The Atlanta Hawks' newest acquisition packed a silk tic before he went to practice last Friday afternoon. The team had a charity fund-raiser to attend that night, and Danny Manning wanted a nice, tight knot in his neckwear. So in the Hawk locker room he entrusted fellow forward Kevin Willis, a perennial contender for the all-GQ team, to do the honors. Willis carefully worked out a four-in-hand in his lap, then handed the festive noose back to Manning. "I hate doing those myself," he said. "I just like lo leave them tied so I don't have to deal with it."
That Manning needed a hand with his haberdashery seems odd because he had brought Atlanta a slick new look and, at week's end, a 5-0 record since he was acquired from the Los Angeles Clippers on Feb. 24 for Dominique Wilkins and a conditional first-round pick in 1994 or '95. Last Saturday at the Omni, Manning hit his second game-winning shot as a Hawk, a dribble drive from midcourt with 7.3 seconds left that cooled the red-hot Indiana Pacers 90-88. Manning followed that floater by swatting away Byron Scott's layup, sealing the victory and lifting Atlanta's record to 41-16, the best in the Eastern Conference. His line: 17 points, 12 rebounds, 6 steals and 3 blocks. "I really liked that last block," Manning said with a smile after the game. "I don't get up that high too often."
At the time of the trade, the swap of two superstar free agents-to-be seemed a low blow to Wilkins, the NBA's ninth all-time scorer, who in his 11-plus seasons in Atlanta had often turned TBS's Hawk telecasts into the scintillating series 'Nique at Night. Just as Atlanta was at last setting the pace in the Jordan-less and suddenly wide-open Eastern race, Wilkins was shipped three time zones from home to a team with 20 fewer victories than the Hawks and with virtually no hope for a spot in the playoffs. Most of the Hawks and their fans were hurt. "Part of me wanted 'Nique to stay and see how far he could take us in the playoffs," says center Jon Koncak, a teammate of Wilkins's for nearly nine years. "Then again, this was a once-in-a-lifetime deal."
Where Wilkins is 34, a 6'8" true small forward who can fill up the basket, Manning is 27, a versatile 6'10" frontcourt player who can fill up an entire box score. Where Wilkins and Willis often clashed—like plaid and paisley—over the ball, Manning welcomes help with the scoring load. And where Wilkins was the Human Highlight Film, Manning is the Living Instructional Video, so sound and aware that coach Lenny Wilkens envisions running much of his offense through Manning once he learns it. "Danny's smart, and I like that," Wilkens says. "You have to have that type of player on the floor if you're going to win, because you have to make good decisions down the stretch."
Already, Atlanta's increased ball movement and improved judgment have made the Hawks more fun to watch—even without the showstopping 'Nique—raising the possibility that team owner Ted Turner and wife Jane Fonda might stay awake during the playoffs. The other Hawk players are more alert to tip passes and back cuts, and they welcome the chance to share in the scoring. "When Danny's not open, he gets rid of the ball—boom, it's in your hands," Koncak says. "I know it makes me a much better shooter to get the pass when I expect it rather than with two seconds on the shot clock after someone has dribbled and weaved and spun and couldn't get their shot, then flicked it out to me and said, 'Launch it.' " Hmmm. Does that "someone" sound like anyone you know?
The Hawks and the Clippers had been discussing the deal since last June's draft. According to Atlanta general manager Pete Babcock, Wilkins's agent, Steve Kauffman, lobbied for the move, perhaps believing that, in the star-starved L.A. market, Clipper owner Donald Sterling would have more incentive to offer 'Nique big bucks. Having hired Wilkens, the second-winningest coach in NBA history, and signed swingman Craig Ehlo and backup center Andrew Lang as free agents in the off-season, Babcock saw the swap as a way to further his quest for youth and balance on the team. "The next logical step was to get Danny, who makes everybody around him better," Babcock says. "It seemed to be a perfect fit."
Still there were risks involved. One was the difficulty of integrating a new player into a system this late in the season and the threat of upsetting the chemistry of a team that was doing well. "That might have been a problem," Ehlo says, "if the player wasn't Danny Manning." Indeed, Manning has gone out of his way to fit in off the court as well as on it—making sure, for instance, that he didn't occupy anyone's favorite seat on a bus or plane.
Furthermore, by unloading Wilkins the Hawks not only lost some outside shooting, they also lost an incendiary scorer who could carry the half-court offense during the playoffs. Manning's scoring average (23.7 points per game), though, was nearly equal to Wilkins's (24.4), and Manning was shooting 49.3% to Wilkins's 43.2%.
Finally there's the very real chance that Manning will sign elsewhere after the season. The Hawks are in a strong position to bargain: Since he is their free agent, they will not be restricted by the salary cap in their ability to match any other team's offer—which is fine as long as Manning wants to stay with the Hawks. But the short list of teams Manning had asked to be peddled to—the Charlotte Hornets, the Phoenix Suns and the Orlando Magic—did not include Atlanta. And under the collective bargaining agreement, Babcock won't be able to talk to Manning about a contract until the season is over. Says Manning's agent, Ron Grinker, "The Atlanta Hawks have no assurances, not even an inclination, as to our desires at season's end."
Grinker concedes, however, that his client is Atlanta's to lose. Manning is at ease with Wilkens and his new teammates, comfortable with the stewardship of the franchise and interested in doing work as a TV analyst for TBS or TNT. "Talk about a marriage made in heaven," Grinker says. "I haven't seen Danny laugh and giggle so much since he was in high school [Page High in Greensboro, N.C.] and won the state championship." Another positive sign: Atlanta is the home of seven Krispy Kreme doughnut shops, longtime confectionery haunts of Manning's.
The Hawks' greatest attraction for Manning is probably their playoff prospects. With a solid defense spearheaded by guards Mookie Blaylock and Stacey Augmon, dependable low-post work from Willis and a serviceable bench, they are ready to shed their label as underachievers. At 26-3 they have the best home record in the league. For Manning, after 5½ seasons with the aimless Clippers, that all adds up to a real chance to dress for success deep into May or even June. "We're playing hard, we're winning, and everyone's making a contribution," he says. "It's been a lot of fun so far."