He’s Trying to Put Spring in His Step : Manning Working on Rehabilitation Without Timetable for Return to Clippers

Times Staff Writer

The franchise limps more than the Franchise these days, or so it seems, now that Danny Manning has become a Sports Arena regular again. He’s only in street clothes, but it’s a start, right?

Manning, who looked so fluid on a basketball court as a Clipper rookie, apparently isn’t having much trouble off it, either. He talks, he dribbles, he cleans the house, he rides a stationary bike, he plays video games, he works out on the Nautilus.

And he walks.

He walks well, actually. Often, it’s without a brace or crutches or a cane and with nary a limp. This almost three months into rehabilitation from surgery on his right knee, the result of a torn anterior (front) cruciate ligament suffered on a layup during the first quarter of the Clippers’ Jan. 4 game at Milwaukee.


And although it is far too early to tell if his future will be as successful as his past--he was one of only two high school players to be invited to the 1984 U.S. Olympic trials, he was a college All-American and the No. 6 career scorer in National Collegiate Athletic Assn. history--it is safe to say that reality is equal to the hoped-for progress in rehabilitation.

“Everything seems to be coming along well,” someone says to Manning.

He nods.

The National Basketball Assn.’s No. 1 draft choice has rarely been insightful about his feelings or solicitous in front of television cameras and note pads. As he sat down one recent afternoon to discuss the comeback that awaits him, it was no different. He was polite and friendly, but hardly expansive as the questions came at him.

What has been the most difficult part of the last few months?

“Sitting in my hospital bed was the hardest time.”

What has been the toughest part about rehabilitation?

“Nothing’s really difficult. More or less, it’s just a matter of being scared. It’s the fear of not knowing, like when I got on the bike the first time to see if I had the full range of motion. The full range was there, but it was like, ‘If I go all the way around, will it hurt?’ Once I found out how much, it was all OK.”

What do you miss the most?

“I just miss going out in front of the crowds and playing.”

And, the $10.5-million question, when do you expect to return?

“I’m not going to come back again until I’m ready. There is no timetable and I’m in no hurry to get back. I want to make sure (the knee) is all healed.”

But . . .

“I wish I was playing,” he said. “I think I could have helped out some days.”

That’s one way of putting it. Another is to say that, discounting the Milwaukee game, when he played only 10 minutes, the Clippers are 9-16 with Manning and 9-40 without him. And they have averaged about 108 points with him and about 104 without.

“Hopefully we’ll have him back next week,” General Manager Elgin Baylor said facetiously, knowing the truth as well as anyone. “Actually, we’d like to have him back yesterday.”

In truth, the Clippers, who continue to pay his $1.5-million contract for 1988-89 and will then begin on the remaining four years at $9 million, would be happy to have him back sometime next season. Or the season after that.

Archie Marshall, then a 6-foot-6 forward at the University of Kansas, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee against Duke during the 1986 Final Four. He then tore the medial (side) collateral ligament, the anterior cruciate and cartilage in his left knee against St. John’s during a holiday tournament in December of 1987.

To make sure Marshall remained close to the team, if only in spirit, Manning had a 23, Marshall’s uniform number, written on his wristband as the Jayhawks advanced to the national championship last season. It was a small gesture that went a long way.

“I wouldn’t say ours was a special relationship,” Marshall said the other day. “But it just shows the type of person Danny is.”

Other things showed Marshall, too. While others persisted with questions of how the knee was coming along, especially the timetable, Manning seemed more concerned with the future. “Are you working hard?” was his constant hello.

“He never asked how the knee was feeling,” Marshall said. “He was one of the few people who didn’t ask that all the time. You get tired of that same line, that’s all. With Danny, it was just, ‘Are you working at it?’ ”

It was Manning’s personality, the one that prompted Kansas teammates to nickname him “EZD,” as in Easy D. Laid back and to the point, that was his way.

“I knew he cared,” Marshall said. “He just never said it.”

And now, Manning is working at it.

He said he has not looked back to the events of Jan. 4, to the simple act of planting his right leg just before a layup in the first quarter of his 26th game as a professional. What’s the point?

“There’s nothing I can do about this,” he said. “I injured myself and that’s it. No matter how many tears I shed or how much I worry, you can’t go back to that night in Milwaukee.”

So the bottom line, something Manning likes to deal in, is that he has a four-inch scar on the front of his knee, a two-inch scar on the side for a second incision and two screws that will probably stay inside the joint.

There is also this for Mr. Point Blank: He may never completely recover and, therefore, reach the potential he was starting to display.

There are, no doubt, worse predicaments to face. But for someone who is so genuinely attracted to basketball that it was not uncommon to find him loping around in a one-on-four halfcourt game with pre-teen-age Clipper ballboys an hour before fans were let in the Sports Arena, this is a crisis. That this is the first time since junior high that he has gone without playing for an extended time heightens it.

“Everything is the difficult part,” said Ron Grinker, his agent. “But most of all, it’s that it’s something he has never faced before. It is the unknown.”

Through it all, resolve remains.

“I’ll come back,” Manning said, already sounding a little bored with the issue. Or very confident.

Part of the return will be dealing with the questions, from fans and reporters. He didn’t exactly warm to news conferences the first time the Clippers went into each NBA city. There were the same questions about the United States losing to the Soviet Union in the Seoul Olympics, the salary negotiations holdout that caused him to miss all of training camp and the first four games of the regular season, the role as savior of the Clipper franchise that was thrust upon him.

Next time, they will be asking about the knee. As in, “How does it feel?” In every city.

“I think that’s going to be one of the terrible parts for him,” Grinker said. “But it’s something he’s got to face.”

Marshall agreed.

“I’m quite sure he’s already bought some T-shirts that say, ‘The Knee Is Fine,’ or something like that,” he said. “Knowing him, he’s probably already put that on the tape on his answering machine and everything.”

Manning hasn’t gone that far. Yet.

He isn’t looking too deeply into the unknown that is his future. The 1988 John Wooden Award winner has developed his own Pyramid of Success, just to show someday how impressive it was to ride a stationary bicycle for half an hour. That is his future for now.

The injury, regarded as one of the most serious for a basketball player because it involves the ligament that is largely responsible for stabilizing the leg at the knee during quick stops and starts and jolting cuts, needed a 2 1/2-hour operation, which was performed Jan. 14 at Centinela Hospital Medical Center in Inglewood.

The procedure by Dr. Stephen Lombardo took a tendon from another part of the knee and transplanted it in place of the injured ligament--shredded ligament cannot be mended--to be accepted by the joint as the new version eventually.

Rehabilitation began immediately. With a guard outside his door to keep unwanted visitors away, Manning, who never wore a cast, woke up with a Continuous Passive Motion machine on the leg, moving the joint slightly to ensure minimal loss of blood flow and prevent stiffness. Later, the angle increased and the knee reached skyward.

He was attending therapy sessions within a week and started on the stationary bike about 2 1/2 weeks after surgery. It started as a five-minute ride . . . . . . and worked up to 10 . . .

. . . and, now, to 25.

Manning’s rehabilitation includes 90-minute sessions at Centinela five days a week. He also exercises on his own at home and on weekends.

A therapist, Clive Brewster, works closely with him, and Lombardo, the Laker physician, oversees the progress.

Manning, who averaged 16.6 points--with 11 games of 20 points or more--6.6 rebounds and 3.1 assists in the shortened rookie season, is scheduled to begin running next week. He probably can start light basketball workouts a month after that. Until then, his chances for recovery, and to what degree, are left to speculation. It’s one of those great unknowns.

“All we know at this point is that he’s right on schedule,” Lombardo said.

Bernard King tore his anterior cruciate ligament--a tough band of tissue that crisscrosses the knee, from front to back, with the posterior cruciate, which crisscrosses from back to front--while playing for the New York Knicks in 1985. During the first steps of the comeback, he talked of crying his eyes out after realizing how badly the knee was injured.

King refused several requests to be interviewed recently, calling the injury and his subsequent return part of his past. His knee is apparently back to the condition it was in before the injury and he averages about 21 points and 31 minutes for the Washington Bullets. --When the Bullets played at the Sports Arena in February, he relayed wishes for a successful recovery to Manning through Jack Gallagher, the Clippers’ publicity director.

Notes of support have also come from John Thompson, coach at Georgetown and the 1988 U.S. Olympic team; Jeff Grayer of the Milwaukee Bucks, Manning’s teammate in Seoul who has been out since Jan. 3 with torn cartilage in his left knee; fans, many of whom have also sent along rehabilitation ideas to the Clippers, and Mitch Kupchak, the Lakers’ assistant general manager who went through his own reconstructive surgery and lengthy rehabilitation after being injured early in 1981-82.

“I wanted to wish him luck and tell him to keep his head up,” Kupchak said.

It can be that tough a time, realizing that a career may be curtailed while also dealing with the rehabilitation itself. Some messages, though not sent directly to Manning, have come from those who have gone through the process. The Knicks’ Eddie Lee Wilkins--like King and Kupchak--came back from the injury, and he wants Manning to know it.

“You really have got to want to come back,” said Wilkins, who tore his ligament just before the 1985-86 season.

“I’d tell him that he has an example out there, that you can come back from this surgery. Then I’d tell him it will take a total effort with a lot of pain and a lot of time. It’s not going to happen overnight. It may take a year, it may take two years, but he can make it back.”

The Clippers held a photo night recently in which players camped in different parts of the Sports Arena and posed for pictures and signed autographs. The line to reach Manning was deeper than for any active player--this for someone who hadn’t been in uniform in almost three months, and won’t be for at least six more.

“It’s just a matter of how good a result it all turns out to be,” Lombardo said. “So, for now, we’re not going to be able to say anything definite until at least nine or 12 months after the injury.”

Nine or 12 months to wait to be able to play basketball again? Manning, like the Clippers, figures it will be well worth the wait.