The look on his face was blank, his eyes fixed on the people standing in front of him even though he didn't really see them. The answers came easily, a drill in rote rather than thought because the questions never seem to change.
"Danny, is it tough being triple-teamed all the time?"
"Danny, how difficult is it to play here?"
"Danny, what's the matter with the Jayhawks?"
"Danny, do you think you guys can bounce back?"
Answers: Yes. Very. I don't know. Sure.
But Danny Manning stretched those answers, giving the TV man tape, the radio guy audio and the newspaper reporter a paragraph. He is 21 now, a professional at this, just as he will be a highly paid professional basketball player a year from now.
Finally, he stood to leave. His teammates were long gone. Only the stars have to stay to answer the last question and Manning is the star. So he stayed--wishing he wasn't the star.
"If Danny had his way, he would be able to play the way he does but no one but the other guys (players) would know about it," his father, Ed Manning, said. "But that's not the way life is. Being the best isn't always easy and it isn't just playing the game. Danny has to learn that."
Manning is learning. But it hasn't been easy. And in this, his final winter as a kid, it has been harder than ever. Manning came back to Kansas because he wanted to play one last season with his close friend, Archie Marshall, because he wanted to win a national championship and because he wanted to get his degree.
Marshall tore up his knee Dec. 30 in New York and is out for the season. Last Tuesday, starting center Marvin Branch was declared academically ineligible. Suddenly, the Jayhawks are young and thin up front. Their guards were suspect from the start.
"At least," Manning said with a smile, "I think I'll get my degree."
The season--for Manning, for Coach Larry Brown and for Kansas--is hanging on the edge of a cliff. It is Manning who holds the rope and everyone at Kansas knows it.
"Danny is the best player in the country; it's very simple," Brown said. "But it's hard for him to go out and dominate because that just isn't his nature. When he first got here, we had older kids he deferred to and most of the time that was okay because they wanted to be the leaders. But starting last year, he's had to be the guy; not just playing, but everything else.
"It was hard for him last year, being surrounded every time he touched the ball. He thought that was all over this year because we had Archie back and we were going to be deeper. Now, he feels like he's back on square one and he's frustrated."
Manning isn't the only one feeling that way. Branch's ineligibility was close enough that Brown hoped the junior-college transfer might survive. When he didn't, Brown publicly criticized the faculty and once again fueled the ever-present rumors that his time is up at Kansas.
He has been there five years and is very happy in Lawrence--he even owns part of a local Mexican restaurant--but with Manning graduating, recruiting difficult and many other opportunities available, Brown may well be elsewhere next season.
"It was close," Manning said. "I knew my parents wanted me to stay, but the thought of not having to go to class, of just playing basketball and getting paid to do it, was tempting. Very tempting. In the end, I came back because of Archie and because I wanted to spend one more year with the guys."
Manning, his father and Brown have been one of the most-studied triumvirates in college basketball ever since Brown, in one of his first acts as Kansas coach, hired the father as an assistant coach. Danny Manning was completing his junior year at Page High School in Greensboro, N.C., at the time and was already considered a guaranteed college superstar. He was 6 feet 10, could run, shoot and pass and was being compared with Magic Johnson.
Earlier that year, Ed Manning had undergone heart bypass surgery. He had played pro basketball for nine years, including a stint with the Carolina Cougars, coached at the time by Larry Brown. After retiring, Manning coached for several years, but in 1983 he was looking for a coaching job and driving a truck to make ends meet.
When Brown hired him, a howl went up among those recruiting his son, especially at North Carolina and North Carolina State, considered the favorites to win the Manning derby. Brown, they said, had hired a truck driver to sign his son.
"They completely ignored the fact that he had coached or that he was my friend and had played for me," Brown said. "Did I think about Danny when I hired him? Of course. But if I didn't think Ed could do a job for me, I'd have been stupid to hire him."
Both Mannings have heard the jokes and learned to shrug them off. For one thing, working together every day has brought them closer.
"When I was little, my dad was away so much that my mom had to explain to me all the time that he was doing it for us, not because he didn't love me," Manning said. "He never really got to see me play that much. Now, we see each other every day. Sometimes he gets on me, but that's okay. I like having him around."
Marshall's importance to Manning and to Kansas cannot be underplayed. He was a key player two seasons ago when Kansas was 35-4 and went to the Final Four. In the semifinal against Duke, the Jayhawks had a four-point lead with seven minutes left when Marshall stole the ball and went flying toward the basket. When he came down, his knee crumpled. He was helped off, clearly hurt, but no one dreamed at the time that he had suffered ligament damage that would keep him out for all of last season.
"Seeing Archie come back meant a lot to everyone on the team," Brown said. "No one ever worked harder than he did. Having him back at the start of the season gave everyone a boost, especially Danny. He was just starting to really feel comfortable again when he got hurt."
Marshall went down again in the ECAC Holiday Festival final against St. John's in New York. There was a scramble under the basket and Marshall fell, screaming in pain right at Manning's feet. "I looked down at him and I said to myself, 'No way, not again,' " Manning remembered. "I just knew it couldn't be another blown knee. I refused to believe it."
Marshall was helped to the locker room. A couple of minutes later, the report came back: just a sprained knee. "I think they told us that to try to keep us from getting too upset," Manning said. But during the next timeout, Brown talked to the doctor for a moment. When he came back into the huddle, he was crying. "That was when we knew," Manning said. It was ligament damage--this time in the other knee.
Since then, Manning has worn Marshall's No. 23 on his wrist bands and even shaved the number onto the side of his head before the Jayhawks' victory over Missouri. "Every time things get tough from now on," he said, "I'm just going to look down at my wrist bands."
Even before Marshall was hurt, the season had not been easy. The Jayhawks had started in Hawaii, losing two of three games, one of the losses a 100-81 embarrassment against Iowa.
Brown was not happy. Ever since Manning's arrival at Kansas, Brown has pushed him to turn up his intensity level. Brown was a 5-9 guard who succeeded because he played harder than other people, and he coaches that way, too. Manning, blessed with so many skills, is more laid-back than Brown--and his father for that matter--and is constantly being pushed by both coaches to be intense all the time rather than some of the time.
"Sometimes, we just get ticked off at him," Ed Manning said. "I try to tell him how hard I had to work to become a good player. I grew up in Mississippi. I never went to a basketball camp or had any real coaching when I was a kid. Danny's been very lucky. He's got great ability--much more than Larry or I ever dreamed of having--and he's had good coaching. Maybe we get on him too much sometimes, but it's only because we know how good he can be."
Most NBA scouts have little doubt about how good Manning can be. He will be one of the first three players chosen in the draft this June and might be the first.
Manning is looking forward to pro basketball. The last four years have been a learning experience for him and he is very different from the 18-year-old freshman of 1984. Then, he took his laundry home and, when he got hungry, didn't hesitate to let his mother cook for him. Now, he does his own laundry and his own cooking. He is still most comfortable around his teammates, but deals with the public pressures of stardom smoothly.
In October, during the annual midnight practice that begins the season at Kansas, Manning led his teammates in a rendition of, "My Girl." It was awful, but Manning belted it out with 16,000 people listening.
That was in the fall, however, before the leaves had turned and before Marshall went down and Branch went out. Everyone at Kansas was upbeat and when the band played "Kansas City" as the final number of the evening (the Final Four is in Kansas City), everyone joined in and Allen Field House rocked with enthusiasm.
It is always that way when Kansas plays. Manning has not lost a home game--55 straight--in his four seasons at Kansas. "My goal," he said half-jokingly before the season began, "is to not lose at home and win once at Iowa State."
In Manning's four years (and Brown's five) at Kansas, the Jayhawks have not won in Ames. Last week, Manning was brilliant with 32 points and eight rebounds, but it wasn't enough.
Brown had tried desperately before the game to build up his sagging team. "Even without Archie and Marvin, we're a better team than last year and we won 25 games last year," he told his players. "Just play with confidence and rebound and we'll win."
The Jayhawks rebounded, but they also turned over the ball 25 times. They didn't win and, when it was over, Manning sat in front of his locker, his voice soft.
"What now, Danny?"
"Get on the plane and go home."
Manning is the leading scorer in Kansas history and probably will be the leading scorer in Big Eight history before he is through. His teams have a four-year record of 98-27, two Big Eight tournament titles and a trip to the Final Four. Yet, unless the Jayhawks find a way to get the ball to Manning even more often and reach another Final Four, many--Manning included--will judge his Kansas career a disappointment.
"I still think we can win the Big Eight," he said softly, munching on a pizza in his apartment last week. "We're going through an adjustment period, but we'll be okay. Coach Brown may be tough on us sometimes, but he's a great coach. If there's a way to get it done, he'll find it.
"This team has gone through a lot together. Who knows? Maybe it will make us better in the long run. You never know." He paused. "In the end, though, the responsibility gets back to the best player. I'm supposed to be the best player. If we lose, it's my fault. My job, from here on in, is to keep us from losing."
Pressure is nothing new to Manning. It has always been part of his life. His family, his coaches, his teammates, his friends, his fans have always expected miracles from him. Now, the pressure is coming from a different source.
It is coming from within. It may be the most pressure Danny Manning has ever faced.