There is a giant photo of Danny Fortson in the practice gym at UC that includes a few details about his outstanding career. But that’s about all the current Bearcats know about the two-time Conference USA Player of the Year since they didn’t see him in action.
“Unfortunately, Dan was from the VHS era and our guys don’t really know too much about him,” said head coach Mick Cronin. “I wish I could show them how hard he practiced every day.”
Coach Cronin discussed that with the team on Wednesday when Fortson attended practice and shared his thoughts on what it means to be a Bearcat.
“When one of the greatest players to ever put on the Cincinnati jersey takes the time to come to the gym and talk to the guys and motivate them and tell them that he’s pulling for them, that means a lot,” said Cronin. “I know the guys really enjoyed it and we’re lucky to have him living in Cincinnati.”
The former first team All-American was inducted into the James P. Kelly UC Athletics Hall of Fame last October and was honored on the court during a Bearcats’ home game earlier this season.
“It was my first time being here since I played,” said Fortson. “I came one other time with my daughter, but that was just briefly and I was in a box and didn’t get to experience what I experienced recently. I felt the appreciation inside. I almost cried, but I didn’t. I love the fans here. I always say that the Bearcats fans are the best fans in the city and I really mean that.”
The 6’7”, 260 pound power forward was among the most efficient offensive players in Cincinnati history, ranking third in field goal percentage (.565) and fourth in career scoring average (18.8).
“I had great coaching when I was younger,” said Fortson. “Plus, I ate, drank, and slept basketball. I stayed out on the basketball court from morning until night. I just loved the game.”
“What I would tell everybody about Danny is that the reason for his success regardless of his lack of athleticism was because he just refused to be denied,” said Cronin. “The guy has unbelievable toughness and wanted to make every shot. If he was 15 for 16 he was mad about the one miss.”
With his burning desire to excel, Fortson thrived under the relentless push of head coach Bob Huggins.
“Here’s a story for you,” Fortson told me. “One time, me and Bobby Brannen woke up at 4:30 in the morning our freshman year and thought we had basketball practice. We were walking to campus and Bobby looked at his watch and said, ‘Hey Dan, you know what? It’s only 4:30 in the morning.’ That should tell you how much that Coach Huggins had an influence on all of us when we played. It was really tough. He pushed us – I mean REALLY pushed us. But I tell you what, when I got to the pros it was pretty easy compared to Bob Huggins’ practices.
“I give Coach Huggins the credit for preparing me. I think he did that for every one of us and doesn’t get enough credit for it. And right now, I think you have a coach in Mick Cronin who does a lot of that. I think he’s really underrated as far as being a coach is concerned. I think you’ve got to give him some credit too.”
After leading the Bearcats in scoring in all three of his seasons, Fortson left UC after his junior year and was selected as the 10th pick in the NBA draft by Milwaukee.
“I knew he would make it in the pros because he would find a way to make it,” said Cronin. “He was that tough a guy and had a lot of pride in his performance. It’s hard to find a guy as competitive as he was. He had a massive chip on his shoulder every time he played basketball.”
Fortson was a prolific scorer in college, but became known for his rebounding and defense in a 10-year NBA career. He finished fourth in the league in rebounding in two of his first five seasons and led the league in offensive rebounds with the Denver Nuggets in 1998-99.
“It was a learning experience,” said Fortson. “I just remember Bob Huggins telling me, ‘You might not be a scorer in the NBA but you might be a rebounder.’ I said, ‘Yea right.’ Turns out he was right. If it wasn’t for him preparing me mentally and physically, I probably wouldn’t have been able to survive that.
“The funny thing is that I actually grew two inches before my rookie year. I remember putting on jeans and they didn’t fit, and I remember hitting my head a couple of times in my room. That was weird. I was still growing, and I think once I grew those extra two inches it was a lot easier to get that type of job done.”
Still, Fortson was shorter than most of the players he outrebounded in the NBA and the current players were surprised by his lack of height when they met him this week.
“He was a really, really tough customer,” said Cronin. “He was a great scorer at Cincinnati and a great rebounder in the NBA.”
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