The tipoff of Wednesday night’s Clipper game came a little after 7:30. The more important tipoff--the tipoff that everything was A-OK with Danny Manning--came a little past 8.
Dan the Man broke loose on the left flank of a two-on-one. But the outlet pass went sailing over his head.
The basketball headed out of bounds. Manning headed after it.
Wearing his new uniform number--5--and a stovepipe leg brace to protect the bad right knee that kept him off NBA floors for nearly 11 months, Manning made a lunge for the ball, saved it, then went crashing into a row of crouching photographers.
Uh oh. Would 1988’s No. 1 NBA draft choice from 1988’s No. 1 NCAA team get totaled in the first minutes of his first night back on active duty? Would he go back to wasting away in Clipperville?
No, he wouldn’t.
Manning sprang back up. He darted under the basket. Milwaukee’s defense was a few beats behind. Gary Grant saw Manning standing there and caught the Bucks napping. He zipped the ball to Manning, who did a 180-turn and scored, smooth as you please.
Ah, yes. A sight for sore knees.
The divine Mr. M began his revival tour Wednesday, working 20 wonderful minutes of a not-so-wonderful 117-103 Clipper loss to the Milwaukee Bucks and looking practically good as new. Matter of fact, during the time he was out there, Manning might have been the best player on the floor.
He looked spry. He made jump shots with Jack Sikma draped all over him. His play was hard, his touch soft. Manning looked very much like the Dan the Man of old, making baseline shots and occupying the wing with a strong presence, just as he did in those campus wonder years at Kansas.
Nice to see him again.
For Manning and the Clippers, it’s time to go back to the future. Maimed four days into 1989 in a game against this same Milwaukee bunch, Manning came back with a bang. Several bangs, in fact. He made his first six shots, was a sweet seven for seven at the line and eventually checked out with 21 points.
At one point in the second half, with the Clippers getting smoked by 20, Manning took them on a tear. Seven minutes later, they were within three. It was exciting. It was impressive. It was Showtime!
(Sorry, we got carried away there.)
Don’t kid yourselves for a minute, Clipper lovers--whoever and wherever you are. This is a different team with Dan the Man on the premises. A very, very different team.
Remember, this was the guy who, as a rookie, played in 26 games and led the Clippers in scoring in seven of them. He arrived NBA-ready. Very little fazed him. He scored 29 points against Denver. He dominated good people. This was that rarity of rarities--a clever Clipper draft pick.
Manning resumed full-speed workouts Nov. 15 and was activated Wednesday. The Sports Arena house heralded his entrance by waving white giveaway towels bearing the message “Welcome Back, Danny.” He didn’t wave back. He just took care of business--and looked as though he had never left.
“It was nice to be back on the court,” Manning said. “I’ve been sitting for a year. I’ve had enough of sitting.”
Once he got rolling in the game, the usually stoic Manning was high-fiving and pumping his fists.
“I’m usually not that enthusiastic in a game, but this seemed like a good night to get the crowd and the team pumped up,” he said.
The Clippers intend to bring Manning along slowly, making sure he doesn’t do too much too soon. Assistant coaches encouraged Don Casey to pull Manning from the game in the last few minutes, fretting about fatigue and soreness and such, and Casey admitted it was difficult to pull him, since Manning was doing so well.
Just having him back at all was heaven.
“I think he’s going to be one of the elite, one of the impact players of the league,” Casey said. “He could be for us what Julius, Magic and Michael have been for their teams.”
Surnames aren’t really necessary, are they? When a basketball player is this good, all you have to say is Julius or Magic or Michael or Dominique or Larry or Isiah, and people know who you mean.
The Clippers might have that kind of guy. Call him Dan the Man.