Danny Manning was projected as a phenomenon. An NBA scout said he would be "a whole new concept in basketball." He was 6'10", liked to pass, could dribble and shoot. Rolling him onto the floor was a preemptive strike. At Kansas in 1988 teammates fell left and right with injuries and academic difficulties, and he still led the club to a national championship. He was an arsenal unto himself. "When he's 24, 25," the scout said, "people will sit back and marvel at this guy."
He's 26. People sit back now and...wonder. Not at his talent. That remains special. Not even a wrecked right knee, which cost him his rookie season in '88-89, could diminish his abilities for long. But people wonder all the same. After 5� seasons of the quietest kind of stardom, he has yet to reinvent the game, as some had expected, or even make the Los Angeles Clippers into a consistent winner as the team had hoped. There is appreciation among basketball aficionados—he's an All-Star for the second straight year—but nobody marvels.
They just wonder. Even in a league that can account for the likes of Dennis Rodman and Charles Barkley, Manning continues to mystify. He could be a spectacular player. He could enjoy the kind of celebrity that a post-Magic L.A. is aching to bestow. Yet he prefers, perhaps to a fault, the anonymity of team play.
Clipper trainer Keith Jones tells a story: "We're in the [ Boston] Garden, on a big run, up a few points. Danny hits a tough shot but twists his ankle. He's out. Looks bad. Thing is, Harold Ellis, this guy we just picked up from the CBA, a guy Danny had rooted for in camp, is having a career night. I'm taping Danny in the dressing room, and he's worried that Harold's big game will be ruined if we lose. He tells me, 'Just put more tape on it, more tape. And tell Bobby [Weiss, the Clipper coach] I'm going right to the scorer's table, going right in.' He thought it would be a shame if we didn't win this game for Harold."
The Clippers did win, and Harold Ellis finished with 29 points and was the game's MVP. Afterward Manning laughed and told Ellis to go ahead and call his mother. "He likes to see things like that happen," the trainer says. "Danny likes Cinderella stories. He likes everybody to be happy."
And yet—and this is why he's such a puzzle—this dedication to teamwork adds up to very little beyond a big night for Harold Ellis. Try as Manning might, nobody but Harold is happy these days. Not Manning, who feels he has been driven from the organization and must now seek comfort with an established winner. And certainly not the Clipper management, which celebrated him as the No. 1 pick in 1988 and has tried in vain to construct a winner around him ever since.
Inasmuch as Manning is determined to become an unrestricted free agent after this season and is adamant about not returning—he has, moreover, made it difficult if not impossible for the team to get fair value in a trade—the Clippers feel deserted. For all their bungling, did they deserve this? They might see him walk, and they might get nothing in return except for some room (about $3.25 million) under their salary cap.
And, by the way, if you think the Clippers are disappointing now, wait till you see them when Manning's gone. "Without him," says Tom Newell, the aforementioned scout who is now an assistant coach with the Dallas Mavericks, "the Clippers are awful. You have no idea how he cleans up things for them."
It does make you wonder. Perhaps, deep down, Manning wonders, too. He's committed to his course of action, yet if he is really so dedicated to team victory, he must be somewhat conflicted by his decision to leave the Clippers. Maybe it's just the nature of the game—and of his game in particular—to suffer ambivalence. After all, he's the big kid who would rather bring the ball upcourt than dunk. He's the guy looking at John Madden money who still thinks his greatest reward was an NCAA championship. He confesses to no confusion, but his thoughts still alternate wildly between professional and amateur instincts.
"This is a business," he says. Then: "I just love to play basketball, I really love the game, I love the sacrifice that goes into a team sport." And then: "But this is a business."