me on the machine. The time did not matter, but what did was everyone watching, cheering me on and then when done, offering high fives and hugs.

That was the moment I could see how special this team has been and what could be.

All season long, everyone would come over and say hello. Of course, Dambrot and I would have our side chats.

During the 0-5 start, this team did not have the necessary direction and some of the substitution patterns were baffling.

That said, I personally never felt that the season was over.

Before the season, I felt that this was Duquesne’s most talented team and even in articles or discussions, I never wavered from that belief.

There just needed to be some soul searching and a commitment to the defensive side of the basketball, both of which ended up happening.

The players did not know it yet, but Dambrot was retiring after the season and having that perspective more than two months in advance certainly affected the way I looked at things.

The VCU regular season game was when I personally felt this team was destined for history. A sold-out crowd hungry to clinch a double bye on senior day never truly got into the game. The players had that steely look in their eyes and played spoiler as it would again just over a week later.

Everyone was so locked in.

By far the biggest decision of the season was Dambrot letting his team stay on the road during spring break between the George Mason and VCU road games. It allowed the players to simulate the Atlantic 10 Championship and built championship behaviors.

As far as that championship, many people thought Dayton was a tough matchup, but Dambrot has long said that his team is, “a bunch of players Dayton does not want,” and knew it would be a motivated side.

From that moment, the fans felt a sense that this season could be special, though plenty of nails were certainly bitten.

I have covered three NCAA Tournaments before this one, but of course, this one was special. The team I have covered extensively for 13 years was at last dancing.

The American Airlines flight arrived in Omaha on time, and I caught the last 20 minutes of practice. After some hellos, I saw Dambrot focused on his craft, but for the first time I saw him break focus when he saw me. It was a simple wave.

Duquesne's 2024 March Madness Tournament coverage is sponsored by Leon's Billiards & More, Moon Golf Club and Archie's on Carson! Their contributions have allowed us to cover the Dukes run in Omaha, Nebraska. We appreciate their support!

After practice was done and Dambrot spoke to CBS, he motioned for me, and we walked off the court together arm in arm.

Again, the relationship we have is such a special one and has helped me in so many ways and this invitation was not just for an interview, but a happiness that I was there to enjoy this ride.

Throughout this week there have been special moments. I treasure all of the hugs the players gave me, the conversation with Jake DiMichele about how many people say he looks like rapper Jack Harlow, Barba and Tre Williams for believing two seasons ago, Rozier opening up more than he already has, Chabi Barre trusting and opening up to me to tell his story about returning to the court, Dave Dixon’s humor and joy of appearing in press conference, the Drame twins respective excitement to be on the court and make a difference, Williams for his trademark smile and laugh, the many pregame dinners with Ray Goss and Jarrett Durham, the relationships I built with the student-managers and support staff, literally every person in the locker room had an impact.

This is my 16th article these past few days in Omaha and none would be possible without the sponsors who believe in us and our vision. Josh DeNinno from Moon Golf Club, Archie’s on Carson and Leon’s Billiards & More have believed in us from the very beginning and for that we are grateful.

A special thank you to Jim Duzyk and Dave Saba for allowing me to tell this team’s story in a way that challenges the reader and allows them to consistently feel that they are inside the locker room.

The relationships Jimmy Clark III and Dae Dae Grant built with the fans in two years during a time when NIL and the transfer portal makes it hard for fans to attach to players was fun to watch. The way both directed traffic on court and how each grew as players and people proved to help tell the story this season. Both saw an authenticity in me and felt safe to tell their stories. The mutual appreciation we shared for each other also helped others feel that I could be trusted, and that is not lost on me.

This team’s legacy will be playing fearlessly for each other, with conviction and without fear, all in a quest to achieve history for a passionate and starving fan base.

Of course, I would be remiss if I did not mention Donna Dambrot and Alysse Ritossa.

Both have been in my corner since day one and I cannot say enough about how fortunate I am to consider both friends.

The Dambrot family has been through so much, especially this season and responded with toughness and grace through unimaginable adversity.

When it was time to depart the locker room one last time, there was a stop left.

In the side room was Dambrot with sports psychologist Dr. Joe Carr, who has been there from the beginning.

With both in the room I knew this was my final chance to talk to Dambrot as Duquesne’s coach and I wanted it to count.

Dambrot thought I wanted an interview but after checking to see how he was doing, that was far from the case.

I introduced Dambrot to Joseph S. Bowman, who was my great-grandfather or affectionally called GGPaw.

I knew my GGPaw until my eighth-grade year, when he passed away at 92. I was always struck by his drive and ability to hold everything together.

It was in West Palm Beach, Fla. when a young Zac was given an introduction, namely, “this is a basketball.” I learned the basics on basketball and golf from him.

My great-grandfather was successful in his work and turned his two-garage operation to having an office in the Empire State Building.

So, when it came time to have that last conversation, it was important to introduce Dambrot to my great-grandfather because as I explained to him, the relationship I have had and what he has done with Duquesne reminded me of him.

Duquesne was looked at as an easy win and building the blocks of this program has not been easy, but as my great-grandfather loved to advise, “plan your work and work your plan.”

Dambrot did that and was not always successful, but through countless adversity, has turned this Duquesne program into what it hopes is its own Empire State Building.

The pieces have been put together and Duquesne has not been this healthy for quite some time. Duquesne is on the rise and as it hopes to continue rising, it is my plan to be there continuing to cover the day to day.

Dambrot was struck by my words as he had to hold back his emotion from my words before thanking me for everything.

It is still fresh, and he is still processing, but I am looking forward to continuing our friendship for what I hope is many years to come.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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Skip white
Skip white
26 days ago

Best article you have written. Great job! I enjoyed your coverage of the team. You were blessed to cover a group of quality guys and coaches.

Alan
Alan
26 days ago

Thanks for sharing and keep up the great work!

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