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Hereabouts, in the bluegrass country of Kentucky, it's said on a day like today that it's spittin' outside. As Dwane Casey guides his black Mercedes 300 SEL through the streets of Lexington, the windshield-wiping mechanism works like one of those newfangled twin-blade razors. A few raindrops strike and one blade sweeps by. Then another blade squeegees away any residual moisture.
Only a couple of years ago, as an assistant coach at Kentucky, Casey was caught up in one of college basketball's most unsavory scandals. His name had graced the airbill of an Emery overnight envelope that, on its way to the father of Kentucky recruit Chris Mills in Los Angeles, came open to reveal $1,000 in cash. The ensuing NCAA probe ensnared Casey, who the NCAA concluded had sent the money and who resigned and was placed on NCAA probation for five years; head coach Eddie Sutton, who also resigned, though he was never named in NCAA allegations; Sutton's son Sean, a Wildcat guard whom the NCAA had charged with lying to its investigators; and Mills, who was declared ineligible to play for Kentucky. The NCAA also banned for life a taciturn, 6'6" Wildcat swingman from Macon, Ga., named Eric Manuel. who it said had cheated on a college-entrance exam to pass the standardized-test requirement of Prop 48.
Scandal is always messy, particularly at the highest levels of college athletics, where the stakes are substantial, the attention unwavering and the judicial process imperfect. But today, virtually everyone caught up in the so-called Bills 'n' Mills Affair has smartly righted himself. Sutton père is back at his alma mater, Oklahoma State, as head coach. Sean is playing for his father in Stillwater after the NCAA charges against him were dropped. Mills may well lead a new pack of Wildcats, those of Arizona, to next month's Final Four. And Casey, who will leave in the morning for Tokyo to serve as a paid adviser to a Japanese team, recently settled a $6.9 million damage-of-reputation lawsuit against Emery in such a way that, he says, "I'm going to be comfortable for a long, long time." Even the Kentucky basketball program, in the midst of its last year of NCAA sanctions, sits atop the SEC.
Manuel is the only one of the principals still living in a clouded world of motions and court orders, far from the big time. As is so often the case in matters like this, he is poor, black and ill-connected. Most disconcerting, it's very possible that he is innocent of the charge that led the Kansas City-based NCAA to ban him, and caused the NAIA—crosstown fric to the NCAA's frac—to try, albeit unsuccessfully, to keep him from competing for any of the 488 four-year schools under its jurisdiction.
Manuel's multifarious skills, once showcased before 23,000 fans in Lexington, are now exercised in relative obscurity for Oklahoma City University against schools bearing names like Bible and Baptist, Nazarene and Wesleyan. Yes, he prays a lot; if the Oklahoma higher courts should sustain the NAIA's appeal of the district court ruling by whose grace Manuel now plays, his collegiate basketball career, once so full of promise, will be aborted once again. "It's like everything that happened at UK just starts all over," Manuel says.
The wiper blades of Casey's Mercedes are still doing their fastidious thing as he considers all this. "If he was a bad kid or not trustworthy, you'd say it happened for a reason," Casey says. "But Eric's a jewel. Coach Sutton is doing well. Chris is doing well. And I can always do something else. But basketball is Eric's life. Anyone who won't give him a second chance just isn't being fair."
Mary Manuel raised her four boys with public assistance in a hardscrabble housing project on Macon's south side. Eric, the second oldest, went on to make a name for himself with his ability to score, defend, pass and rebound in equal measure. "Even Stevie Wonder could see Eric could play," says Casey, who was only one of scores of recruiters who bird-dogged Manuel through high school. Manuel's affiliation with Southwest High, which has produced NBA All-Stars Norm Nixon and Jeff Malone, coupled with his earnest and hardworking disposition—he was the rare McDonald's High School All-America who also held down a part-time job flipping burgers at Mickey D's—only enhanced his reputation. Kentucky counted itself lucky when Manuel enrolled in 1987.
He played well as a freshman, earning a starting position over the final 10 games of the season. The following summer, however, after the Emery incident, investigators began their vetting of the Wildcat program. Someone noticed that Manuel, after having scored the American College Test equivalents of a 3 and a 7 on his two cracks at the Scholastic Aptitude Test, received a 23 on the ACT that he took on June 13, 1987, his final attempt to become eligible as a freshman under Prop 48, which then required a score of 15. Moreover, Manuel's answers were uncannily similar to those of a student sitting to his left that morning at a table in the cafeteria at Lexington's Lafayette High. Both Manuel and Chris Shearer, a Lafayette senior and capable student, answered exactly 219 questions. Of those 219, 211 of Manuel's responses, both right and wrong, matched Shearer's. Manuel voluntarily left the team pending further investigation. The NCAA later suspended him permanently.
"What [the NCAA is] going on is mathematical probability," Casey says. He is right; the chances of Manuel's and Shearer's answer sheets so resembling each other without fraud are, according to ACT officials, two in a million.
"There was never a conspiracy for anything to be arranged by any coach," Casey adds. Perhaps he's right about that, too. Maybe Manuel, acting alone, did copy from Shearer. Maybe he looked to the left for four hours, over an intervening empty seat, and over the arm of Shearer, who writes righthanded. Maybe he did this without arousing the suspicion of the five proctors trolling the room, and the other students sitting across the Formica table from him.