Former Georgia Bulldogs Mann, Gaines realizing dream on UGA basketball staff

Credit: Brandon Sudge/For the AJC

Credit: Brandon Sudge/For the AJC

ATHENS — Georgia called a timeout as a 2016 game at Florida began to get out of control. A few seconds before the coaches arrived in the huddle, then-senior point guard Charles Mann gathered his Bulldogs teammates in a mini scrum.

“His teammates gave him eye contact and were in tune,” Jonas Hayes, then a Georgia assistant, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in the midst of his first season as Georgia State’s head coach. “They were lock-and-step with Charles and hanging on every single word that came out of his mouth.”

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Hayes noticed a special quality in those few seconds. Mann displayed a bit of coaching acumen, and his backcourt mate Kenny Gaines showed leadership qualities behind the scenes. The All-SEC shooting guard had a unique attentiveness to scouting reports and displayed a dedication to the intricacies of the sport.

Hayes saw potential for both of the former UGA star guards to enter into the coaching ranks, and his beliefs came to life nearly a decade later.

Mann and Gaines exhausted playing eligibility in 2016 and finished careers etched in program lore. After two coaching stops for Mann (who originally deflected any thought of coaching and said “I’m going to play in the NBA for 25 years”) and a lengthy overseas playing career for Gaines, the two backcourt mates and best friends returned to call Stegeman Coliseum home. Mann is director of recruiting and Gaines a graduate assistant under first-year coach Mike White.

The duo’s goal is simple: Help Georgia exceed achievements they accomplished in Athens.

“We have a ways to go,” Mann said. “But we will get there eventually.”

Returning home

Mann first knew White as a sophomore. He gained respect for the then-Louisiana Tech coach when White beat Georgia in the 2014 NIT. The battles continued through Mann’s final seasons at Georgia when White took the job at Florida.

When Mann began his coaching career, he kept his eye on White and stayed in touch via text messages. Those interactions ramped up when Mann finished his final season as an assistant coach at Army and saw White had been selected for the Georgia job.

“He’ll tell you I blew his phone up,” Mann said. “I sent him over 100 texts within a two-month span.”

White engaged in conversation with Mann and welcomed him to campus after a month of dialogue. Mann took on a role with the Bulldogs that no longer allowed an on-court role or recruiting visits. But a chance to coach at Georgia became too much to pass up.

Mann accepted the role after speaking with Hayes, his mentor who was in the running for the Georgia job before White was selected. Mann had his dream job after a few quick years in the coaching ranks.

“Charles Mann is unbelievable,” White said. “We’re really fortunate because he brings a lot to the table with positivity, mentorship and experience in this league. He’s really good at what he does, and a big part of a really good staff.”

Shortly thereafter, Mann’s first recruiting duty was to convince Gaines to join the program. They first mentioned the opportunity when believing Hayes was in line to replace Tom Crean. Gaines didn’t see himself as a strong candidate, but received encouragement from Mann and Hayes.

Gaines had been on a year-long hiatus from playing. He tried to play in the middle of the pandemic and signed with a team in Qatar, but returned home to raise his son a week later after the arrangement didn’t work out. He didn’t have many other responsibilities at the time, so he took interest – albeit a bit hesitant – to return to school and pursue a master’s degree in nonprofit management.

“It wasn’t a desire, but more of a saving-grace plan,” Gaines said. “I won’t say I ever had a passion to coach, but it was something I could naturally be good at.”

Last June, Gaines called White, who was sitting in a room with Mike Mobley of UGA Sports Communications. Turns out, they were listening to Gaines’ rap song “Wit Me.”

“That was a sign,” he said. “I’m supposed to be at Georgia.”

‘It felt like a dream’

Four tunnels surround the underbelly of Stegeman Coliseum. Mann walks through them often when using his new digs. Each time he steps closer to a view of the court, memories flood through his brain.

Mann remembers the 29 points he scored in the NIT comeback to defeat Vermont. He reminisces on the atmosphere when the arena was packed to the brim and Georgia nearly beat undefeated Kentucky led by Karl Anthony-Towns and Devin Booker – a game the Bulldogs “should’ve won,” he said. He fondly recalls the jubilation of beating a Missouri team led by longtime NBA guard Jordan Clarkson.

“All of the flashbacks come back to me,” Mann said. “I think ‘This place is crazy.’”

After finishing his playing career, Mann got into coaching as a graduate assistant at Virginia Commonwealth. The coaching profession long has been in his blood.

His younger brother Jamaine Mann, now at Georgia State under Hayes, was the first player the former Bulldogs guard ever coached. Since Charles was 12 years old, Jamaine said, he brought mentorship to his younger brother.

They would work together on conditioning and basketball drills on the neighborhood basketball court. Charles always looked out for Jamaine differently than he did his other siblings because he saw a special basketball potential in him.

“He’s been built for this moment,” Jamaine said. “He’s been coaching for years and will do it for years to come.”

Mann always thought about returning to Georgia. He kept in contact with the program while being mentored by VCU’s Mike Rhoades and then taking his first on-court assistant role at Army. Once the opportunity came to be, Mann had to pinch himself frequently during his first months back in Athens.

“I was in shock for two months,” Mann said. “It felt like a dream. I’d see my picture on the wall, my locker and visit with familiar faces on campus. I dreamt of this, and it actually happened.”

For Gaines, the appeal of returning to a place he knew well isn’t lost, either. He didn’t realize the passion of returning to Georgia until he got introduced to his role. He found it when he saw the progression of numerous players, Gaines’ growth as a coach and diving into the grind of day-to-day basketball responsibilities with his best friend yet again.

In many ways, these two feel as if they’re wearing a Bulldogs jersey again.

“It’s a huge value proposition for me,” Gaines said. “Georgia is my safe haven.”

The perfect mentor

Gaines remembers his exact shooting splits while at Georgia, despite hanging up the uniform seven years ago. He has taken on the role of working with junior Jabri Abdur-Rahim, who sees himself as a sharpshooter in his own right.

Abdur-Rahim will fact-check any statistic that comes his way, so Gaines needed accuracy when sharing his career 3-point shooting percentage of 37.4%. Each day, Gaines challenges Abdur-Rahim to beat it.

“How many do you need today?” Abdur-Rahim asks Gaines before each game.

“At least four or five,” Gaines responds.

The quick exchange gets Abdur-Rahim to lock in on his shooting because he wants to one-up Gaines. Each game, Gaines sits behind the bench as a helping hand to the assistant coaches and keeps a watchful eye on Abdur-Rahim. He answered the challenge quite often with five 3-point makes against Vanderbilt, four against Florida and three apiece in wins over Florida A&M and St. Joseph’s.

Abdur-Rahim, through 20 games, is shooting 39% from the 3-point line, currently besting Gaines’ mark.

Gaines provides most of his mentorship by example. He is the Bulldogs’ secret weapon on scout team, according to seventh-year wing Jailyn Ingram, and provides Georgia with a high-quality opponent each day in practice. White said that Gaines isn’t an ordinary graduate assistant, given his older age, but instead brings a sense of maturity in an on-court role that is similar to his days as a player.

“We have a guy of that caliber, once an SEC player, who helps us by giving us those experiences,” Ingram said.

Mann, meanwhile, uses his former role as an on-court assistant to serve as a mentor, and a middle ground between the coaches and players. The players have a greater comfort coming to him with basketball-related issues, academic help or advice on any girlfriend drama.

He’s also the “shoe plug,” which makes him beloved among the players. Matthew-Alexander Moncrieffe said Mann helped him secure a pair of the beloved Jordan 11 Retro Cherry kicks.

Gaines and Mann provide unique perspectives and take on the role of a big brother in their own ways. The sweetest part of it all is that the backcourt mates get to be Bulldogs together again, which Mann called “one of the best things life can bring.”

The moments of realizing potential seven years ago have led to a season of life that two former Georgia stars never thought possible.

“If they continue to work, they’ll have long careers,” White said. “Hopefully, that’s at Georgia for a long time.”