There was a time, in the early months of his senior year of high school, when Charles Manning was unhappy.
Monday through Friday, his alarm would go off around 5 a.m. While the teammates and friends he’d won a Class D boys basketball state championship with less than a year prior were still sleeping nearby in their Bridgehampton neighborhood, Manning’s father, Maurice Manning, would drive him half an hour from Bridgehampton to Riverhead, where he’d take a long train ride to Wyandanch, followed by a 20 minute drive over the Nassau County border on his way to Long Island Lutheran High School, a private school in Brookville.
Manning did not want to leave Bridgehampton. When he transferred from Riverhead High School to his father’s alma mater during his junior year, he was an instant star, making an already talented Killer Bees team dynamite, and making very real the possibility that Bridgehampton would win its ninth state title, and first since the three-peat of the late 1990s. His father had been the highly touted star of those teams, and, as expected, the younger Manning followed in his footsteps, scoring 31 points and earning MVP honors in a state title victory in 2015. Without any seniors, Bridgehampton was automatically the favorite to defend its title, a prospect that made finishing his high school career there extremely alluring to Manning.
But winning state titles wasn’t Manning’s ultimate goal. He made it clear to anyone who would listen that he wanted to play beyond high school, for a big-time college program, and one day in the NBA — and he had proven he had the size and raw skills required to chase that dream. Even with those prerequisites, his father knew better than anyone just how hard that would be, how natural gifts are only part of the equation, and how a dream can slip away in an instant if the right plan isn’t in place.
Maurice Manning knew this, of course, because it happened to him. He went away to prep school after graduating Bridgehampton, a move that was supposed to be the first step toward stardom for one of the many Division I programs that recruited him after he’d won Suffolk County Player of the Year honors as a senior and was a three-time state tournament MVP. Instead, he returned home as a new father before the prep year was over and took a break from playing before leading Suffolk County Community College to back-to-back junior college championships in 2003 and 2004.
His became a story of promise largely unfulfilled. He did not want that to happen to his son.
So despite early objections, the younger Manning grinded through the long hours spent on the train, splitting his time between his father’s home in Bridgehampton and the home of his mother, LaShanne Dozier, in Riverhead. He played well and improved at Lutheran, a highly competitive private school program. His success there led him to Combine Academy in North Carolina, a well-respected prep school where he worked on his game for another year — taking advantage of the fact that he was young for his grade — before moving on to Florida Southwestern, where he was a junior college All-American as a sophomore and was the third-ranked prospect in the country at that time. And after two seasons at Florida Southwestern, Manning at long last achieved his goal of playing for a big name Division I program, landing a scholarship to Louisiana State University, alma mater of NBA legends like Shaquille O’Neal and Pete Maravich.
In 16 games with the Tigers — who are 13-4 overall, 5-0 in the Southeastern Conference as of January 20 — Manning has had an immediate impact as a junior, starting several games but primarily coming off the bench and providing a spark as a versatile sixth man. He has contributed on offense, but has proven himself invaluable as a lockdown defender, with the skill to guard nearly every position on the floor. He’s averaging eight points per game, with a field goal percentage over 50 percent, and has scored in double figures five times. He’s also accrued 17 blocked shots and nine steals over the course of those games.
Manning will be sidelined for the next three to four weeks after undergoing surgery to repair a broken bone in his foot, an injury he suffered in an 89-85 overtime win at Texas A&M on January 14. He will return in time to help his team through the rest of the season, and can also take comfort in the fact that he has one more season of eligibility remaining in his collegiate career. More importantly, he has arrived at a place many talented players fail to reach, and is on the cusp of achieving the lofty goal he had firmly planted in his mind five years ago, thanks to the guidance of a father who knows more about that journey than most, and a mother who he says has been his most faithful supporter since day one. Manning is not the star of his team like he was during his state championship season at Bridgehampton, but that’s OK with him.
“It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while, and it’s just a blessing to contribute in any way I can,” he said in an interview just days before undergoing foot surgery.
Motivation comes in many forms for Manning these days. There’s the desire to bring pride to the small, basketball-obsessed town he calls home — “I’m always going to bleed black and gold,” he said. There’s also the fierce determination to make both of his parents proud, and fulfill the potential he has. And he’s keen to heed what has been a consistent message from his father over the years — that just as quickly as you can achieve success, you can lose it.
The older Manning admits that he’s dealt tough love to his son over the years. He said he knew he was “throwing him to the wolves,” in a sense, when he insisted he transfer to Lutheran, and insisted Manning stay there even when he desperately wanted to return to Bridgehampton. As the years have gone by, Manning said he’s been more amenable to taking his father’s advice.
“It definitely holds more weight, because he’s been through it,” Manning said. “So I’m always willing to listen to what he has to say.”
Both Ms. Dozier and the elder Manning say that the maturity they have seen from their son during that time has been impressive, and they are particularly proud of the way he’s handled adversity, starting with the hard transition to Long Island Lutheran.
“That was one of the biggest things that was real frustrating for him,” Maurice Manning said in a phone interview earlier this week, while visiting his son in Baton Rouge. “The times when he was so young and had to do all that — it’s stressful on a kid. And he didn’t really understand it.
“Sometimes you have to do things that can make them uncomfortable for them to actually blossom,” he added.
By the time Manning arrived in Baton Rouge, the process of adjusting to a new home, new coach, teammates, and system was a familiar dance. Before long, he found his niche, his versatility allowing him to play both the small forward and shooting guard positions as a spark plug off the bench, averaging 24 minutes per game.
“The transition wasn’t too hard, but it was still something to get used to,” Manning said, pointing out that he was expected to spend more time in the gym and weight room working on strength and conditioning. Of course, the level of competition increased, which took some getting used to as well.
“Everyone is faster, more physical, and they’re smarter players, too,” he said. “Technically, a lot of them have been looked at already by the NBA.”
The combination of lessons Maurice Manning carries with him from his own experience years ago, the consistent love and support from his mother, and Charles’s own unwavering desire to play at the highest level is what has enabled him to keep going.
“He wanted it so bad,” Ms. Dozier said, just days after she’d returned from her first trip to the school to see him play. “He just wanted to make everybody proud.”
Ms. Dozier is certainly proud, and says she is at times bowled over at just how well her son has done year after year. On a recent visit to LSU, Ms. Dozier said Manning was proud to show her his spotless dorm room, even pulling open his dresser drawers to reveal all his clothes, neatly arranged and folded.
“A lot of it is maturity, because he’s just matured so much,” she said. “As far as his grades, I don’t even worry. He’s just handling it.”
Both Ms. Dozier and Mr. Manning are now sitting back and enjoying the ride, taking comfort in the fact that their son has arrived at the place he so greatly desired to be, and is well equipped to take the final steps toward his ultimate dream. When they can’t see him play live, they watch him play on TV, an experience they both describe as “surreal.”
Ms. Dozier says her son will often tell her, “I’m doing it for you, Mom,” a sentiment she understands, but doesn’t want to be his primary driving force.
“I don’t want it to be too much pressure on him,” she said. “I want him to just have fun, play ball, and whatever comes from that is fine.”
Mr. Manning has taken the same approach, and said he is glad he followed his gut when it came to guiding his son in making the hard choices that led him to LSU, even when Charles struggled early on, and when others around him may have questioned those choices.
“It’s definitely been a blessing, being able to watch him and see him go from being a junior in Bridgehampton to coming to LSU,” he said. “It’s definitely surreal a little bit for me, but I always knew he could play at a certain level, it was just up to him to believe in it.
“Ultimately, I told him, ‘To me, you already made it,’” Mr. Manning continued. “I told him, ‘I’m already happy. You did something that a lot of people would love to do. There’s no more pressure now. If you want to keep playing basketball, just continue to work hard, and you can make a living doing this. I don’t have any more expectations. Whatever you put on yourself, I’m right there with you.’”