AMES, Iowa — 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.
Manning and Brown both had the chance to move to the NBA last spring. Brown was offered the New York Knicks job and Manning seriously considered passing up his last year of eligibility.
"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.