NAIA officials, however, considered the NCAA's lifetime ban to be a most emphatic way of completing one's eligibility. Thus, without undertaking its own investigation of Manuel's case, the organization ruled that he couldn't play for any of its schools. "Our decision was based on our national eligibility committee's interpretation of what 'completion of eligibility' means," says Wallace Schwartz, the NAIA vice-president of administration. "He could have completed his eligibility if another four-year school had declared him ineligible for, say, missing two chapel services. The same rule would have applied."
But Schwartz concedes that the NAIA weighed another factor—Manuel's status as a pariah. "Some of our concern is image," he says. "We don't want to be seen as an organization of last resort. You can imagine that headlines like MANUEL BANNED, CAN ONLY PLAY NAIA don't make us look very good. We don't have a vendetta against Eric Manuel. We just don't think as an organization that the young man fits our definition of a student-athlete."
Yet Manuel wants his degree. That's why he continued the court fight, rather than opt for a spot with a minor-league or European team. He has been a solid C-plus to B-minus student at both Hiwassee and Oklahoma City. He is also on schedule to graduate in 1992. "When I heard I was ineligible again, it crossed my mind [to look at the CBA or Europe]," he says. "But my mom insisted I go to school."
Last Oct. 26, just as the Chiefs were mustering in a church gym for practice, district court judge William Henderson ruled in Manuel's favor. Nothing in NAIA bylaws, Henderson concluded, supported the organization's position. He cited evidence, introduced by Manuel's lawyers, that as many as 20 athletes who have been ruled ineligible by the NCAA for various reasons are competing for NAIA schools. "The NAIA's ranks are littered with players who have been expelled from NCAA institutions for gross misconduct, academic malfeasance or felony convictions," says Hammons. "How is it better to have a criminal out there on the basketball court than Eric Manuel?"
When Manuel and Johnson walked triumphantly into that afternoon's practice, with the coach holding aloft a RE-ELECT JUDGE HENDERSON sign he had gotten at the courthouse, the players lit after their new teammate. Says guard Tony Terrell, "It was like we were on the fast break. We hugged him like Magic hugged Kareem after giving him that last assist."
Mary Manuel, sensing that basketball is the lure that keeps her son in school, had cried over the phone last August when Johnson talked with her about the NAIA's ruling. "It was hard for me to explain it to her, because I didn't understand it myself," says Johnson. "They were trying to fit the square peg of their interpretation into the round hole of what their rule book said."
When Johnson told her of her son's victory, she cried again, adding a few Praise the Lords and Thank you, Jesuses for good measure. For now, she can focus her attention on her son Reggie, a versatile 6'2" senior guard at Southwest High who, after another parade of recruiters marched through Mary's living room, is still trying to decided where to play his college ball. On Jan. 26, he took the SAT.
The NAIA is appealing its case. "The crux of the matter is whether the association will be allowed to administer and enforce its own rules, or whether the courts are going to do it for us," Schwartz says. With those courts moving as glacially as they do, Manuel stands a fairly good chance of playing out his college career—and graduating—before his fragile victory might be overturned.
Everyone, it seems, is using Manuel to make a point. He just doesn't understand why those points have to be used to impale him.
As he roams the floor for the Chiefs, Manuel seems to look down during pauses in play, as if he's talking silently to himself. There's no indication that his skills are atrophying against weaker competition. He does everything, as always—averaging about 21 points, nine rebounds, five assists and one blocked shot. Oklahoma City, ranked No. 4 nationally, has run out to a 20-3 start. Aware of Manuel's unselfishness, Johnson had to instruct him, late in a December game against St. Francis of Illinois, to go after the school's single-game NAIA scoring record (41), which was well within reach. He scored 43 points. Manuel, remember, does what he is told.