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Curry Kirkpatrick
April 11, 1988
Danny Manning rose far above Oklahoma to lift upstart Kansas to the NCAA championship
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April 11, 1988

A One Man Show

Danny Manning rose far above Oklahoma to lift upstart Kansas to the NCAA championship

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What was it Dorothy said?

Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.

Surely Kansas wasn't even in Kansas. Nor in Kansas City, Mo. In toto, Kansas couldn't possibly have been in any here-and-now precinct Monday night, when all of those unknown, underrated but thoroughly unflappable Munchkins, uh. Jayhawks, followed their nearly mystical leader, Danny Manning, to the NCAA basketball title.

Who would have thought that an intramural squabble in that hoary football league, the Big Eight conference, would turn into Masterpiece Theatre! Or that Kansas, once 12-8 with its wounded players scattered along the plains like wheat husks, its spirits down and its wayfaring coach, Larry Brown, all but out, would shuck it up one more implausible time? Or that Manning—a Wizard of Oz not to mention oohs and ahhs—would curl in enough soft hooks, tear away enough rebounds, dribble and pass and defend enough to hold the Jayhawks together against Oklahoma, so that Kansas could escape with as perfectly executed an 83-79 upset victory as any scriptwriter could have imagined?

Except this wasn't fantasy. Auntie Em turned out to be Danny M, a real, live and thoroughly remarkable athlete who wired sufficiently elaborate numbers—31 points, 18 rebounds and 5 steals—that his opponents finally got the message: Sooners...later.

Not that Brown didn't believe in his charged-up charges all along. "Get 'em to the last five minutes," he kept exhorting the Jayhawks as the title game, only the third in history to match teams from the same conference, wound down. "They've never been there before." And indeed it wasn't Kansas that panicked when the Jayhawks fell behind 65-60 with 12:13 left in the game. It was the Sooners—those same marauders who had whomped through the season kicking innumerable butts, taking few prisoners and averaging 103.5 points a game—who made exactly two baskets in the next 11:13 and found themselves on the short end of a 78-73 score. Five up to five down with a minute to play.

It wasn't as if Oklahoma hadn't seen the warning signs, either. It wasn't as if Kansas's trip down its yellow-brick interstate hadn't been paved with good fortune. "Luck? This wasn't a gift. Luck comes when preparation meets opportunity," said Manning, sounding as if he had rehearsed his victory speech many times over. And maybe the Jayhawks were more ready for all of this than anybody knew.

"This team believed it could keep winning; we weren't afraid of anybody," said Brown, who also admitted that for the first time in his coaching life he was actually happy, able to enjoy events of the moment—and perhaps not even worried about searching out his next place of employ (see page 26).

Chris Piper, the blond, bony forward who combined with Manning to produce some industrial-strength interior defense, put it another way. "Coach is so happy." he said, "he's nervous."

But why? Kansas didn't have to play North Carolina State or Pittsburgh or Purdue—the top three seeds in the Midwest. It didn't have to play Temple, the No. 1-ranked team going into the tournament, in the semifinals. Those worthies were all upset before they could test the Jayhawks. And what team has ever had its motivational ducks lined up in a row the way Kansas did in these NCAAs? To win the thing, the Jayhawks merely had to stack "get backs" on Kansas State, Duke and Oklahoma—three teams they had already played this season and lost to in four of five games. The Sooners' three-point sniper, Dave Sieger, was well aware this wasn't the same Kansas whose athletic director at midseason was contemplating a printer's cheap rate for NTT tickets. "They might as well have another name," said Sieger.

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