J. Brady McCollough
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Sunday, November 23, 2008

'Reluctant star' Danny Manning will find lasting fame in college hall

 

By J. BRADY McCOLLOUGH

The Kansas City Star

 

LAWRENCE | Danny Manning just wants to blend in. Sitting with Manning in the Kansas basketball meeting room on a weekday morning, you can see why that's hard.

 

Manning is plopped down on a leather sofa, wearing a navy sweater over a plaid shirt with khaki slacks and dress shoes. Most of his attire is custom-fit. The same can't be said for the sofa, which struggles to hold the 6-foot-11-inch Manning.

 

The 2008 national championship trophy sits on a table behind him. A team photo of the 1987-88 Jayhawks - known as "Danny and the Miracles" for good reason - hangs on the wall to his left.

 

The Danny Manning in that picture is the one who tonight will be inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame at the Sprint Center.

 

Manning never wanted to be famous, but then again, it was never really his choice.

 

"I get a kick out of people coming up to me and the first question they ask because I'm tall is, 'Are you a basketball player?' " said Manning, 42, now in his second season as a KU assistant coach. "I could be a doctor. I could be a lawyer, and just because I'm tall, I'm a basketball player.

 

"I ask people all the time, 'Do you walk up to somebody who's short and ask them if they're a horse jockey?' "

 

Manning laughs, but this is serious.

 

"The day that I retired from the (NBA), I was looking forward to that question again," Manning said. " 'Do you play basketball?' No. I don't bat an eye when people ask me that now. 'Do you play basketball?' No."

 

Fame has been chasing Manning for 25 years, since he first came to Lawrence as the top high school basketball player in the country. He has always been reluctant to talk about himself, and he did so this time only after being convinced it was for the good of his alma mater.

 

Of all the places Manning could have chosen to live out his years, Lawrence would seem about the worst place to escape from fame. But around here, he's just Danny.

 

He's a supporter of Lawrence Free State High School who wears Firebird green to his daughter's volleyball and basketball games. He's a local business owner, keeping an eye on the bottom line of Rock Chalk Car Wash. He's been known to play in summer softball leagues with average Joes, because that is how he has always seen himself.

 

"It is a great testimony that he wanted to come back to Lawrence," said Jeff Johnson, a close friend of Manning. "He lived in a lot of neat cities and had a lot of neat friends, but he chose Lawrence. That says a lot about him."

 

***

 

Manning didn't know what to think about moving to Lawrence as a 17-year-old high school senior. His life was in Greensboro, N.C., but his father, Ed, had been hired as an assistant coach to Larry Brown at KU.

 

"Coming here for my senior year of high school was a very challenging situation," Manning said, "not just basketball-wise, but life-wise. I had a lot of friends in North Carolina I didn't end up graduating with."

 

On Manning's first visit here, he and his family were staying at the Holidome. Johnson - the son of Monte Johnson, KU's athletic director at the time - wanted to make his future classmate and teammate feel welcome.

 

"I said, 'Hey, let me pick you up and show you around town,' " Johnson said. "I went to the Holidome, and I remember his head scraped the top of the hotel room."

 

Manning became Lawrence High School's Big Man On Campus by default.

 

"He really was a celebrity," said Johnson, who now lives in Wichita. "He hated it because he didn't want to be the center of attention. He never was a big shot to anybody. He was just as likely to be friends with the chess club president as the captain of the football team."

 

In high school, Manning's autograph was already in high demand. He would tell people they should get Johnson's instead.

 

It was more of the same when the two lived together at KU. Manning was the team's best player the minute he stepped on campus, which meant that reporters were calling his house. Danny would pick up the phone, and when the reporter asked for him, he'd say, "He's right here," and hand the phone to Johnson.

 

"He was a reluctant star," Brown said. "I don't think he's ever felt comfortable being treated like a star."

 

He was raised that way. Ed Manning played in the NBA and the ABA, and he was a team-first player. Ed didn't have Danny's talent, but he made the team better.

 

"I look at my dad; he didn't receive a lot of attention for what he did on the court," Manning said. "He was a very valued teammate. That's one of the biggest things that stuck with me growing up."

 

In 1988, Manning's senior year, the Jayhawks were in such disarray that they had to add two football players to field a full lineup. They were 12-8 at one point, and despite making the NCAA tournament with a 21-11 record, Manning felt lucky to be there. After almost four years of shirking the spotlight, Manning realized he had to step into it.

 

"This was the only time Danny felt as though he was ready to be on that stage and lead his team," said Tony Harvey, one of Manning's best friends at KU. "He had just been named player of the year, and he said, 'You know something, we've got a chance to do it.' "

 

Manning, of course, led No. 6 seed KU to an improbable national championship, the program's first in 36 years. With 31 points and 18 rebounds in KU's 83-79 victory over Oklahoma at Kemper Arena, he was the tournament's Most Outstanding Player.

 

Certainly, he would be forever welcome in Lawrence.

 

***

 

Everybody knew that Manning was going to be the No. 1 pick in the 1988 NBA draft. When the Los Angeles Clippers won the draft lottery, Danny and his eventual wife, Julie, might as well have started packing their bags for L.A.

 

Danny and Julie were not city people. Danny had spent most of his time in Greensboro and Lawrence, and Julie grew up in Wellington, Kan., before coming to KU. But they were young, and Los Angeles opened up a new world to them.

 

"It was the time of our lives," Julie said. "We had a ball."

 

The fun came to an abrupt halt, though, when Manning tore the anterior cruciate ligament in a knee 26 games into his rookie year. Back then, an ACL injury was viewed more seriously than it is today.

 

"They told us it was possibly career-ending," Julie recalled.

 

Manning returned to the floor the next season, but he would never have the same physical gifts. Brown coached Manning for two seasons with the Clippers and saw firsthand how Manning reinvented himself into a two-time NBA All-Star.

 

"He was still such a smart player," Brown said. "If he had stayed healthy, I think there's no doubt he would have been an unbelievable pro. I mean, he had everything."

 

Two more ACL surgeries in the years after took away most of the explosiveness Manning had left, and the one-time guaranteed superstar became a superb role player. During his last five seasons, Manning would play for five teams. The life of an NBA journeyman put a strain on his young family.

 

"Packing up, unpacking, packing up, unpacking," Manning said.

 

Through all the turmoil of those 15 years, the Mannings didn't forget Lawrence. They had a condominium and eventually a house that they lived in during the offseason.

 

"Toward the end of his career, when we were in a different city every year, Lawrence sort of became our stability," Julie said. "Our kids had friends that they had known their whole lives because we'd been back in the summers. That was probably in hindsight one of the smartest things we did, just for the sake of having a place to call home."

 

When Manning retired after the 2003 season, he could have lived anywhere. He and Julie loved Los Angeles, but it just didn't feel right for raising a family.

 

"I get that question all the time," Manning said. "Why Lawrence? This is home for us. That plain and that simple."

 

***

 

Recently, Julie started going through some old boxes that had been gathering dust in the garage.

 

A few were packed with mementos from Manning's playing career. Julie had saved just about every magazine cover that featured Danny.

 

Now that the kids are older - daughter Taylor is a senior at Free State and son Evan is a sophomore - Julie thought it was time they knew just how great their dad was.

 

"It was kind of funny more than anything else," Taylor said, "because I never think of him that way. People like to say, 'Your dad's Danny Manning.' I'm like, 'No, my dad's my dad.' It's different to see things from that perspective. I guess I kind of forgot."

 

Growing up in NBA locker rooms, where Manning was just another pro athlete, Taylor and Evan didn't know about their father's legend. They knew he was a part of a championship team at KU, and Manning was happy to leave it at that.

 

"Until we moved back here," Julie said, "they just recently have an understanding that maybe their childhood and their life is a little different from most."

 

Manning's retirement allowed him to spend more time with his children. Family has always been first, but it was harder to pull off in the NBA. Of course, sports are the most natural place for Manning to connect with his children. Once he was retired, he could coach his kids' teams. Now that they are being coached by others, Manning can still be heard on the sideline.

 

During Taylor's sophomore year, the Free State girls basketball team was watching film. Free State coach Bryan Duncan looked over, and Taylor had her head in her hands.

 

"Taylor," Duncan said, "what's wrong?"

 

"My dad," Taylor said. "Can't you hear him in the background yelling?"

 

Taylor was embarrassed.

 

"He's not a yeller, except when it comes to basketball games," Taylor said. "He's a very quiet person."

 

Quiet but stern.

 

"The kids know where they stand with me," Manning said. "I'm not afraid to let them know what I'm thinking. I try to be honest. Sometimes brutally honest. That's what they need to hear. It will help thicken their skin, toughen them up for the world they're about to encounter."

 

Manning makes it to as many games as he can. Now that he is an assistant coach - he was director of student-athlete development from 2003 until last season - it's tougher.

 

Manning usually sits as high up as possible at the games so that he won't be bothered. After the game, Manning follows a routine.

 

"Win or lose, he's always the first one there to give Taylor a big hug," Duncan said. "He doesn't say anything. It's that fatherly hug, and it's pretty neat. He doesn't have to say anything."

 

The Mannings over the years have hosted several basketball team dinners at their house, and they are one of the most active volleyball families.

 

"The Free State community, we're all used to seeing him around," said Free State volleyball coach Nancy Hopkins. "He's just one of us now."

 

***

 

Danny Manning, one of us? To some, he will always be the 21-year-old in the butt-hugger shorts.

 

Harvey, Manning's close friend, has been out with him for dinner when Manning has been approached by an admirer looking for a conversation or an autograph.

 

"He always handles it the same way," Harvey said. "Just like any other family, when we're sitting down, we would like to have privacy. After that, he's open."

 

Most of the time, it isn't an issue in Lawrence.

 

"It's a much bigger deal outside this area," said KU coach Bill Self, "because they don't get to see him all the time."

 

Said Manning: "We've lived here 20 years. That's kind of how I look at it."

 

Manning has a unique way of looking at things. After tonight, his name will live forever in the College Basketball Hall of Fame, but Manning is concerned with a more important Sunday obligation - preparing for KU's game Monday night in the CBE Classic at the Sprint Center.

 

"I'm going to have Washington scouting to do," Manning said.

 

Manning is in his element now, more able to balance family and basketball.

 

Manning was asked to describe his perfect day.

 

"Get up, get to the office, talk ball with our staff members," he began. "Maybe watch some film, talk about what's going on with the program at lunch, or go to lunch with my wife. Then practice. When practice is over, stay out on the court and have my son come down and play some shooting games with some guys on the team. Then have a meal with my immediate family at home or my family here. Then go home."

 

Manning has always been an enigma, and, here again, you have to wonder: Wouldn't a guy who doesn't want to be thought of as a basketball player have other ideas for his perfect day?

 

In a word, no. Manning embraces the game on his terms. He doesn't have to be a college assistant coach; he doesn't need the money or the recruiting trips or the hours of film. Nobody expected him to do what he is doing. No stranger could possibly look at Manning and ask him: "Are you an assistant coach?"

 

Manning would happily say yes to that question. After all, he has his wish. He is more than a basketball player. He is a father, a husband, a friend and a member of a community that adores him.

 

But the game is a part of him. Nobody can deny that.

 

"Basketball has been his life, and still is, and will be until the day he dies," Julie said. "It's in his blood."

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