Behind every triumph and heartbreak in the NCAA tournament, there’s a story. The Players’ Tribune presents Tales of Madness, a series of first-person accounts from iconic basketball players recalling their most memorable tournament experiences. In this installment, Danny Manning remembers the 1987-88 Kansas Jayhawks.
A college basketball season can be a roller coaster. One minute you could be preseason No. 1, the next minute they’re talking about whether or not you’ll get into the NIT. Injuries happen. There are ups, downs, losing streaks and big wins. It’s a long season, and it’s never over until it’s over.
The key is ending on a high note.
I played in four NCAA tournaments at Kansas, but that 1987-88 team was a special group. Whenever a team wins a championship, everything has to fall into place. The coach has to have the right gameplan, coaches have to implement it and the players have to buy in and execute it. You have to catch some breaks along the way, but you also have to be dedicated and disciplined in your actions.
In that 1988 NCAA Tournament, we weren’t the most talented team. We weren’t the most athletic team. But as anyone who’s ever watched the tournament knows, once you’re in, everyone’s record is 0-0. It’s all about which team can get hot at the right time.
So the fact that we were 12-8 at one point in the season and had 11 losses to end the year — the most losses of any national champion in history — didn’t deter us. We had a great coach in Larry Brown, and even when we were losing games, we were competitive. They were close, tough losses. Coach Brown continued to believe in us, and he always said after a tough loss, “We’re close. We just gotta dig a little bit deeper.” We were playing well, we just needed some time to learn to play together. And once we did, the results spoke for themselves.
The National Championship Game that year was played at Kemper Arena in Kansas City, the same venue that hosted the Big Eight Tournament, and you had two Big Eight teams facing off in us and Oklahoma. Fanbases for both teams made the short drive to support their teams, so it was a pretty electric atmosphere.
Nobody expected us to be in the Final Four, let alone the national championship game. As a No. 6 seed, we were the lowest seed in the Final Four, and Oklahoma, who won the Big Eight that year, was a tough, aggressive team. They gave you a fight every time you stepped on the court.
After being tied 50-50 at halftime, we built a six-point lead in the second half, but Oklahoma got back within one with under a minute left. It’s no secret that games can be won and lost at the free throw line, and we hadn’t shot well from the line to that point. So when Scooter Barry went to the line with 16 seconds left and us still nursing that one-point lead, we knew it was time to start hitting from the line.
After making the first to give us a two-point lead, Scooter missed the second, and I got fouled on the rebound. With 14 seconds left, I found myself at the free throw line with a chance to make it a two-possession game.
I hit both.
That gave us a four-point lead, but remember, it’s never over until it’s over. Oklahoma had the ball with 14 seconds left on the clock, and they immediately went right back down the floor and cut the lead back to two with seven seconds left. After a timeout, I got fouled immediately on the inbounds and was headed back to the line with just five seconds left. This time, I could put it away with two free throws.
“It’s over.” That was the only thing I was thinking. That was my mindset. Seal the deal.
The first one rattled home.
Three-point game. One more, and we’d be just seconds away from a championship. I squared back up and let the second one fly.
I made it. With a four-point lead and just five seconds left, Oklahoma needed a miracle, and they didn’t get one. Time ticked down as they threw up a prayer, and that was that.
The Kansas Jayhawks were National Champions.
I’ve been asked about that game and that tournament a lot over the last 27 years — about the free throws, about “Danny and the Miracles.” But my favorite memory from that championship run didn’t happen during the game. It happened after.
Sitting in the locker room with my teammates after winning the national championship, we talked about our season, which was my senior season. We talked about the tournament. And that’s when it hit us: That was the last time we’d ever be together on the court as a team. It was a somber moment for me, but also a very satisfying one knowing that I was a part of a group that was able to win a national championship. A lot of hard work, sweat and tears went into it. A lot of guys made huge sacrifices for our team and for each other. We’d been through such uncertainty and endured so many tough losses, and here we were, reaping the benefits together — as a team.
It’s a gamut of emotions that hits you at that point, but lastly, there’s a sense of calm after the storm, and all that’s left is the joy of what you’ve accomplished with your teammates.
I was never too crazy about the nickname “Danny and the Miracles.” It’s a team sport, and we won that championship as a team. We weren’t the most talented and we weren’t the most athletic, but we played together and we played for each other. That’s what made us great. It wasn’t “Danny and the Miracles.” It was just the Kansas Jayhawks.
But I guess you can call us whatever you want, just as long as you call us National Champions.
For more Tales of Madness, visit our Tales of Madness page.