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New-Look Clippers Not Sitting Pretty

Californians caught up in the current craze over baseball, college football and King Wayne of Inglewood should by now be aware that the best and worst teams in professional basketball, our very own Lakers and Clippers, are back in action, running as hard in preparation for early November as are George (Tree) Bush and Michael (Air) Dukakis.

There are several things we all must be wondering as the Nov. 6 National Basketball Assn. season openers approach, starting, of course, with: Is the Laker second-string of Michael Cooper, Mychal Thompson, Orlando Woolridge, Mike Smrek and David Rivers better than the Clipper first-string?

Much depends on the arrival, whenever and wherever, of Danny Manning, the No. 1 draft choice, who has only a short time left before we file him with the missing-persons bureau. The Clippers have not signed Manning yet, which brings up an interesting point:

Shouldn’t season-ticket holders be entitled to some sort of refund if Manning is still missing when the season begins? After all, every bit of the Clippers’ aggressive advertising attack during the summer was tethered to the notion that Manning’s presence made this season a whole new ballgame. His photograph was featured in every ad. His photograph, in full Clipper regalia, dominates the cover of the 1988-89 media guide.

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The Clippers are on the spot here. Their situation is a public-relations executive’s worst nightmare. They play 15 miles or so from the most successful basketball franchise of the decade. They have won only 29 of their last 135 games. They trade their most reliable player, Michael Cage, for someone who has never played a professional minute--namely, a college draft choice.

What else do the Clippers have to sell except Danny Manning?

He was the captain of the team that won the collegiate national championship. He played for the United States in the Olympics. He is the closest thing the Clippers have to a marketable commodity, seeing as how six of the club’s top players have been taken in the last two college drafts, and a seventh, Norm Nixon, has in the last two seasons appeared in 0 games.

There is trouble in Clipper city, however. Manning is breaking their hearts. First, he goes to South Korea, gets into the first American-Soviet combat in 16 years and goes scoreless as our heroes go down to an ignominious defeat. Then he fails to report for the start of practice with a team that needs as much practice as the calendar allows.

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Manning’s agent the other day started playing all the angles, saying that his client might be traded to the Philadelphia 76ers for Charles Barkley or to the Utah Jazz for Karl Malone. Smart, very smart. While officials of each team kept busy denying these rumors left and right, an impression remained that Danny Manning was worth either Barkley or Malone, even though he has never played an NBA minute and even though those two are, arguably, among the league’s 10 best players.

If you think about the Olympics and the holdout for a minute, you could come to the conclusion that Danny Manning is an overrated malcontent, which is hardly the conclusion the Clippers would like you to come to as a new season begins. Assuming that Manning will arrive eventually, he does not need to be unpopular with anybody in the stands, particularly anybody who shelled out hard-earned money just to see a guy who is out of shape or doesn’t know the system because he reported late to practice.

NBA insiders claim that the Clippers are low-balling Manning, trying to force him to accept less than a draft choice of his stature deserves. Well, maybe.

On the other hand, perhaps you have heard some of the whispers out of San Antonio, where officials of the Spurs, privately, are supposedly kicking themselves over paying far too much for the Navy’s David Robinson, who in amateur circles looks more and more like a good center and less and less like a great one. The Clippers are reluctant to similarly overcompensate someone who is unproven.

With or without Manning, the club has a long way to go. It turns out that of last year’s three-in-one draft choices, the one who came third and last, 19th selection Ken Norman, was the best. Reggie Williams still has a lot to prove, not the least of which is that he is not absolutely terrified of Magic Johnson when he comes up against him one on one. Neither Williams nor Joe Wolf appeared in more than 42 of last season’s 82 games, so we have very little evidence of their growth.

To this group, the Clippers have added Manning (presumably), Olympic teammate Charles Smith and outstanding guard Gary Grant, a marvelous player who had a nasty college habit of disappearing in big games. And that’s about it. Nixon is attempting a comeback from a ruptured tendon, and Benoit Benjamin is attempting a comeback from a ruptured attitude.

Can this team possibly be in the same league as the Lakers? About all they have in common is the rigid anti-drug posture they have assumed by signing Quintin Dailey and Woolridge. Those “Just Say No” sermons are great until you need another scorer in your lineup.

The Lakers, an outfit that is as classy as they come under almost any circumstance, on paper look even better than they ever have before. Byron Scott is finally a full partner in the firm of superstars, and Woolridge, when on top of his game, is twice the player Kurt Rambis was. Rivers, meanwhile, might be as big a late-in-the-draft steal as A.C. Green was. This Jerry West guy, he knows something about basketball, doesn’t he?

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Only three things, theoretically, can keep the Lakers from having another great season: Injuries, lack of motivation and lack of dominance at center, depending on how much Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has left. On the plus side, if the team gets into any trouble, Bruce McNall will buy it from Jerry Buss, then give $10 million to Chicago for Michael Jordan.


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