In The Fast Lane On The Kansas Plain

So talented is Jayhawk super soph Danny Manning that one close observer has called him "a whole new concept"
February 17, 1986

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."

This was the case in the tense closing moments of the Memphis State debacle, when Manning had the ball stolen near the end of regulation and then had two wimp layups actually blocked—"I didn't go up strong enough," he conceded—in the overtime. Even in Kansas's impressive rout of Kentucky, Brown admits, "Danny flat out quit playing after Walker got hurt."

Not that there is any dog in Danny, nor the slightest unwillingness to mix it up physically. In his first college game, against Maryland, the Terps roughed up Manning, and the rookie came away with 12 rebounds, still his career high. The salty bangers from Oklahoma and Arkansas and Kentucky surely will testify to Manning's competitiveness underneath. Anyone who commits a school-record 122 fouls (with seven DQs) in a single season, as Manning did as a freshman, cannot be faulted for lack of aggressiveness. It is simply a matter of Manning's increasing his assertiveness and searching out the jugular; understanding his role in conjunction with team needs; consistently assuming command. But back to his nature....

Manning is not the most self-confident kid on the block. Because he is who he is, it is easy to forget he is still a teenager susceptible to that curious breed's whims and ways. At 215 pounds, Manning is not close to filling out his lank frame. He has very little body hair yet; his father, Ed, a former NBA-ABA journeyman forward who played at 6'7", 210, says he also matured very late. And though immensely popular with teammates and the fairer sex—"charismatic on and off the court," Johnson says with a knowing grin—Manning has seldom been a leader.

In addition, this gangly, sensitive person is regarded as a deserter in North Carolina because he slipped through the clutches of that state's basketball biggies as a high school senior when his dad accepted an assistantship at Kansas under Brown, who had coached the senior Manning in the ABA. It mattered hardly at all to the jilted home folks that the "package deal" was based more on familial love than expediency; Tar Heelers may never forgive Manning for not having taken up where Michael Jordan left off at Chapel Hill.

Moreover, the fact that Manning is so accomplished at every aspect of the game—where in the orchestra does one play such a virtuoso?—has obviously been something of an impediment to his full development, both as a scorer and as a "dominator." He has always played as if he were 6'3" anyway—from the early days at the Lewis Rec Center in Greensboro through his storied championship season at Page High to his senior year in high school in Lawrence. When Manning finally figures out he's 6'11", the game's over.

"I wouldn't have Danny any other way, but his personality holds him back," says Brown. "Bird, Dr. J, the great ones know they're going to get it done. Danny doesn't know that yet. I tell him demand the ball, but it's hard for him to step forward. He has such a feeling for the seniors, he wants them to get numbers and go high in the draft. But sometimes he's just out there; his mind wanders. I don't see a fear, but maybe it's a reluctance to lay it all on the line."

Brown speaks of his own "responsibility" in coaching a player of such talents. But the whereabouts of the major burden is more evident when Manning bows his long basset face and speaks softly on the shortfalls of this season, which have included a horrendous shooting slump—he missed 20 of 27 shots before his second-half outburst against Duke—and an emotionally wringing homecoming at the Greensboro Coliseum, where, obviously petrified, he missed an early dunk and was booed throughout Kansas's 71-56 victory over N.C. State.

"Taking the challenge," Manning says. "It's something I have to learn, to play hard every game. I know against a Kenny Walker I have to be ready or I'll get eaten alive. But other games I lay back and just watch everybody else. I know sometimes I'm too unselfish. I can't explain it. Against Memphis State, I wanted the ball, I really did. But only to make the pass. I just wanted to penetrate. That should be a positive, but not in that game. A lot of times I'll catch the ball and want to take it to the basket. Then I think about the team concept. All those missed shots hurt me early in the season. I'd go out there just knowing nothing would go down. But my confidence is back now. I like to score, don't get me wrong. But people want so much. I'm not the guy to get 20 points a game. I think of myself as contributing in all areas—16 points, nine rebounds, a few blocks and steals, good defense. Making the big pass is what gets me going. What I have to do now is not worry about the expectations and just go out and have fun."

Brown says he was "thrilled" that Manning wanted—and took—Kansas's last shot of last season. (After rallying from an eight-point deficit in the final minute, the Jayhawks lost to Auburn in the second round of the NCAA tournament when Manning's 15-footer bounced away.) In addition, Brown got a front-seat view of Manning's splendid performance in last summer's Sports Festival, which their North team won. Here was Manning playing in his own age group, being looked up to—counted on—as "the man," expected to excel. And he was magnificent, scoring, rebounding, running the team and helping in a leadership role.

"I haven't gotten deep enough into his head to figure it out," says Manning's buddy Johnson, "but it's obvious Danny's such a great athlete he can get by going half speed. It's too bad he realizes this and plays his little game, slacking off before exploding in a guy's face. He wants to play 40 minutes every game, so he paces himself, but if he ever went 300 percent all out, it would be scary."

Johnson, the son of Kansas athletic director Monte Johnson and a K.U. scrub, befriended Manning at Lawrence High. He was senior class president at the time, and he phoned Manning long distance to welcome him even before Manning left Greensboro. Now the two share an old clapboard house with three other teammates, the centerpiece of what has become a kind of Larry Brown Foster Hospice for Celebrity Children. In addition to Manning and Johnson, Brown also attracted to Lawrence the sons of his old pro teammate Rick Barry and of Gene Littles, who played for Brown, and of an NBA referee, for pity's sake, Mike Mathis. (Brown also had his own daughter, Kristen, enrolled at Kansas before his former wife, who lives in Greensboro, recruited her back to North Carolina for the second semester.)

Actually, the controversy over the Mannings' defection has long since subsided into a charming asterisk. "Everybody thinks it's neat to have Danny's dad around to help coach him," says Scooter Barry, another resident of the House of Sons. "Coach Manning made it on hustle and hard work, and he really gets on Danny if he thinks he's not playing hard enough. I wish my dad was around all the time to see me play."

In his first year in Lawrence, Manning fils shaved the mustache he had been growing all his life. He still had Carolina on his mind—his friends, the Krispy Kreme doughnut shops, the faster lifestyle. "Back home in Greensboro we'd cruise around, and if there were a lot of cars and wild music, we'd know there was a party going on," says Manning. "You don't find that in Lawrence. Things are slow. You have to plan things." But Ed Manning had been recovering from triple bypass surgery after several years of humping 18-wheel semis for a truck company, and Brown's offer to get him back into basketball may have saved his life. Certainly the family—wife Darnelle, Danny and Dawn, now 16—would go along with the old man. "If you can play on one side of the road, you can play on the other," Ed told Danny.

"Sometimes I have to remind Ed to stop being his coach for a while and just be Danny's dad," says Darnelle, a kindergarten teacher at Hillcrest Elementary in Lawrence. "I ask him every day how Danny has done. 'Fine,' he says. 'Well, tell him,' I say. Ed used to come to his games, and Danny was so nervous he couldn't make two with a pencil. Now he can play with him there. This year I even see Ed pat Danny on the behind once in a while."

As a youngster, the elder Manning grew up on a Mississippi farm picking cotton and baling hay, and to this day he regrets that his son grew only half as strong, since he "only had to mow the lawn." As a result, the Kansas coaches are constantly on the young Manning to lift weights and do stretching exercises—two of his least favorite activities—and otherwise beef up his reedy musculature. "Every TV game we watch together is an exam for Danny," says Ed, 43, who still covers his son better than any Jayhawk in three-on-three pickup games. "Yes, I get critical," says Manning senior. "Danny must know by now that if he's not looking for his shot, people are going to start playing him to pass, and that screws up the whole offense."

SMU coach Dave Bliss defines Manning's effectiveness from the opposition viewpoint. "His only limitation is experience," says Bliss. "Manning plays bigger than he is and smaller than he is at the same time, and how do you defend that? He makes so many decisions so quickly you can't shut all the alternatives down."

After nearly every Kansas game, Brown can scarcely conceal the giddiness that comes from having seen this very special player do something else unorthodox, startling and ultimately terrific. "Isn't Danny going to be something?" Brown asks.

Going to be?

"When he's 24, 25, people will just sit back and marvel at this guy," says the Pacers' Newell. "He's a whole new concept in basketball."

For now, Manning tends to waver in his discipline and concentration—sort of like any other healthy, growing child who would rather eat and sleep than serve as a role model for an entire sport. Brown always accentuates the positive; he believes stars must not be dressed down amid their peer group. Ed Manning has taken to using the impersonal term "we" when referring to his son's mistakes. It is left to another Kansas assistant, Mark Freidinger, to flay Manning when he deserves censure.

"Look, you've got a great reputation and you're ruining it," Freidinger sniped at Manning during halftime of the Duke game. "You keep this up and they'll think you're nothin'." The normally laid-back Manning glared daggers at the coach. But then he went out and tore into the Blue Devils.

Manning did something similar to Pepperdine on Nov. 22. Says Newell, who was there, "Danny came back out at halftime and—oh my god—he scored four of the next five times down the floor. I had to stop eating my popcorn."

Sophomore prodigies—and new concepts—will do that to you.

PHOTOANDY HAYTThe fledgling legend who may bestride the game stands tall in a Kansas cornfield. PHOTOANDY HAYTManning is the kind who draws a crowd—Sooners here. PHOTOANDY HAYTEd Manning sometimes has to be reminded that he's Danny's dad as well as mentor. PHOTOANDY HAYTGently prodding Danny to be more forceful, Brown often tells him to "demand" the ball. PHOTOANDY HAYTManning checks his records in what he calls the Bird's Nest.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)