Danny Manning was projected as a phenomenon. An NBA scout said he would be "a whole new concept in basketball." He was 6'10", liked to pass, could dribble and shoot. Rolling him onto the floor was a preemptive strike. At Kansas in 1988 teammates fell left and right with injuries and academic difficulties, and he still led the club to a national championship. He was an arsenal unto himself. "When he's 24, 25," the scout said, "people will sit back and marvel at this guy."
He's 26. People sit back now and...wonder. Not at his talent. That remains special. Not even a wrecked right knee, which cost him his rookie season in '88-89, could diminish his abilities for long. But people wonder all the same. After 5½ seasons of the quietest kind of stardom, he has yet to reinvent the game, as some had expected, or even make the Los Angeles Clippers into a consistent winner as the team had hoped. There is appreciation among basketball aficionados—he's an All-Star for the second straight year—but nobody marvels.
They just wonder. Even in a league that can account for the likes of Dennis Rodman and Charles Barkley, Manning continues to mystify. He could be a spectacular player. He could enjoy the kind of celebrity that a post-Magic L.A. is aching to bestow. Yet he prefers, perhaps to a fault, the anonymity of team play.
Clipper trainer Keith Jones tells a story: "We're in the [Boston] Garden, on a big run, up a few points. Danny hits a tough shot but twists his ankle. He's out. Looks bad. Thing is, Harold Ellis, this guy we just picked up from the CBA, a guy Danny had rooted for in camp, is having a career night. I'm taping Danny in the dressing room, and he's worried that Harold's big game will be ruined if we lose. He tells me, 'Just put more tape on it, more tape. And tell Bobby [Weiss, the Clipper coach] I'm going right to the scorer's table, going right in.' He thought it would be a shame if we didn't win this game for Harold."
The Clippers did win, and Harold Ellis finished with 29 points and was the game's MVP. Afterward Manning laughed and told Ellis to go ahead and call his mother. "He likes to see things like that happen," the trainer says. "Danny likes Cinderella stories. He likes everybody to be happy."
And yet—and this is why he's such a puzzle—this dedication to teamwork adds up to very little beyond a big night for Harold Ellis. Try as Manning might, nobody but Harold is happy these days. Not Manning, who feels he has been driven from the organization and must now seek comfort with an established winner. And certainly not the Clipper management, which celebrated him as the No. 1 pick in 1988 and has tried in vain to construct a winner around him ever since.
Inasmuch as Manning is determined to become an unrestricted free agent after this season and is adamant about not returning—he has, moreover, made it difficult if not impossible for the team to get fair value in a trade—the Clippers feel deserted. For all their bungling, did they deserve this? They might see him walk, and they might get nothing in return except for some room (about $3.25 million) under their salary cap.
And, by the way, if you think the Clippers are disappointing now, wait till you see them when Manning's gone. "Without him," says Tom Newell, the aforementioned scout who is now an assistant coach with the Dallas Mavericks, "the Clippers are awful. You have no idea how he cleans up things for them."
It does make you wonder. Perhaps, deep down, Manning wonders, too. He's committed to his course of action, yet if he is really so dedicated to team victory, he must be somewhat conflicted by his decision to leave the Clippers. Maybe it's just the nature of the game—and of his game in particular—to suffer ambivalence. After all, he's the big kid who would rather bring the ball upcourt than dunk. He's the guy looking at John Madden money who still thinks his greatest reward was an NCAA championship. He confesses to no confusion, but his thoughts still alternate wildly between professional and amateur instincts.
"This is a business," he says. Then: "I just love to play basketball, I really love the game, I love the sacrifice that goes into a team sport." And then: "But this is a business."
As the Feb. 24 trading deadline draws near, and as the Clippers, 16-29 at week's end, continue to collapse, the talk in Los Angeles is almost all about business. Where will Manning go, and how much will he get to go there? The local press has been impersonating a train conductor, regularly ringing out his destinations—Denver, Atlanta, Orlando. There's a rumor a day. Not all of them make the greatest sense, but nobody, least of all Manning's agent, Ron Grinker, is much good at rumor control. "Florida has no [state] taxes," he tells one newspaper, responding to the most recent league chatter.
Apparently this particular business of Manning's inevitable departure was ordained when he signed his first contract with the Clippers six years ago. The team's owner, Donald Sterling, was perhaps thoughtless during negotiations. Perhaps even stupid. In any event there was a holdout, the league had to step in on the Clippers' behalf, and Manning eventually got the deal he wanted (five years, $10.5 million). But the residue of bitterness has lingered.
There were further disappointments down the road—some real, some imagined, but all having to do with the frustration of playing for the Clippers. The organization is perceived as a second-tier out-fit that never quite gets the job done, no matter how good its intentions. In Manning's six years he has had six coaches. There has been a rotating cast of supporting characters on the roster, and they always seem to be heading for free agency. And in all that time there have been just two playoff appearances, both of which ended in the first round.
Perhaps you can imagine how that might eat away at a kid like Manning, who played on an undefeated team in high school and then won that national title at Kansas. In what way was Manning prepared for the Clippers?
Larry Brown, who coached Manning at Kansas, met up with him again when Brown was the Clipper coach for 1½ seasons (1991-93) and indeed found emotionally damaged goods. "Losing can take a toll on anybody," says Brown, now the Indiana Pacer coach. "It seemed to me it was really hard on him."
In a losing environment—for four of the last six years, the Clipper environment—the most ridiculous things came to matter. Flying commercial instead of charter. Practicing in a substandard facility. The lack of a rebounder. These became important grievances. "It's been a dehumanizing experience," says Grinker. "What would Danny like? He'd like to get off an airplane in the town in which he plays and be able to buy a cap with his team's name on it. You can buy a Charles Barkley shirt at the airport [in L.A.], but nothing with the word Clippers on it."
Manning intended to halt any further dehumanization of this nature when he rejected a five-year, $27.5 million contract last summer (he did sign a one-year, $3.25 million deal, which would allow him to be a free agent at season's end). And the Clippers, obliging their star, worked out a deal with the Miami Heat. Local legend has it that Manning's bags were packed and plane tickets were bought when Sterling descended on him during a practice, begged him to stay and canceled the swap, causing Grinker to swear, by way of punishment it seemed, that he could henceforth assure no team that his client would sign a contract with them, either.
The scenario of the bumbling owner has a certain appeal. But, according to Weiss, that's not exactly what happened. "The trade was hot, true," he says, "but suddenly we found the door ajar again." Manning, ever conflicted, had cracked it open after reassuring talks with Weiss. On that basis the Clippers decided, at the last possible moment, to take a chance.
"Donald Sterling told the people in Miami he had a vision," says Grinker. "But wait till you hear his vision. You'll have a coronary."
Here goes: With talent like Manning, guards Ron Harper (who will also be an unrestricted free agent at season's end) and Mark Jackson, and with a communicator like Weiss for a coach, and with news of a new arena, which he hopes to announce soon, Sterling thought he could create what one of the team executives calls a "happy, successful environment," and that Manning wouldn't want to leave.
Well, it's nothing to make you clutch your chest. And maybe if the Clippers had gotten out of the gate faster this season, it might even have worked. Manning is still determined to leave, and the team, which had made it to the playoffs the last two seasons, continues south. Regrets all around. Weiss admits that the threatened departure of two of his best players has "definitely been a problem, a little more of a problem than I thought it would be." Not that Manning or Harper aren't putting out. "No matter how well they handle it," Weiss continues, "the other players will always wonder about their focus. There's bound to be an element of doubt, especially when you're going bad." All this intrigue is not an advantage in a team sport.
Manning is calm, even cheerful in this little storm, certain in his bones that he'll end up with a winner. "I just know that one day, sooner or later, I'll be on a team that's going to compete for a championship. I don't know when that's going to be, but I just feel it."
Newell, who still insists that Manning is the prototype athlete of the 1990s, believes it will be soon. "If he were to leave the Clippers," Newell says, "in three or four years you'll see him wearing a ring." If that happens, they'll be naming shoes after him. People will sit back and marvel.
Yet that's not exactly what winning means to Manning. Nobody seems to understand what he's after. As he relaxes at courtside after a practice, physically unfolds, he suddenly begins talking about that championship season at Kansas, all those years and millions of dollars away. "The more I play basketball, the more I realize how special that was, the adversity we went through as a team, what we achieved. The feelings you have. Do you know we actually had to go to the football team during the season to get players? Clint Normore, a defensive back. He's a police officer in Wichita now. You have to understand, for that year, we were the best team. Best team."
Not that it's been so bad playing for the Clippers, he has to admit. "Because I really do love to play basketball. I look down and feel the scar on my leg—I'm fortunate, blessed that I can still play. I'm playing basketball, having fun."
But somehow it is different and complicated now, right? He shrugs, seems to fold back up.
"It's business," he says.