The fields are barren now, the farmers suffering, the banks closing; the glorious October that made Interstate 70 a household highway is long gone. Still, anticipation tingles along the Kansas plain for, like winter wheat, another phenomenon lingers just beneath the surface—yet to germinate, biding time until the perfect moment. One problem remains: Danny Manning doesn't seem to know who he is.
It isn't that Manning is not aware of the hosannas; the gaudy reviews and descriptions of his play; the groundswell of voices already calling him the finest amateur basketball player in the world. He just would rather not believe, nor take responsibility, and who could blame him? Heir to the Jayhawks' Naismith-Allen-Chamberlain legacy? Human Videodisc of Hoops Future? Next Olympic Hero? Legend-in-Waiting? Even if a guy is 6'11" and can run and jump like a gazelle and do dreamy things with the ball previously restricted to kids of normal size, when you're 19 and a college sophomore all you want to do is go down to the Wheel in Lawrence and hit on the greasy burgers, talk it up with the sorority girls and forget about immortality.
Because there is no pretense to Manning and no airs; because his sincerity and politesse are unquestioned—"he's almost military," thought his best friend, Jeff Johnson, upon first getting a load of Manning's "yessirs" and "nosirs" to his elders—his repudiation of any predestined role is never off-putting, however frustrating it must be to the Kansas coaching staff. "I'm not a star," Manning insists—a valid enough opinion unless his listener has been fortunate enough to glimpse examples of Manning's wispy broken-field fast break or his spellbinding flick-passes or his ingenuous creativity, his majestic quickness, his versatility, his defensive coverage, his intelligence, his control, his.... "I look upon myself as a complementary player," says Manning. "I think I'm a good player because I wouldn't be starting on the team if I wasn't. But I'm just realizing I can play."
Never mind that in 59 games over barely a season and a half, Manning has regularly, almost nonchalantly, flirted with pure brilliance. That is just the way he is, "EZD" being more than just his nickname. Of course, his closet moniker—the one he affixed to the Kansas player questionnaire as a freshman—is "DMC," after the rap music group Run-DMC, whose movie Krush Groove may be inciting your local neighborhood riot this very evening.
Manning's favorite theme is Whodini's version of something called Five Minutes of Funk, which, ironically, happens to be what EZD contributes to Kansas basketball a few times each week.
There were the 28-and 30-point explosions against Houston and Kentucky in his freshman year, which he rounded off with a 15-of-16-shots, 35-point spectacular against Oklahoma State in the final regular-season game. Manning's .667 field-goal percentage in 14 Big Eight Conference games was a league record. Against Duke this season. Manning scored 20 points in the second half of the Big Apple NIT finals in New York, a 92-86 defeat in which he carried Kansas, finishing with 24 points, eight rebounds, three assists and three steals. And Kentucky again: Manning's game-high 22 points included seven quick ones early in the second half that put away a mano-a-mano duel with Kenny Walker (who unfortunately soon departed the game with a scratched eyeball), clinched an 83-66 victory and gave credence to the rumor that when Manning is seriously cooking, Allen Field House in Lawrence is a veritable Land of Ahs.
On the other hand, statistics and especially point totals hardly explain manning's worth to the Jayhawks, currently 22-3 and ranked third in the SI poll, or the quandary he presents not only to opponents but to his own side as well. Manning is not Manning nearly enough—witness 3-for-11 and 2-for-7 shooting fiascos against Washington and North Carolina State and a disappearing overtime act in an 83-80 loss at Memphis State.
The same NBA scout who calls Manning "the most complete player in college"—Tom Newell of the Indiana Pacers—also describes him as "passive" and "an introverted player." Says Newell, "Forget Walker and Walter Berry and the others. This guy does more things. He does more than anybody since Bird and Magic. Nobody can stop Danny but Danny—and sometimes he does."
The twin Kansas riddles are as follows: 1) Is Manning more effective as a post-up jump-hooker or a creative point-guard passer, and 2) in any single contest, which will crumble first, his priorities or his concentration?
If the Kansas passing game under coach Larry Brown is the essence of team play, Manning is the quintessential team player—oft-times to the detriment of the team. Blatantly solicitous of his senior teammates, Manning overpasses something weird, occasionally forsaking the open 6-footer for an assist to another Jayhawk. "I don't want to step on any toes," he says. Moreover, when the older fellows are filling it up (Ron Kellogg and Calvin Thompson from the outside, the 7'1" Greg Dreiling in the lane—all are 1,000-point-plus scorers at Kansas), Manning tends to lose himself in a reverie from which he seems to find it impossible to return. "Shrinking up," as Dreiling says. "Sometimes Danny pulls in his hands and doesn't play as big as he should."