Clippers' Manning sees that L.A. still has some on-court magic

March 15, 1992|By Steve Bisheff | Steve Bisheff,Knight-Ridder News Service

LOS ANGELES -- The title has been bestowed on him as subtly as the game he plays.

When no one else was looking, he quietly became the best basketball player in town, gliding into the spotlight the way he glides into the paint, shooting, passing and directing his team with an almost self-effacing grace.

Danny Manning stepped up when Magic Johnson stepped down, and as you watch the Los Angeles Clippers' terrific, young 6-foot-10 forward play now, you can't help but notice some of the similarities.

The lean-in jumpers, the no-look passes, the instinctive ability to set screens, block out and generally place himself in the right spot at the right time.

No, he isn't apt to flash any of those 3,000-kilowatt Magic smiles, but then, you can't have everything.

What Manning does have is enough to make him the highest-profile player on a Clippers team that is still trying to squeeze its way into the NBA's upper echelon. He has the skill, the style and now he also has Larry Brown, his old college coach from Kansas, to believe in him.

Even on nights when the rest of the team isn't contributing much, as in that 104-96 loss to Seattle on Wednesday, Manning is still there, still delivering his game-high 23 points, still straining to keep the Clippers in it right to the end.

Manning was the NBA Player of the Week ending March 1, averaging 29 points, 10 rebounds and three assists. He has led the team in scoring in six of the last nine games and 10 of the last 17.

He is gaining confidence and recognition faster than the Clips are gaining on some of the slumping teams in the Pacific Division.

And to think, this is the same guy whose name kept popping up in trade talks for the two years it took that shattered knee of his to completely mend.

"I think Danny epitomizes the true team player," said Doc Rivers, his veteran teammate. "I said this before I got here, but it's even more true since I've been here."

That's what separates Manning from the cluster of impressive young athletes on this club. Only he seems to make everyone else around him better when he is on the court.

Only he has that Magic-like knack of spotting the open man, or filling the right lane on the break, or doing so many of the little things that help a team win.

"The big point about Danny," said assistant coach Mack Calvin, who used to play with Manning's dad, Ed, "is that he is fascinated by the total concept of the game.

"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 8 years old, and I remember him as this little guy who was always running up and down the stairs. He never wanted to touch a basketball."

He touches it plenty now, living up to his role as Clippers' captain by pointing and directing out on the floor like the renowned gentleman who used to be so good at that across town.

Brown, who admittedly is somewhat biased when it comes to his former collegiate Player of the Year, went out of his way early in Los Angeles not to show any favoritism.

But ask him now and he doesn't hesitate to label his gifted 25-year-old forward as one of this league's better players.

"A superstar?" Brown said, repeating a writer's question. "Well, we've still got to win and earn some respect, but every practice and every game he's a superstar, I think."

If others are beginning to agree, it is not happening all at once. The opinion seems to be building slowly, not unlike the Clippers' current momentum.

"Lack of recognition doesn't bother me," Manning said. "If I had it my way, I'd come in here, play my game, do what I have to do to help us win, and go home and be with my daughter and my wife.

"I'm not big on media coverage."

Certainly, he is no Charles Barkley when it comes to conversing with reporters.

"It's something I realize," Manning said. "It's part of the game, part of the business.

"But I say what I have to say when I have to say it. People will never hear my voice too much, I can promise you that."

He also can promise you that he will continue to play the game like the Magics and the Larry Birds, subjugating his own ability at times for the good of the team.

"I've always been an unselfish player," he said. "I equate unselfishness to not shooting too much when I was younger.

"Unselfishness has a broader definition. It is the fact you go out and do the things you have to do to help the team win.

"Not only passing the ball, but setting screens, blocking out, helping your teammates when they forget the plays. It is a lot of things."

Many of which weren't too evident in the Clippers' sluggish performance on Wednesday night, especially in a fourth quarter that made it look like they were carrying the heavy burden of the NBA's relentless schedule on their backs.

"We lost an opportunity [to make up ground in the playoff race]," Brown said afterward. "But the main thing is, I want to see these guys get better.

"The bottom line here is that I've got to get this team to play the right way."

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