In July of 2020, I talked with the 1988 no. 1 overall pick, 2-time NBA All-Star and NBA Sixth Man of the Year, Danny Manning. We discussed his stellar college career, becoming an NBA player, battling injuries, as well as his beginnings in the role of a head coach.
College and the Olympics
Your dad played in the NBA and ABA for eight seasons. How big impact did he have on your career?
My father had a huge impact on my career, he introduced me to the game of basketball, and that is when I started to fall in love with the game. I remember going to practices, going to games and different team functions that he had, and I thought it was really cool growing up. My father was a glue guy as a player, he had to do all the small things that go in to help the team be successful, that does not get a lot of attention, and so I had an appreciation for those things growing up and he taught me that those things were important, contributing pieces to successful teams.
How do you recall coach Larry Brown, who coached your father in the ABA, and then you in the NCAA? Was it easier or more difficult to play for him because of such connection?
Well, I think it was a great connection. Coach Brown was a very demanding coach and he pushes you to be the best you can be, and so for me – he made me a better person, he made me a better player. We were fortunate enough to win the championship, go to a couple of Final Fours and he helped me prepare for life. But he challenged me, he challenged all of us every day to come as close to our ceiling and maximize our potential that we had to give in every day. It was tough and challenging, but definitely worthwhile and rewarding.
You became the Final Four Most Outstanding Player and Naismith College Player of the Year in 1988. How big was the pressure connected with presenting the same level of play in the NBA?
Well, I was very fortunate, I received a lot of individual attention, but basketball is a team game and none of that would have been possible without our coaches, coach Brown and his staff, all of my teammates that made it happen for me out there on the court. I never felt like it was pressure, I just wanted to go out and hold up my end and do what I could to make the game easier and help our team be successful on the court.
How do you recall the moment when you received the news that you will represent the USA at the Olympics?
I was very excited to represent the USA in the Olympics, I thought that was a tremendous honor and a goal that I had set for myself at some point growing up, so I was very thankful and very blessed to be a part of USA Basketball.
Is the game against the Soviet Union the one out of all the games you played that you wish you could play one more time?
That is one of them, without question. We lost to a very talented team from the Soviet Union and I did not play well. There are few other moments in my basketball career that stick in my craw and that is definitely one of them.
Joining the NBA
You were selected by the Clippers with no. 1 overall pick, but in the previous year they had a record of 17-65. Was it difficult for you to combine being the no. 1 pick with playing for an unsuccessful team?
Well, I felt fortunate and blessed for having the opportunity to play in the NBA and obviously when you get selected in the first round, as lottery pick or the first pick, you are very thankful for that. But at the same time going into the NBA, which is the ultimate level of basketball, you wanna show that you can help your team be successful, you wanna show that you belong and you wanna put yourself in a situation where you can be looked upon to somebody that is dependable out there on the court. That was my thought process going into it.
Every year the majority of the time teams that are picking at the top of the draft, they are usually there because they have not done so well in the past year or there was some kind of a trade for the pick. But for me going to the Clippers, I was excited to go to the Clippers and I could not wait to get out there and start playing.
After 26 games of your rookie season you tore ACL. How strong were your doubts about your comeback? Was there a moment when you thought that you will not be able to play on this level anymore?
Well, I tore my ACL 26 games into my rookie year – there were a lot of different thoughts going through my head. Bernard King made his comeback from an ACL injury and he was someone that I looked to for motivation. I also had that in Archie Marshall, who was a college teammate of mine in Kansas, went through a couple of ACL injuries while we were in school, so I knew it could be done, it was just a matter of going out there and trying to make it happen. I had a great doctor, Stephen Lombardo, I had a great therapist, and personal trainers and people that pushed me, so I was fortunate enough to come back from that injury and I am very thankful for that.
You successfully came back to the NBA with the start of the 1989-90 season. Did you have to make many changes in your style of play after the injury?
Yes, I did. I had to make a lot of adjustments to my style of play after going through my first ACL injury, I did it two more times. So, I became a little bit more of a student of the game. I wanted to study my opponents a little bit more. I became a little bit more of a thinker in terms of outside the box as to different types of shots I needed to shoot and things of that nature. And also taking care of my body. I really put a premium on my rehab and doing things that I needed to do to put myself in a position and be successful every time I stepped out there on the court.
In the middle of the 1991-92 season Clippers signed Larry Brown. Did your previous relationship with coach Brown help a lot?
When the Clippers brought coach Brown as our head coach, I knew immediately we were going to get better, but I also knew that he was going to challenge us and take us outside of our comfort zone, which would be challenging to a certain extent for all of us. All those things held true. He challenged us, he made us better, we got to a point when we were pretty competitive and a playoff team for three years.
With the arrival of Ron Harper and Doc Rivers, Clippers finally made the playoffs. After trailing 0-2 against the Jazz, you forced the decisive Game 5 in which you had a 12-point lead at halftime. What happened in the second half?
We lost to the Jazz in Game 5 in Utah with a 12-point lead, because we didn’t do the things that we needed to do to maintain the lead and then you also have to give credit to, they had a couple of Hall of Famers in Stockton and Malone and coach Sloan also. The home court advantage kicked in for them and we were not able to close out the game on the road, so they played better than us down the stretch.
Trade to Atlanta Hawks
After another loss in the first round, Clippers traded you for Dominique Wilkins in 1994. Were you shocked with the trade, or did you feel that sooner or later it was going to happen?
Yes, I got traded for Dominique – I knew something like this was definitely possible, because the Clippers and I couldn’t come to a contract agreement and from my understanding there was some kind of discrepancy going on with Dominique and the Hawks at that time, and so it ended up that I got traded to the Hawks, Dominique to the Clippers, and we played out the rest of the season in those two places and we both moved out as free agents after that. It was definitely a shock to get traded for Dominique Wilkins, because he is a well-known, Hall of Fame player, who now has a statue outside of the Hawks arena.
As a member of Hawks, you played with a very experienced center/forward, Kevin Willis. Was he like a mentor to you?
Absolutely. When I got traded to Atlanta for Wilkins, Kevin was a staple of the team and did a tremendous job scoring the ball, rebound the ball and having a defensive presence, so he shared a lot of bits of wisdom about playing in Atlanta, being on that team, playing for another Hall of Fame coach in Lenny Wilkens. He was definitely someone that I enjoyed playing with and I was glad he was on my team.
In 1993 and 1994 you made your All-Star Game appearances. How do you recall the chance of playing with the greatest players, like Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Karl Malone?
The All-Star Game appearances that I had were a lot of fun for me, I feel very fortunate to have those experiences of playing against Michael, Shaq, Karl Malone and all the other great players I played in that games. I was happy, I was proud and for me coming back of the ACL injury and making the All-Star Game when there were doubts about if I will be able to comeback as a player, was very satisfying in terms of hard work that went into it, not only from me, but also from my family, my doctor and my therapist. I think that this was a pretty cool moment.
Joining Phoenix Suns
In the off-season you signed with the Phoenix Suns. Were there other teams that you considered at that time?
Oh, absolutely. There were few other teams that had my interest, but when I looked at the Phoenix Suns and Jerry Colangelo and his staff; tremendous visit, I really enjoyed how Mr. Colangelo shared with me the vision for the program and I was sold. I ended up signing a one-year contract to come to Phoenix and it was something I am very happy that I did because I enjoyed my time in Phoenix immensely.
In the next two seasons you missed 85 games due to health issues. How difficult was it for you when you still were in great age to play at the highest level, but you had to deal with serious injuries?
Everybody grows to adversity, and part of my journey was going through three ACL’s, during my time in Phoenix I went through two of those. It was challenging, but I had great people around me to support me. The doctors, my teammates, and of course my family. I just wanted to figure out a way to get back on the court. And I was fortunate enough to be able to do that, and I am very thankful for that. It was a very challenging time mentally, trying to stay focused, and regain my form to be able to comeback on the court in the NBA.
In the next seasons you became a reserve player and won 6th Man of the Year award in 1998. Did you have problems with the transition from being a starter to a supportive role?
When I won the 6th Man of the Year award, I was playing on a really good team, a very talented team, I wanted to help out any way that I could and obviously I would like to have started, but that was not what the coach felt was best for our team at this particular time, so I just wanted to be the best I could be in the role that I had. Fortunately for me, that helped me win the 6th Man of the Year award.
I was very happy for that and I enjoyed that role, I thought it gave me a chance to see the game from the bench, catch the flow of the game and then go in and try to have an impact. I enjoyed that role and it was not a tough transition for me, because that is what my team needed me to do.
You retired in 2003, after playing for 5 different teams in 5 years. Do you think that you could have played longer?
When I retired in 2003, it was time. It was time for me, for my family point of view, my kids were in junior high, and in elementary school and I wanted to give them more stability. I was like you said on 5 team during the last 5 years and my body was at a point when it was time to hang it up. So, for me it was not a tough decision, it was an easy decision.
In 2012 you became the head coach at the University of Tulsa. How useful is your experience from being a player in relations with your players?
I think my experience as a player was very beneficial to me when I became a head coach. I had a lot of different roles, I always felt like every role that I had during my professional career helped me as a head coach, especially a toss of those first couple of years, because there was not one role on the team that I hadn’t been in at some point of time during my career. So I felt like I could relate to all of my players on the team at that particular time, and also throughout the rest of my coaching career, I thought that was a huge advantage for me and something that I took a lot of pride in, being able to relate to everyone on the roster, regardless of the role they have.