Now an up-and-coming head coach at Tulsa, former NBAer Danny Manning reflects on lessons learned throughout his career.
by Matt Caputo / @MattCaputo
“I hate this game.”
That’s what Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown said after his Southern Methodist University Mustangs lost a January meeting with Wyoming. The 59-56 loss, a wire-to-wire game in which neither team held a lead greater than five, started a three-game skid for SMU. But Brown wasn’t reacting to his team’s performance that night. He was talking about a game his team would play in four days, where he’d meet his old star pupil, Danny Manning, now head coach of the University of Tulsa.
“I hate playing against friends,” said Brown, who coached Manning at the University of Kansas from 1984-88. “I’ve known him since he was 5 years old, and when I coached him, I thought he’d be a great coach.”
Brown was anxious partially because it’s never easy facing a comrade, but also because he knows the type of preparation and discipline that Manning, the Most Outstanding Player of the 1988 Final Four and a former first overall NBA Draft pick, brings to competition. He knows just how much KU’s all-time leading scorer and rebounder, the three-time Big Eight Player of the Year, likes to win.
Manning’s 15-year NBA career, marked by a Sixth Man Award, two All-Star appearances and three ACL injuries, was a study in how athletes overcome great obstacles for the game they love. A true basketball lifer, Manning started at the bottom of the University of Kansas’ coaching staff in 2003 and helped the Jayhawks to a National Title as an assistant coach in 2008.
In April 2012, Manning was hired to stir up the Golden Hurricanes. And on January 6, he did indeed lead his team to a narrow victory over his legendary college coach.
SLAM: When did you first start playing?
Danny Manning: My father played in the NBA, ABA and overseas, so I grew up in the gym. He was a journeyman, someone that didn’t receive a lot of recognition, but was valuable because he did the little things. He taught me the fundamentals. My approach to coaching has a lot to do with technique and detail. That’s something I was taught from an early age, “technique and detail.”
SLAM: Your dad was just beginning his career when you were born.
DM: I did get to see him play a lot, not that I can remember it. I remember some games would be so loud that I’d get a headache. I remember when he played with the New York Nets, there was a team barbeque and I got the lucky assignment of bringing Dr. J his plate of food. That was cool. The older I get, the more I think of how cool it was. I’d go to practice and sit on the base of the goal and watch them warming up. You could feel the vibration of the goals shaking when those guys were dunking, like Dr. J.
SLAM: What kind of player were you when you entered high school?
DM: I was long, weak and thin, but I loved to play and to compete. I felt like I was an unselfish player; that’s how I was taught to play the game.
SLAM: What stands out about your Greensboro (NC) Page high school team that was 26-0 and ranked No. 1 in the country by USA Today?
DM: That we were a good team [laughs]. We were a balanced, close-knit team and grew up playing against one another in different junior highs and rec centers. That was my junior year and we had a ton of DI players. Haywood Jeffries went on to NC State for football and played in the NFL. He was actually the state tournament MVP in basketball. We had John Newman, who went to James Madison, Mike Foster, who played at South Carolina and then overseas. We had a lot of good guys who were super-competitive and very unselfish.
SLAM: You moved to Lawrence, KS, before the end of high school when your dad took a job on Larry Brown’s coaching staff.
DM: My father played for Larry Brown with the ABA Carolina Cougars. He retired from playing and was a construction worker, truck driver and part-time assistant at North Carolina A&T. He also had some health issues and a triple bypass when I was in high school. He got the opportunity to get into coaching full-time with Coach Brown, so we moved to Lawrence my senior year, right before school started. I didn’t know much about Kansas when I moved there, but I fell in love with it. It was a hard change but it was something I can look back on as a blessing. As I spent more time with Coach Brown, I felt he was someone that could make me a better person and better player. He’s one of the best coaches ever, he’s in the Hall of Fame, he’s got a Championship at the professional level and the collegiate level, and that doesn’t happen often.
SLAM: That extra year must have firmed the bond between you two.
DM: The high school I went to was four blocks away from the University of Kansas. After school, I hung out in my dad’s office or on campus with the guys. That gave me a chance to really get to know, not only Coach Brown, but the guys on the staff and the different players on the team.
SLAM: You first went to the Final Four with Kansas in 1986 and lost to a tough Duke team, 71-67.
DM: I thought that was the best team I played on at Kansas. I also think that Final Four when we lost to Duke was one of the worst performances I had. I thought I could have played much better than I did. It still bothers me to this day. Duke was outstanding, Louisville had a great year and LSU went on a great run. Selfishly, from me, I thought I could have made more of a contribution.
SLAM: What was different about the Jayhawks by 1988?
DM: I had great teammates both years, but we didn’t have the same amount of talent in ’88 as we did in ’86. We ended up being the best team in ’88 because of all the little things that Coach Brown stressed. We had Milton Newton, who is with the Wizards, and Kevin Pritchard is now helping run the Pacers. Archie Marshall was a teammate that got injured and was inspirational to us. Everyone on that team sacrificed for one another, no one ever cared about getting attention as long as we were a successful team.
SLAM: You had 25 points and 10 rebounds versus Duke in the 1988 Final Four and Danny Ferry had 19 and 12 for Duke.
DM: We played Duke a couple times prior and it’s always a big game. We played Duke earlier that year and they beat us on our court. I was friendly with a lot of guys on that team. Danny and I knew each other through our fathers, who’d been pro teammates. We had a connection, there was respect, but you want to go out and compete. There was a lot of hoopla in 1986, but 1988 was a little bit more isolating. In ’88, we were at home in Kansas City and were very fortunate to have tremendous support. Going to the Final Four is a great experience, but losing at the Final Four is a terrible one, is the way we looked at it.
SLAM: Oklahoma was the favorite, but how did Coach Brown approach it?
DM: We played Oklahoma a few times earlier and lost, but the games weren’t blowouts. They were games where we thought the outcomes could have been different. Saying that, Coach Billy Tubbs’ teams played hard and were fast. They had guys like Mookie Blaylock, Harvey Grant and Stacey King. We went into the Championship game wanting to play hard and have fun. We didn’t feel a lick of pressure because no one expected us to win but us and our fans.
SLAM: What sticks out from that game?
DM: One thing was that it was 50-50 at halftime. I think it was the 50th anniversary of the Championship and that was a unique situation. Both teams played so hard and being in Kansas City, it was definitely a Big Eight game. We were ripping and running and trying to keep up with them in the first half and we slowed it down more in the second half. At halftime, Coach Brown said we’d played to their tempo and that we needed to play for ours, that we needed to capitalize off each possession.
SLAM: You’re on the free-throw line with a chance to ice the game, what are you thinking?
DM: It’s over. All I’m thinking was, It’s over. When it ended, coming together on the court after the Championship was a great, great moment. Looking in the stands and seeing friends and family after the game was really neat.
SLAM: Then you became the first overall pick in the NBA Draft. What was that like?
DM: I had no idea until the Lottery. The Clippers won the Lottery and they held up a No. 25 jersey with my name on it or something. At that point, it was like, Wow, I could be the first pick.
SLAM: But then you got hurt and played just 26 games as a rookie.
DM: It was discouraging because it had been a life-long goal to make the NBA, and it was taken away because of an injury. That’s tough to deal with at times. When I blew my knee out, it was considered a career-threatening injury. Bernard King was in the process of coming back from his and he paved the way for coming back from the ACL injury. Now rebounding from the ACL is routine.
SLAM: Had you entered the NBA later, do you think you’d have been injured less?
DM: I don’t know. I blew my knee out three times, my right twice and my left once. I’m the only person in the history of the NBA to play on three repaired ACLs. I don’t know if it would have been different, but I was fortunate to play long as I did.
SLAM: You still made the All-Star team twice.
DM: The Clippers were a young and up-and-coming team and that just worked out. Coach Brown was actually there when I was at my best with the Clippers. I was familiar with his system and things went well for me. I remember just having a talented team and we all thought that if we were able to stick together, we’d have bright days ahead. Unfortunately, it never materialized.
SLAM: You hung on long enough to be on some good Phoenix teams and be selected as the Sixth Man of the Year in 1998.
DM: Those were great years. My kids started school in Phoenix and started to develop their personalities there. We were there for five years and we really liked it. I played with Kevin Johnson, Charles Barkley, Joe Klein and Cedric Ceballos. I enjoyed my time there and played for arguably one of the best owners in any professional sport, Mr. Jerry Colangelo. I loved playing with the Suns and the Clippers, because those were my two longest stops.
SLAM: At 46 years old, how is your body holding up?
DM: My body served its purpose. It got me through my professional career and it put me in a situation where I’m blessed financially and my family is taken care of.
SLAM: What made you want to get into coaching?
DM: I was very fortunate to get that opportunity at Kansas. In order to get to the goal that I had of wanting to be a head coach, you have to see everything from the ground up. You can’t be a head coach without knowing what it takes to get the equipment right or the logistics of a road trip. Figuring out everything that went into running a program was very important.
SLAM: Which coach in your mind did you learn the most from?
DM: I looked at the different things that I learned from Larry Brown, Lenny Wilkens, Jerry Sloan and John Thompson, being around Bill Self for nine years and around my father. My philosophy has evolved from each of those guys that I played for.
SLAM: How special was it to make it back to the National Championship with Kansas as a coach?
DM: I talked a lot about 1986 to the guys, but more so 1988. I said “Hey, we’re fortunate and blessed to be here but don’t be content—there’s only one team that will leave here truly happy.”