Danny Manning had a productive NBA career that featured 12,367 points and two All-Star appearances over 15 seasons, but it’s fair to wonder how much better things might have gone for him if not for lingering knee problems.
That’s not a question Manning ponders much these days, though.
In a strange way, those old injuries became a positive when he took over as coach at Wake Forest three years ago.
“My path was a little bit different,” Manning said. “As a player going through the injuries that I went through, having to adjust and look at things a lot differently really helped me in the role that I have today.
“Going through the knee injuries that I went through, you lose athletic ability, you lose quickness, you lose a lot of things. You have to find of a way to get it back. The only way in my mind I could get it back was anticipation. That’s studying your opponents and understanding, OK, I’m playing against this player. He likes to go right, two bounces to a pull-up jump shot. This is his foot placement when he shoots the basketball.
“Being disciplined in that regard really helped me out as a player in my career, and it just kind of morphed into coaching towards the end of my career. I was able to share different things that I saw with my teammates that were out there on the court when they would come to the bench during a timeout. I retired from the game, and Coach (Bill) Self created a spot for me on his staff. And I’ve been very fortunate and blessed with that, and just trying to take it all in from there.”
Manning is still, perhaps, best known as a former star KU basketball player, the guy that carried the Jayhawks to a national championship in 1988.
Then he spent 15 seasons in the NBA, then he joined Self’s staff as an assistant, then he became a head coach at Tulsa, now he is the coach at Wake Forest.
His first two years with the Demon Deacons were rough. They went 13-19 and then 11-19, finishing near the bottom of the ACC standings both times. But he recruited well and built a foundation for future success, which paid off this year with a 19-13 record and a trip to the NCAA Tournament, where Wake Forest will play Kansas State at 8:10 p.m. Tuesday in the First Four.
Wake Forest players hope to emulate the type of NCAA success their coach had 30 years ago.
“He just pretty much tells us to soak everything in and enjoy the process,” sophomore guard Keyshawn Woods said, “and take it one game at a time and just try to look at it that way.”
K-State basketball players know little about Manning, other than that “he used to be a Jayhawk,” as senior wing Wesley Iwundu put it.
Coach Bruce Weber remembers Manning as a player more vividly. In 1988, Weber was an assistant on the Purdue team that lost to K-State in the Sweet 16. A victory would have given the Boilermakers a shot at KU and Manning in the Elite Eight.
“Still remember it very well,” Weber said. “We had beaten Kansas State by 25 or something earlier in the year, and they got us and we never got a chance to play Danny and Kansas. But he was a great player and obviously a great individual.”
Manning had some stories to tell about playing at K-State, including the live chickens fans sent on the court at old Ahearn Field House when Manning was a freshman.
“That was a very unique experience for me at that time,” Manning said. “But I looked around at my teammates, and they were all looking to see what the reaction of all our freshmen were going to be when they saw that, and they were all cracking up laughing.”
Those memories will be pushed aside Tuesday night. Both K-State and Wake Forest won a string of games late to reach the NCAA Tournament.
Given his experience in the event as a player, Manning is eager to return to college basketball’s biggest stage as a coach.
“It’s always fun to be a part of March Madness and to be in this tournament ,” Manning said. “We had a lot of fun when I was at Kansas and we’re looking forward to having some fun during our hopefully long run in this tournament.”
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett