The day before his NBA opener, he gave it up to be a Mississippi minster

Marcus Mann, pastor of First Baptist Church in Carthage, Miss., speaks to the congregation. Twenty years ago, on the eve of the season, Mann told the Golden State Warriors his heart wasn't in basketball.
Marcus Mann, pastor of First Baptist Church in Carthage, Miss., speaks to the congregation. Twenty years ago, on the eve of the season, Mann told the Golden State Warriors his heart wasn't in basketball. Sunday Down South

You won’t find a statue of Marcus Mann outside the Itta Bena, Mississippi, arena where he starred. There won’t be a release of a film documenting his life anytime soon, as NFL Films is about to do for Pat Tillman, who shortly after his death in 2004 in the Afghanistan war — as an NFL star-turned-Army Ranger — was mythologized as an American superhero. Mann is still with us.

But 20 years ago on Monday, five years before Tillman sacrificed a lucrative pro sports career for which he was lionized, Mann did much the same for the future of this country. Only he chose as his method to nurture lives.

“I was nervous,” Mann recalled to me last week in a phone conversation from his Carthage, Mississippi, home of the day he walked away from it all. “That day I got up, I was like, ‘Okay, this is going to be the day that I go in and tell Dave Twardzik and Rick Adelman, I’m done.’”

And Mann hadn’t even started.

The summer of 1996, Twardzik, then the Golden State Warriors’ general manager, and Adelman, the coach, made Mann the 40th pick in the NBA draft, the 39th player chosen after Philadelphia picked Georgetown’s Allen Iverson No. 1.

I had no idea I was watching a second-round NBA pick from Mississippi Valley State Delta Devils when I saw them from press row at the Richmond Coliseum get blown out by Iverson’s Hoyas in the first round of the 1996 NCAA Tournament. But the 6-foot-8 Mann led his black-college team and every big man in that game — including Georgetown’s Othella Harrington, Jahidi White and Jerome Williams, all of whom went on to play in the NBA — in scoring, with 24.

My agent that I had at the time, when I called and told him, he was like, ‘Don’t you do nothing till I get there! I said, ‘Man, my mind is already made up.’

Marcus Mann

The Warriors were so impressed with Mann in their training camp and preseason games that they told Mann as the regular season approached that he was going to realize his dream and become an NBA player. That meant the guaranteed rookie minimum salary then of $220,000 would start dripping into Mann’s bank account when the Warriors tipped off their 51st season on Nov. 1, 1996, at San Jose Arena against the Clippers. That would be more money than all but a handful of families in Carthage, population 5,075, were worth, and certainly Mann’s.

Mann grew up in his grandmother’s house, which is surrounded by the homes of the rest of his family — those of his mother, uncles and aunts.

“Right behind grandma’s house is a field where grandpa did his gardening,” Mann said. “He’d have us in the summer working in the field. During harvest time, we’d have to go pick tomatoes and peas and all that.”

And not far away in a rural area of Carthage — Mann’s homestead was in the city — is the family church, Jones Chapel Baptist, where Mann eulogized his grandmother just a few months ago at age 94.

“My grandmother was a die-hard Christian,” Mann said. “She loved God, and didn’t mind expressing. I preached her eulogy, and I told them [attendees] I would go to prayer service with my grandmother when she would go from house to house praying. She would take me with her. At the time, I didn’t understand why she would do that.”

‘He just disappeared’

It wasn’t until the days 20 years ago, just before he was to suit up for the Warriors’ opener, that it dawned on Mann that his grandmother had planted in him a seed. Mann didn’t feel as much a desire to play basketball for hundreds of thousands of dollars as he did to minister to those who needed it, in return for the simple feeling that he may have saved someone.

“My agent that I had at the time, when I called and told him, he was like, ‘Don’t you do nothing till I get there!” Mann said with his heavy, easy laugh. “I said, ‘Man, my mind is already made up.’”

On Oct. 31, 1996, Mann walked into an office with Twardzik and Adelman and told them he was giving up a professional basketball career to minister back home in Mississippi, specifically to kids.

“Rick Adelman was like, ‘Do you know what you’re doing?’ Mann recalled.

Mann answered that he did and was at peace about his decision.

That was the last time he talked to them.

A Warriors guard then, B.J. Armstrong, told me he always wondered what happened to Mann. “He just disappeared,” Armstrong said. “Nothing much was explained.”

The next day, as the ’96 Warriors tipped off against the Los Angeles Clippers, Mann boarded a flight from the Bay Area back to Mississippi. He’s lived in small-town Mississippi ever since.

‘A calling’

At first, Mann taught at the high school from which he graduated, South Leake. Soon after, he wound up working in the ministry at Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility, which Mother Jones magazine in 2013 called one of the 10 worst prisons in the country.

“That was the best time I had, because I was dealing with guys age 13 to 21, and the majority of them looked like me, and they never had a positive male figure in their life,” Mann said. “To this day, I’ve seen so many guys, whether its in the mall or wherever, they’ll see me and come hug me and they’ll be like, ‘I’m doing good, got my own family,’ and they’ll remember something I told them. They’ll say, ‘I never forgot that.’”

It was the first of every job that he’s had since in the ministry. He wound up a chaplain at Walnut Grove. Then he started a ministry at an alcohol and drug addiction center. For the past five years, he’s been a chaplain for Tyson’s Foods, first in Carthage and now in Forest.

And in between, he’s pastored at two churches, including for the past three years leading First Baptist Church in Carthage.

“[My grandmother] always been one of my biggest supporters.” Mann said. “She understood. She told me, ‘I always knew that there was a calling on your life.’”

Mann did look back once.

He’d returned to his alma mater to oversee its recreation department. Being in the gym helping run basketball tournaments produced an itch. A CBA team in La Crosse, Wis., helped him scratch it. He lasted one game. His right patella shattered on a fast break.

“The doctor said, ‘Well, Mr. Mann,’” Mann recalled, before Mann said he interrupted the doctor.

“You don’t have to say nothing,” Mann, now the father of a 15-year-old basketball-playing daughter, said he told the doctor. “I shouldn’t have been playing in the first place. He looked at me strange, and I said, ‘It’s a long story, but I’ll give you the short version.

“I said, ‘God led me away from the NBA to do his will, but on my own, I wanted to go back and play. Because I was disobedient, now I’ve got to deal with this thorn.’ “

That was two knee surgeries ago. Dozens of kids saved. Countless souls inspired.

Kevin B. Blackistone, ESPN panelist and visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, writes sports commentary for The Post.