As the Feb. 24 trading deadline draws near, and as the Clippers, 16-29 at week's end, continue to collapse, the talk in Los Angeles is almost all about business. Where will Manning go, and how much will he get to go there? The local press has been impersonating a train conductor, regularly ringing out his destinations—Denver, Atlanta, Orlando. There's a rumor a day. Not all of them make the greatest sense, but nobody, least of all Manning's agent, Ron Grinker, is much good at rumor control. " Florida has no [state] taxes," he tells one newspaper, responding to the most recent league chatter.
Apparently this particular business of Manning's inevitable departure was ordained when he signed his first contract with the Clippers six years ago. The team's owner, Donald Sterling, was perhaps thoughtless during negotiations. Perhaps even stupid. In any event there was a holdout, the league had to step in on the Clippers' behalf, and Manning eventually got the deal he wanted (five years, $10.5 million). But the residue of bitterness has lingered.
There were further disappointments down the road—some real, some imagined, but all having to do with the frustration of playing for the Clippers. The organization is perceived as a second-tier out-fit that never quite gets the job done, no matter how good its intentions. In Manning's six years he has had six coaches. There has been a rotating cast of supporting characters on the roster, and they always seem to be heading for free agency. And in all that time there have been just two playoff appearances, both of which ended in the first round.
Perhaps you can imagine how that might eat away at a kid like Manning, who played on an undefeated team in high school and then won that national title at Kansas. In what way was Manning prepared for the Clippers?
Larry Brown, who coached Manning at Kansas, met up with him again when Brown was the Clipper coach for 1� seasons (1991-93) and indeed found emotionally damaged goods. "Losing can take a toll on anybody," says Brown, now the Indiana Pacer coach. "It seemed to me it was really hard on him."
In a losing environment—for four of the last six years, the Clipper environment—the most ridiculous things came to matter. Flying commercial instead of charter. Practicing in a substandard facility. The lack of a rebounder. These became important grievances. "It's been a dehumanizing experience," says Grinker. "What would Danny like? He'd like to get off an airplane in the town in which he plays and be able to buy a cap with his team's name on it. You can buy a Charles Barkley shirt at the airport [in L.A.], but nothing with the word Clippers on it."
Manning intended to halt any further dehumanization of this nature when he rejected a five-year, $27.5 million contract last summer (he did sign a one-year, $3.25 million deal, which would allow him to be a free agent at season's end). And the Clippers, obliging their star, worked out a deal with the Miami Heat. Local legend has it that Manning's bags were packed and plane tickets were bought when Sterling descended on him during a practice, begged him to stay and canceled the swap, causing Grinker to swear, by way of punishment it seemed, that he could henceforth assure no team that his client would sign a contract with them, either.
The scenario of the bumbling owner has a certain appeal. But, according to Weiss, that's not exactly what happened. "The trade was hot, true," he says, "but suddenly we found the door ajar again." Manning, ever conflicted, had cracked it open after reassuring talks with Weiss. On that basis the Clippers decided, at the last possible moment, to take a chance.
" Donald Sterling told the people in Miami he had a vision," says Grinker. "But wait till you hear his vision. You'll have a coronary."
Here goes: With talent like Manning, guards Ron Harper (who will also be an unrestricted free agent at season's end) and Mark Jackson, and with a communicator like Weiss for a coach, and with news of a new arena, which he hopes to announce soon, Sterling thought he could create what one of the team executives calls a "happy, successful environment," and that Manning wouldn't want to leave.