Odd Man Out

Three years after the scandal that stained Kentucky, its coaches and three players, only Eric Manuel is still paying a heavy price
February 11, 1991

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.

But if you fold into the story other myriad peculiarities, you begin to wonder. One proctor, Terri Guion, photocopied Manuel's answer sheet because, she says, she knew someone who wanted his autograph. Guion also says that other Lafayette students told her that Shearer had later boasted around school that he had helped get Manuel into Kentucky. Manuel's mother and high school coach say Eric recalls signing his name twice that morning, once on an answer sheet and again when someone asked for yet another autograph. Sean Sutton was also in the cafeteria that morning; he was taking the ACT even though he had already met his Prop 48 requirement. He said his mother, Patsy, wanted him to retake the test, "for the pride of having a higher score."

When the Manuel defense team tried to track down the answer sheet Guion had photocopied, and sought Shearer's help in reconstructing what had happened that morning—including what might have transpired between the time the test concluded around noon Saturday and Monday morning, when the answer sheets were mailed to ACT headquarters in Iowa City—it was rebuffed. Shearer's father, Ron, told Ed Dove, the public defender who represented Manuel during the NCAA investigation, "You're not coming around my kid." Shearer, currently a junior at Kentucky, declined to be interviewed for this story.

So one is left with this: Something fishy clearly took place. Yet Manuel—an unassuming Southern youngster who defers to adults and does what he is told—has maintained his innocence while refusing to implicate anyone else. This is what the Manuel case has distilled to three years later: a Kafkaesque and self-perpetuating chain of events that figures to be broken only when someone's conscience has had enough guilt.

Dove subscribes to the theory that there were two answer sheets that morning. That Manuel signed both, taking the test honestly on one, while the other was "taken care of" and forwarded to Iowa City. Thus, Manuel may have been an unwitting "third man" in the scenario. "Eddie Sutton wanted Eric to call a big press conference to proclaim his innocence," says Dove. "But they [the investigators] had the smoking gun. The poor child would have been made a laughingstock."

This reporter, working with Armen Keteyian to research the book Raw Recruits, commissioned a documents examiner to check the authenticity of the signature on the answer sheet that the ACT has on file. After comparing it with contemporaneous samples, the expert concluded it was "highly probable" that Manuel did indeed sign the sheet. That doesn't rule out Dove's theory, however, that his client signed two sheets, and that a second sheet was filled out later by someone else, unbeknownst to Manuel.

"We know there were lots of people with an interest in him being eligible," says Mark Hammons, the Oklahoma City attorney who argued Manuel's court case pro bono. "UK and its boosters and affiliates—they had much more to gain by altering his test score than Eric did."

Surely the NCAA knew that. Yet its committee on infractions assumed that Manuel was stonewalling investigators by pleading innocence. Faced with its first test-fraud case since the advent of Prop 48 in 1986, the NCAA gave him a good hidestrapping.

But what if Manuel really didn't know anything? And even if he did, can a teenager in the care of powerful adults really be expected to drop a dime and bring them down? "Eric was just a pawn in all this," says someone who was closely involved with the Kentucky program at the time. "He's paying a huge price for something he did not do."

They call it the Trail of Tears, the route taken by the Cherokees and the Creeks in the early 19th century as they made their way, by government order, from their homes in northern Georgia and eastern Tennessee to the badlands of Oklahoma. That is roughly the route Manuel has taken since the NCAA turned him out: from Macon to Hiwassee College, a juco in Madisonville, Tenn., and on to Oklahoma City University, a United Methodist school with a fine academic reputation.

In August, Oklahoma City coach Darrel Johnson offered Manuel a scholarship. He did so after checking the NAIA rule book, which states that a player is athletically ineligible if he has "completed eligibility" at any four-year school. NAIA regulations go on to specify that graduation, 10 semesters of attendance or four seasons of athletic competition all constitute completion of eligibility. Manuel had, at Kentucky and Hiwassee, spent a total of six semesters enrolled as either an active player or a redshirt. To Johnson and other Oklahoma City officials, he seemed to have two seasons left.

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.

Manuel's teammates know he's familiar with adversity, so they have learned to look for him down the stretch. His old-fashioned basket-and-a-foul three-point play beat Oral Roberts in overtime. Two crunch-time steals, then dunks, socked away Northwestern Oklahoma State. And in the rematch at ORU, after enduring rather un-Christian chants of "A-C-T, A-C-T" from the students, he dropped in a couple of free throws to help beat the Titans again. "That stuff's been going on ever since I was at juco," Manuel says. "They chanted 'S-A-T' at Motlow State, and I had 46 against them. It gives me a boost. Makes me hyper rather than gets me down."

It's a family of sorts that has taken in this refugee. Basketball's great folklorist, former Oklahoma City coach Abe Lemons, 67, still haunts Frederickson Field-house on campus, and he makes Manuel laugh. The recent death of Terrell's aunt made Manuel cry. "People here are supportive of Eric," says Jerald Walker, the school's president, "because he's a decent human being who studies hard."

"Everybody else got out pretty clean," Manuel says. "I guess I was the scapegoat of the whole situation. Sometimes I think about it. But all I can do is go forward."

Manuel may keep dark secrets. Other people may whisper a prayer each night that he'll continue to keep them. He won't say one way or another. He has, however, noticed that the Oklahoma City cheerleaders often yell, "Go Big Blue!" just as their counterparts at Kentucky do. His reaction may surprise. "It's great to hear that one again," he says. "It puts a pretty ring in my head."

Considering all Manuel has been through, and how little charity has been accorded him, that is an awfully charitable thing to say.

PHOTOPAM FRANCISBanned by the NCAA, Manuel is playing for NAIA-level Oklahoma City by grace of a court ruling. PHOTOCARL SKALAKBy the second half of his freshman season, Manuel was displaying the stuff for success. PHOTODOUG HOKEThese days Manuel is playing well above the competition. PHOTODOUG HOKEThe younger Sutton (left) put the Kentucky saga behind him by joining Dad in Stillwater, while Mills became a Wildcat of another kind. PHOTOMIKE SCULLY[See caption above.] PHOTOMANNY MILLANOnce a somber duo on the Kentucky bench, Casey (left) and Sutton are now sitting pretty. PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHOThe shame of Bills 'n' Mills has not diminished the enthusiasm of the fans at Wildcat games. PHOTORON GARRISONSecond-year coach Rick Pitino has Kentucky sitting atop the SEC. PHOTOMANNY MILLANEric's brother Reggie also knows what it's like to be hotly recruited.

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