[Here’s a nice—and short—piece about Danny Manning when he was almost fully recovered from his torn ACL and raising eyebrows with the Los Angeles Clippers. The article, written by the great Fran Blinebury, appeared in Street & Smith’s 1992-93 Pro Basketball Yearbook.]
It seemed to happen when nobody was looking. No noise, no trumpets, no headlines blaring his arrival among the NBA’s elite. Danny Manning simply slipped quietly in through the backdoor, the way he might for a no-nonsense layup, inheriting the label as the best player in Los Angeles. In a season when Magic Johnson bid a shocking farewell, the city of flash and sizzle and image finally got a chance to greet its next superstar player and realized that he’s been right there all along.
“Manning is the closest thing to Earvin Johnson in this league,” said Knicks coach Pat Riley, who won four championships with Magic in L.A. “Danny has that level of skill.”
Manning also has so many of Magic’s old traits: the ability as a big man to handle the ball with grace, to hit the open jump shot, and to drive through traffic to get a big hoop or rebound. He’ll zip the same kind of magical no-look pass through a tangle of defensive arms. He has an accurate touch on his lean-in jump shot. He’ll set screens, block out under the boards, get himself in just the right place to make all the plays when you need him.
He has Magic’s entire package. Except, of course, for the smile. Where Magic could light up a darkened arena with his mega-watt grin, Manning usually plays with an emotionless mask that could get him a starring role in Phantom of the Opera. In a city where stars are made overnight, Manning could be making the rounds of all the talk shows. But his attitude remains one of a guy who works in a factory, punches a clock, and heads out after a long shift.
“Lack of recognition doesn’t bother me,” Manning said. “If I had it my way, I’d come to the game, do what I have to do to help us win, and then just go home and be with my daughter and my wife. I’m not big on media coverage. I realize it’s part of the game, part of the business. People will never hear my voice too much. I can promise you that. I’m not impressed with all this stuff about athletes being big stars.”
Maybe that’s because Manning grew up around athletes, spending many afternoons on the sidelines while his father, Ed, practiced with the likes of Julius Erving, Wes Unseld, Earl Monroe, and Mack Calvin during a nine-year career in the ABA and NBA.
“The big point about Danny is that he is fascinated by the total concept of the game,” said Calvin, who is now an assistant coach for the Clippers. “He is a real student of basketball and, to tell you the truth, I never would have guessed it back when he was a little kid running around the gym while we were practicing. I’ve known him since he was eight, and I remember him as a little guy who was always running up and down the stairs. He never wanted to touch a basketball.”
Now Manning does so many wonderful things with the ball in his hands. He is leading the fastbreak or acting as the quarterback. He is playing the all-round game that made him the No. 1 pick in the 1988 draft after a magical senior season at Kansas, when he led the unheralded Jayhawks all the way to the NCAA championship. Who can forget the stunning upset of top-ranked Oklahoma in the final game, when Manning did it all with 31 points, 18 rebounds, five steals, and two blocked shots? It was those flamboyant numbers that the Clippers expected when they brought him aboard. But the numbers were late in coming due to the set back of a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee midway through Manning’s rookie season.
“That injury gave me so much time on my hands,” Manning said. “It made me sit back and realize how fortunate I’ve been all my life. When you’re not physically able to play basketball, it just makes you appreciate it more.”
The injury robbed Manning of his mobility and the extraordinary athleticism that made him something special. It made some observers wonder if he would ever deliver on his potential and, at times, even placed Manning in the middle of trade rumors by the Clippers. But by the time he was reunited with his former college coach, Larry Brown, midway through last season, the Clippers were delighted they had never pulled the trigger. Manning played in all 82 games last season, averaging just under 20 points and seven rebounds a game in leading the Clippers to their first playoff berth since the franchise relocated from Buffalo to the West Coast in 1978.
“I still think he’s coming back from the knee injury,” said Brown. “I don’t think he’s as athletic as he was. But every day I see real improvement in that area. In this league, I saw a change in people’s opinions or evaluations of Danny when he got hurt. A lot of people talked about what a disappointment he was, which used to upset me, because anybody with that kind of injury is not going to be what he was right off the bat.
“But this year, I noticed a tremendous amount of respect for Danny as a player, even before I got to L.A. I think [former Clippers coach] Mike Schuler put him in a position where he could really do some things, and he was doing them well. [Danny] understands the game more. He was probably as intelligent a player in college and high school as I’ve seen, but I think he’s gotten even smarter. He has a great feel for the game. He’s always been a great passer and ballhandler for a big man. But he’s improved his skills since he’s been in the NBA, and, as he continues to put the knee injury behind him, you’re going to see many more big things.”
Many things, that is, except the grinning, yelling, high-fiving personality that was Magic, the man from whom he inherited L.A.’s torch. “The only thing that’s changed about him since college,” said Brown, “is he dresses better and drives a fancier car. So, I don’t think you’re ever going to get him to play the role of the star. He just wants to do his job and stay out of the spotlight.”
But, as Danny Manning continues to blossom, more people are bound to notice.