Sixty-three games and nearly 11 months later, a promising career began anew Wednesday night.
Danny Manning was back, again playing the Milwaukee Bucks, this time entering with 1 minute 57 seconds to play in the first quarter at the Sports Arena. He had come full circle since his last appearance, when he hobbled off the Bradley Center court with 1:18 remaining in the first quarter, his right knee ligament torn.
What 2 1/2 hours of reconstructive surgery couldn’t alter was what the 6-foot-10 forward’s presence brings to the Clippers. The game Wednesday night, a 117-103 loss to the Bucks before 12,306 fans, was much like the 26 games of his rookie season.
“When Danny did get in, things started to happen,” said guard Gary Grant, who had 21 assists to tie a Los Angeles Clipper record held by Norm Nixon. “He was hitting the jumper, making sure everyone ran the right play, filling spots on defense. He made his presence felt.”
Never more than in the third quarter. In a 6:37 span, he led a 23-8 Clipper run that cut a 73-53 Milwaukee rout in the making to a 81-76 deficit.
Manning finished seven of 10 from the field and seven of seven from the free-throw line, getting 21 points in 20 minutes, the maximum amount of time the former No. 1 draft pick is supposed to play per game for about two weeks. Much more of this and people will be questioning the limitations.
This was a player in his first game back after major surgery?
“I don’t remember Manning being that quick,” Milwaukee Coach Del Harris said after the Bucks improved to 7-6 and won for only the second time in six tries on the road. “He showed amazing quickness for a guy wearing that knee brace.”
Indeed, if ever a loss could be tempered with good feelings, this was it. A big part of the Clipper future was again part of the present.
“I was relieved to play,” Manning said. “It’s not anything like getting it over with, like it was a big hassle or a pain, I’m just glad to be back.”
Even Manning, normally low-key, made little attempt to hide the magnitude of the moment, saying he had trouble getting to sleep the night before. Turned out, that was only the beginning of the buildup.
The first 7,000 fans got white hand towels with a welcome-back message to commemorate the event. A large welcome-back sign was hung in the stands. Teammates and Clipper staff secretly signed a basketball and gave it to Manning just before game time, a move orchestrated by forward Charles Smith. The coincidence of Manning’s return wasn’t lost on Smith, who also painted a multicolored headline on the ball:
“MANNING . . . PLAYS BUCK TO BUCK GAMES”
Manning brought a rap tape into the locker room, turned it up and gaited to the beat. The excitement of finally returning was obvious to everyone, before and after his arrival at the Sports Arena.
“He’s like a school kid,” said Ron Grinker, who has known Manning for years and is now his agent. “I’ve never seen him like this. He was singing in the car all the way over.”
In time, the crowd joined in the celebration, giving Manning an ovation and waving towels as he headed to the scorer’s table to check in and then again after he entered the game. It got louder after Manning made his first three shots--a 15-footer from the right baseline, a 20-footer from the right baseline and a reverse layup.
Wearing a knee sleeve and a brace that will stay with him for at least the rest of the season, Manning did not seem to favor either leg and appeared to move fluidly. All early signs were positive for the Clippers, except that they trailed, 56-45, at halftime.
Problems arose. The Clippers, dominated on the boards the night before in a 22-point loss at Portland, were being dominated again by Milwaukee, especially when the Bucks were on offense.
“It’s sneaking up,” Clipper Coach Don Casey said of the mounting problem with rebounds. “I didn’t used to worry about it. Kenny (Norman) would get his, Charles would get his and Benoit (Benjamin) would get his. Now, that’s not happening and I don’t know why.”
It also didn’t help that the Clippers (4-8) committed 23 turnovers, which Milwaukee converted into 30 points, including six for 11 points in the fourth quarter.
All that will be forgotten in time. Despite the outcome, this was one of the great moments in Clipper history, the night the star returned and played as if he never left.
Manning didn’t seem concerned it wouldn’t work out this way.
“Why should I be apprehensive?” he said before the game. “I’ve been out a year. I’ve been thinking about this moment for a long time. There’s no holding back.”
To make room for Danny Manning on the roster, the Clippers waived Carlton McKinney, a shooting guard who hit 25% in seven games. . . . The technical foul Don Casey was assessed Tuesday night wa his first as an NBA head coach. He had one previously as an assistant.