MANHATTAN, Kan. (AP) — Jerome Tang was tearing around his property on an unseasonably warm spring day not long ago, just before Kansas State headed down Interstate 70 for the Big 12 Tournament, when he noticed his four-wheeler was running out of fuel.
So, the Wildcats' coach did what anyone would do in a small town: He steered that bad boy onto the road, conveniently forgetting that it wasn't exactly street legal, and headed off for the service station.
“So I'm zooming down and the college kids are outside. They're hollering at you, happy to see you. I mean, how great is that?" Tang recalled. “My wife was upset. She's like, 'You're going to get arrested. It's going to be on the news!'”
Tang glances around furtively, his ever-present smile growing just a bit wider.
“I can't, like, get in trouble for something that already happened, right?”
Not these days. Not in Manhattan, Kansas.
One year after taking over a downtrodden program coming off three straight losing seasons, Tang and his upstart Wildcats are preparing to play Michigan State in the Sweet 16 on Thursday night. They've already taken down mighty Kentucky and its roster of NBA prospects, and now they will face Tom Izzo and the Spartans — a program synonymous with NCAA Tournament success — under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden.
The fan apathy that reached a nadir last spring? Forgotten after eight straight sellouts to end the regular season. Chants of “Eff K-U” during home games, the epitome of a long-standing inferiority complex toward their bitter rival, replaced by pride-filled shouts of “K-S-U,” much to the relief of a coach who demands 10 pushups every time his players swear.
This is a coach who can be found posted up on a purple sofa delivered to random spots around campus, from dining halls to the engineering building, so that he can chat with students going about their everyday lives.
“I mean, I'm just happy to see Coach Tang and our team having so much success,” says Markquis Nowell, their All-American guard. “He's the reason we play with so much love and joy. And you know, we still have a lot to prove.”
Tang kept using the term “elevate” when he was hired to replace Bruce Weber a year ago. But not even the longtime Baylor assistant could imagine how quickly, and how high, he would have the Wildcats soaring.
“We surpassed the epectations I had,” Tang said in a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press. “But like, you don't enjoy this, you shouldn't be doing it, right? Our guys, our young people, our community deserves to have someone that really appreciates them and desires to be around them. They deserve this.”
The first thing to understand about Tang's winding road to the heartland of America is fortunate to be here. Not here, as in Kansas State. Here, as in alive.
Born in San Fernando, Trinidad and Tobago, Tang moved to St. Croix with his mother and three siblings while his father chased work in the oil industry. He was about 5 years old and playing marbles beneath a car in his aunt's driveway when his cousin, not knowing he was there, got behind the wheel and drove away.
“Drove right over him,” remembers Tang's older sister, Kim. “He's lucky. He was in the hospital for weeks.”
Perhaps that brush with death somehow infused in Tang his profoundly deep faith — “I believe my gift is ministry,” he explains, “and my passion just happens to be basketball." Or perhaps it somehow led to a preternaturally optimistic outlook on life, which has served him well as he tries to resurrect Kansas State's basketball program.
“He treats people the right way,” says Baylor coach Scott Drew, his longtime friend. “He just always sees the good in people.”
Tang grew up playing cricket and soccer, and when his family moved to the Houston area, it became baseball and football — this was Texas, after all. But in 1979, while watching Magic Johnson and Michigan State beat Larry Bird and Indiana State in the title game that truly gave birth to March Madness, Tang fell in love with basketball.
Except, well, he wasn't very good.
It was a bible scholarship that got him to North Central College. He later attended junior college before dropping out, partly because of money, partly due to immaturity. (He would earn his degree from Charter Oak State College years later.)
Tang returned to Texas, intent on becoming a youth pastor. But when the founder of Heritage Christian Academy, Dr. Jennifer Cooper, was searching for a basketball coach, she turned to Mike Allard, Tang's own youth pastor at Green’s Bayou Assembly of God. He recommended this energetic kid with a devout faith in both Jesus and basketball.
“We drove around in, like, a Cheech-and-Chong van to get places,” Tang says. “It was the best place in the world.”
Tang soon built the small school into a national power, pumping out prospects such as Von Wafer, who played at Florida State and in the NBA. And he was still there in 2002 when Drew was hired to clean up an inconceivable mess at Baylor.
Drew needed someone with an unflinchingly positive attitude who could recruit in Texas, and over dinner one night, Tang won him over, earning a job that Drew had very nearly given to someone else.
Nearly two decades later, inside a quiet football stadium at the end of an NCAA Tournament played entirely inside a COVID-19 bubble, Drew and Tang celebrated the Bears winning the 2021 national championship.
“Scott allowed us to make mistakes,” says Tang, who has Drew's book, “The Road to Joy,” prominently displayed above his otherwise haphazard desk. “I mean, we were young, so we could make mistakes. And sometimes in this business, you're not allowed to make mistakes. I'll never be able to thank him for that.”
Gene Taylor remembers a moment last year when the Wildcats still had just five players on their roster, and he was rightfully nervous. The athletic director had hired Tang after a pair of lengthy linterviews, one in Kansas City and one at Tang's home in Waco, Texas, and entrusted him with a program long on tradition but short on recent success.
“I asked, ‘Are we OK?’” Taylor recalled, "and he said, ‘Gene, we're fine. I don’t just want guys; I want the right guys.'”
The right guys turned out to be a motley crew carefully assembled during that hot summer in the Flint Hills.
Nowell is the 5-foot-8 sparkplug that Kentucky coach John Calipari couldn't get himself to call by name — “That little guy,” coach Cal said — after he'd minced up his own Wildcats in last weekend's second-round tourney game.
Keyontae Johnson, voted an All-American alongside Nowell, was playing for Florida when he collapsed on the court during a game in December 2020. Most schools were unwilling to clear Johnson to play, due to his underlying heart condition, but Tang was willing to take every step and precaution necessary to get him back on the court.
Cam Carter came from Mississippi State, David N'Guessan from Virginia Tech. Desi Sills arrived from Arkansas State, Abayomi Iyiola from Hofstra. Nae'Qwan Tomlin, who never even played basketball in high school, signed out of junior college, and a pair of freshmen were sold on Tang's unwavering vision for the future.
“Nobody," Kansas coach Bill Self said, “has done a better job of assembling talent in a short amount of time.”
Picked to finish last in the Big 12, the Wildcats finished third. The reward was a No. 3 seed in March Madness, where the Wildcats knocked off Montana State in the first round before toppling Kentucky last weekend.
Now, they're just two more wins away from their first Final Four in nearly 50 years.
“I like doing first stuff, you know?” Tang says, leaning forward in a purple wingback chair in the corner of his office, where boxes still remain unpacked a year after moving in. “Players, you ask them, do you remember your first dunk? They all remember their first dunk. Do you remember your third dunk? They don’t. Do you remember your first girlfriend? My first girlfriend was Pam Hubbard. My last was Careylyen, and I married her.
“You remember your firsts and your lasts,” Tang says, "and I like firsts.”