Thirty Years Later, Danny Manning Returns to His USA Basketball Roots
Colorado Springs, Colorado
In April 1984, recently named Wake Forest University head coach Danny Manning was a high school senior participating alongside 71 of the nation’s top amateur athletes who were vying for a spot on the 1984 U.S. Olympic Team. Of the 72 athletes at trials, only 12 players would advance to compete in the Los Angeles Olympics. To say the competition was fierce would be an understatement.
Among the list of 72 players were future Dream Teamers Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Michael Jordan, Karl Malone, Chris Mullin and John Stockton. Of those six Hall of Famers, only Ewing, Jordan and Mullin made the cut.
“Going in as a high school kid, I was thrilled and honored to be a part of it,” said Manning, who was in Colorado Springs, Colorado, this past week as a court coach for the 2014 USA U18 National Team training camp. “The competitive side of that group was phenomenal. Those guys competed in every drill, every competition, until the horn sounded. That’s just the culture that they had. It was a lot of fun to be part of, in terms of understanding the level that you needed to play at on a regular basis.”
Manning did not make the 1984 U.S. Olympic Team, but the trials helped launch Manning into the USA Basketball player pool for the next five summers. He was selected to compete for the 1984 USA R. William Jones Cup Team that was coached by Arizona’s Lute Olson, posted a 9-0 slate and brought home the gold medal.
In 1985 he played for the North Team at the U.S. Olympic Festival for his college coach, University of Kansas’Larry Brown, and aided the North squad to a 3-1 mark and the gold medal.
Manning returned in 1987 as a member of the USA Pan American Games Team. Held in Indianapolis, the 1987 Pan American Games marked the first time the event was held in the United States since 1959 when the U.S. captured the gold medal in Chicago, Illinois. In 1987, however, the fate of the U.S. squad was not the same. Upset by Brazil 120-115 in the championship game, the United States was denied the gold medal for just the second time in the 36-year history of the Pan American Games.
As good as the U.S. team was, its players ranging in age from 19-22, were going up against the likes of sharp-shooting and high scoring Oscar Schmidt, who already had two Olympic Games and two FIBA World Championship appearances under his belt. The 29-year-old Brazilian scored 46 of his team’s 120 points and went 7-of-15 from 3-point in the gold medal game.
Asked what he remembers about the ’87 Pan Ams and Manning laughed and said two words: “Oscar Schmidt.”
“You hear the folktales about these players, and then once you get on the court with them, you’re like, ‘Wow! These guys are talented, they can play and they’re well coached,’” he continued. “It was kind of one of those deals where you weren’t in awe, but you were definitely impressed.
“Learning (Louisville and USA head coach Denny Crum’s) system was a really good deal for us,” recalled Manning, who led the team in scoring (14.6 ppg.) and was named the 1987 USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year. “For me in particular, or for anyone who was kind of a versatile player in coach Crum’s system. That helped me out a lot in terms of understanding spacing and figuring out different ways to get guys open.”
Manning continued to impress on the court during his final year at Kansas, where he led the Jayhawks to the 1988 NCAA title. Defeating favored Oklahoma 83-79 in the championship contest, the Jayhawk team became known as "Danny & the Miracles" after Manning dumped in 31 points, added 18 rebounds, and was tagged the Most Outstanding Player.
He returned to USA Basketball, this time as a member of the 1988 U.S. Olympic Team that was very talented, but again faced older, more experienced veterans on opposing squads.
Coached by Georgetown’s John Thompson, the U.S. entered the 1988 Olympics as the co-favorites to win the gold. A semifinal loss to the Soviet Union ended the USA's dreams of gold, but the U.S. rebounded to win the bronze and finished with a 7-1 record.
“That was definitely a disappointing task, because we thought we were talented enough to win the gold,” said Manning. “We got beat by a very good Russian team. Those guys were quote unquote ‘amateurs’ and they were very good, talented and well-paid amateurs who played well. They were really well coached. It was disappointing to lose, but we lost to a good team. But, playing for coach Thompson, the preparation that we put into it leading up to the Games was a wonderful experience and something I think about often.”
How many athletes have the opportunity to learn from one Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame coach, let alone four? Not many. Playing for Brown, Crum, Thompson and Olson helped Manning become at ease with different coaching styles, something he credits for his ability to fit into no less than seven different systems over his 15-year NBA career.
“That helped me out a lot,” stated Manning. “Anytime you go through change, you have to learn to adapt. Playing for the different great coaches that we had a chance to play for on the USA teams was a lot of fun. It was fun to learn different systems and try to implement that in the course of playing. That just carried over throughout my professional career, going to different teams and having to learn on the fly a new system and make the adjustments. You look at the USA Basketball experiences, from all four competitions I was fortunate enough to play in; it definitely helped me out.”
And now, 30 years later, Manning was back with USA Basketball, and was helping shape a new generation of Olympic hopefuls.
The week started out with 24 athletes vying for the 12 available roster spots on the 2014 USA U18 National Team that will compete in the June 20-24 FIBA Americas U18 Championship in Colorado Springs. That is better odds than Manning had in 1984, but it didn’t make the sessions less competitive. The list was been whittled down to 15 finalists, and the final three cuts were extremely difficult.
“It’s a competition, but more so than that, you want to make sure that you do the best that you can so that whoever goes is prepared to do whatever it takes to help the USA win the gold,” said Manning on the advice he has given the athletes. “I think these guys have a great deal of camaraderie. The off-the-court camaraderie is there. I just tell them you have to go out and compete and be a good teammate.”
And what qualities does Manning look for in a good teammate?
“Someone who is unselfish in their actions and their thoughts is who makes the best teammate in this type of situation,” he said. “Because a lot of times we’re taking the best-of-the-best, and guys have to sacrifice for the greater whole. Some guys naturally do that because that’s how they’re wired to play. And then some guys, it takes an adjustment. Guys who are unselfish in their thoughts and their actions and communicate with their teammates to me are the best guys to play with.”
Hopefully the 24 athletes who participated in the USA U18 National Team training camp took advantage of Manning’s wealth of knowledge and experience. If they did, the 2014 USA U18 National Team will be hard to stop.