How A Career Ends: Danny Manning, No. 1 NBA Draft Pick In 1988, Savored His Garbage Time In 2003

Tell Me When It's Over is an interview series in which we ask former athletes about the moment they knew their playing days were over. Today, with the NBA draft beginning in a matter of hours: Danny Manning, the No. 1 overall pick in the 1988 draft.

Manning was born into a basketball family. His father, Ed, a 6-foot-7 forward out of Jackson State, played four seasons in the NBA and another five in the ABA.

Manning grew to 6-foot-10 and played at Kansas for four years with Larry Brown as the head coach and his dad as an assistant. For three years running, beginning his sophomore season, he was a consensus All-American for the Jayhawks, and his senior year he led his team to the 1988 national championship while taking home both the Wooden Award and the Final Four Most Outstanding Player trophy.

Two and a half months later, the Los Angeles Clippers drafted Manning. Twenty-six games into his rookie season, Manning blew out his knee. And though he played 15 NBA seasons, that injury, combined with two subsequent reconstructive knee surgeries, kept him from reaching the potential predicted for him in 1988.

After his playing career, Manning, like his father, became an assistant coach at Kansas, serving a total of nine seasons on the KU staff. Manning accepted his first head-coaching job, at the University of Tulsa, in March, just weeks a year after his father had died of a heart ailment at the age of 67.

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Growing up, I was fortunate enough to be around my dad. And he played professional basketball in the NBA and ABA, so I've been around the game for an awful long time. I was basically born with a basketball in my hands. I remember going to the gym and bouncing a ball and just being there, not necessarily knowing what was going on. But the older I got, the more I paid attention.

I knew no different. Yes, my father was a pro basketball player, but he was always "Dad." The guys he worked with were the pro basketball players [laughs].

I remember sitting on the goals at practices for the New Jersey Nets, and Dr. J dunking the ball, and feeling the goal shake for the next three, four minutes. I remember going into locker rooms and getting basketballs signed by my dad's teammates a hundred times—well, I shouldn't say a hundred times—but 50 times or so, and then taking that ball out to my driveway and using it. There was no concept of, "Let's hold on to this, because this is a great keepsake." There was none of that.

Obviously you look at the different guys who had unique abilities, special talents, but, looking back on it, it all begins and starts with my dad: where I'm at right now, and what I've been doing for the last nine years, and what I did in my professional career. Because my father was the glue guy. He was the utility man. He was the intangibles guy. And that was a very important aspect to my playing style, or who I was as a player.

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The places that we lived, growing up, there were always kids in the neighborhood. And if it was basketball season, you played basketball. If it was football season, you played football. If it was baseball season, you played baseball. If a big soccer match was going on, you went out in the field and you played soccer. Athletics was very social, especially for someone like me who moved around a lot, in getting to know kids. That was always an icebreaker. Always.

I used to love playing football. Obviously, younger, growing up, you're in Pop Warner, you grow up in junior high playing football. I enjoyed that. I enjoyed playing baseball. Baseball was the sport that I really enjoyed, because that was the sport I started at the earliest age. You start baseball with tee ball and things of that nature. For me, the older I got, the worse I got at all those sports [laughs].

I didn't start playing organized basketball until what, at this day and age, would be a really, really late time. I want to say the first really organized team I played on might have been in fifth grade.

I enjoyed playing the other sports, but there just got be a time when my Dad was like, "Hey, we need to hone in on a couple deals, and kind of lock in our attention on a couple sports." Because at that point, you're playing at least three sports. I was playing football, I was playing basketball, and I was also playing baseball.

I wanted to play football. And, in my own way, I tried to play football, to be honest with you. My ninth-grade summer, going into 10th grade, football tryouts were starting, and I caught myself going out on the field. And I remember the football coach at Page High School, Coach Kirby, saw me coming, started laughing, and pointed to the gym [laughs]. Told me to turn around and go right back up there. And that was it for my football exploits in high school.

* * *

I noticed—and not just necessarily my dad, but I mean I've seen that firsthand— that there was no thought, at that time, looking back on it now, of what happens. How do you transition from professional basketball out of professional basketball? And I saw a lot of my dad's friends, and my dad, go through that transition, which was different and difficult for a lot of those guys.

There was a phase that my father was doing some different things. He worked construction. He drove a truck. All the meanwhile trying to stay involved with the game of basketball, working his friend's camps, or working at different things like that, trying to get into the coaching profession. But at the time getting into the coaching profession in college, was … there weren't as many opportunities. And like today—more so then—I think you had to have known someone who could help you get in the door.

But you'd never hear him complain, you never heard him … You know: "This is what I need to do to make sure my family's taken care of, and along the way I'm still going to try to put myself in a position to get into a different profession. But right now, this is what it is."

* * *

I look back on college, and it was a wonderful opportunity. I met my wife, won a championship, and I got a degree. That doesn't happen too often, I don't think, in the big scheme of things. I went to college and played for a great coach. He made me a better person. He made me a better basketball player. He put me in a position, along with the other members of the coaching staff, of being able to do something that will affect my family for years to come.

There's not a day that goes by that I don't think about winning the national championship at Kansas. Not a day. Regardless of what I have going on, how traumatic, how upset I am, how disappointed, that always brings a smile to my face.

I needed to take a math final to get my degree and basically just procrastinated [laughs], to be honest with you. There were some other things that distracted me, so to speak. After you win a national championship and you have a chance to go to different awards ceremonies and do different things, the Olympic team and things like that, you're just kind of: "Oh, all it is is a final. I can go back and take it, you know, whenever. I can go back and take it whenever." And it just kept getting pushed to the back burner. Get drafted, play in the Olympics, come back, start the NBA season.

Well, I blow my knee out 26 games into my NBA season and at that point it's, "OK, what do I have to do to get back?" So, of course, you have the surgery and you rehab. You don't go back to school that summer. Play through the next season, come back. You've got to rebuild and go through rehab some more just to keep yourself going. So long story short is, the first break I had after my rookie year, in the summer, was in '91. Or a period of time where I felt like I could go back, and do what I needed to do to get my degree.

You rationalize. You see things in your own light. And for me it was like: "I went to college and put myself in a position to get a good job, and to be able to provide and take care of my family. Well, I've done that. I've done that. Do I need my degree?" That's what was running through my head.

And you sit down and you start discussing your life, especially with my wife, Julie. We're talking about religion. We're talking finances. We're talking about traveling, and culture, and different things like that. And, you know, we get on the education topic, and she's like, "Well, how do you feel about education?" And I'm like, "It's very important. I want our kids to go to school, go to college." And she's like, "Well, that's going to be hard for you to say because you don't have your degree."

At that point, it hits you in the face. Boom. OK, I get it [laughs]. OK, I get it. So that's another reason to go back. So it's not, "Do as say, and not as I did."

* * *

There was some talk of possibly having the opportunity to put my name in the draft [early], I guess. And then my dad comes over to my apartment and doesn't get five feet inside the door and was like: "You're not ready. You're not ready physically and you're not ready mentally for that level, for that league." And that was end of discussion.

I said, "OK, Dad," but in my mind I was just like: "Wow! I thought we were going to discuss this. I thought there was going to be some give and take here." There was none of that. It was, "You're not ready." And that was it.

Being around my father and professional sports as long as I was around it, at an early age, you don't take anything for granted. You don't take your playing career for granted. I mean, you just don't do it. And for me, it hit home the day I was drafted. Your name is called out, and there's been a lot of speculation and anticipation about the draft. And for that to finally happen was a really good moment, internally, for me.

It was just, "Hey, I'm very fortunate, very blessed, to be in this situation, and I know I'm not here without the help of many, many other people that have helped push, and steer, and prod, and kick me in the right way." And it was also very humbling at the same time.

I think the night of the draft, I enjoyed it. That was just a moment where you could just sit back and exhale and take it all in. The next day you realize how fortunate you are, but you also realize, "Hey, it's for real now," in terms of this is the profession that I've been accepted by or brought into. And at that point the mentality kicks in of, "Hey, I've got to show people I belong." Not that I'm worthy. I have to show people I belong. That was the mindset. That was the mentality.

The first few games you're feeling your way around. You're trying to adjust and get used to it, and you kind of hit your stride. I felt like I was hitting my stride. And then to blow your knee out, and have that taken away from you? That was ... that's tough. That's a very hard situation to be in. Because, at that point in time, the best way that I knew how to handle the situation was to kind of remove myself from the team.

I still went to the games when I was able to go, but professional basketball was the ultimate goal again, and it drops down to: "Rehab is the most important thing that I can do. Rehab is the best part of my day, every day. Each day I become a step closer to doing what I ultimately want to do again, which is play in the NBA." So the focus changes to not basketball per se, but to putting myself back in a position where I can play basketball.

The first thing that floated through my head at the time that I had my first injury was, it was career-threatening at that point. I think Bernard King was on his comeback trail from his ACL at the time. And I thought: "Worst-case scenario, I reinvent myself as a player. I go from the type of player that I've always been to … you know, I'm still 6-10 [laughs]. So, I won't move as quick. I won't be able to do some of the things I've done in the past, but I can be more of a traditional inside player, if need be."

That was the backup plan if I couldn't get back to where I wanted to be, to the player that I wanted to be. I didn't do that alone. Great doctor in Stephen Lombardo of the Kerlan-Jobe Clinic out in L.A. Wonderful therapist in Clive Brewster. Those two gentlemen helped me get back to where I needed to be. I remember sitting in Dr. Lombardo's office and having him say—and this is the first I ever heard this from any doctor—"I can do this for you in surgery. This is what I know I can do. I can repair your knee, and I can get you back to this point." Then sitting down with Clive, the therapist: "I can rehab you, to this point. I can you get back to here. The question is, Are you willing to go through all that work to do it? And if you are, then you'll play pro basketball again."

And that's what I wanted to hear. So many other people would say, "Hey, you know, it's a career-threatening injury," and, "We can try it, we might be able to do this, we might be able to do that." I had no interest in spending time with people who thought like that. I had no interest in wanting people like that to have anything to do with my surgery, anything to do with my rehab. I knew I was willing to put forth the effort and energy to give myself a chance to play again, but I also wanted to make sure that the doctors and the therapist I was working with, we were on the same page.

Surgery two was: "I've been there, done that. I know what I've got to do." Surgery three was, "Here we go again." [laughs] I mean, that was the mindset. You know, surgery three was probably the toughest one to handle from the standpoint of, I thought I was back to playing at a level that I wanted to be at as a player. Then going through that again was, "Wow." But the thought of saying, "Hey I'm done, I'm not playing again" never entered my mind. Because I was not ready for it to end, and I was going to try to do whatever I could to make sure it didn't. Like I said, I had a lot of people helping me, pushing me, praying for me. And I was a little bit stubborn. You have to be in order to fight through any type of adversity.

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I knew it was time for me to retire after that [2002-03] season in Detroit. I came home that summer, and the desire to do what I needed to do to prepare myself for the upcoming season didn't kick in. I didn't want to go do any extra running. I didn't want to do any extra lifting. I didn't want to go do any extra shooting. I didn't want to go into the gym as much as I wanted to or I needed to or should have been doing in all those summers before. And it's not that I didn't love the game of basketball any less. I just didn't have the desire to prepare myself. And I knew that, once that desire to prepare myself for the upcoming season left, there's no reason to play.

The last four years I was at a different place, but I was still ready. I was still prepared to go in to every game thinking, "Hey, my number could get called upon." And most of the time it didn't. I knew that, but that was my role. I was OK with that. I signed up for that. But after that Detroit year, it was ... I just didn't want to do what I needed to do to be ready.

The game that sticks out to me was the last regular-season game. We played Boston. And I was not in the rotation. End of the year we've already solidified our playoff spot, and so you rest some guys, you give some guys some more minutes who haven't played before, and I got that opportunity to play. And that was probably some of the most fun I've had playing. We didn't win the game, but just being out on the court and enjoying the moment.

I'm very happy and very proud to say I was able play 15 years in the NBA, considering the average lifespan of NBA players and going through the injuries that I went through. That's something. That's a badge of honor that I wear proudly. I'm very fortunate and humbled to have done that, but I also know that the hard work and some positive thoughts and a little bit of intelligence [laughs] played a part.

Rob Trucks is the author of Cup of Coffee, a series of conversations with former pitchers whose major-league careers lasted fewer than 50 innings. His other work for Deadspin includes interviews with former NHL goalie Clint Malarchuk and the late Dave Duerson, and an oral history of Big Star co-founder Alex Chilton's time in Tuscaloosa. You may e-mail him at trucks@deadspin.com or follow him on Twitter at @tusktusktusk. Theme music and video courtesy Steve Wynn.