If you look carefully during these Pistons playoff games, you will observe a small but remarkable ritual.

After every buzzer, as the Pistons head back to the floor, reserve Danny Manning, once the greatest college basketball talent in the nation, taps fists with each man to urge them on.

“It’s the only way I feel part of the game,” he says. “It’s like a little bit of electricity passes through them to me.”

He doesn’t miss a man. He’ll slide alongside the scorer’s table. He’ll curl around one to get to the other. Fist tap. Fist tap. Fist tap. Because he rarely plays — or even takes off his sweats — “It’s a close as I come,” he admits, “to touching the ball.”

This is a man who once was the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. This is a player they compared to Magic Johnson. This is a man for whom potential was once unlimited, a college stallion heading for the open grass of professional stardom.

He turned 37 on Saturday. Old age for basketball. He has survived three career-threatening knee surgeries, the first of which came just a few months into his career. He has been on too many teams to count — five in the last five seasons alone. And while he still looks like a basketball player, he is in the waning hours. Like Superman exposed to kryptonite, his powers have slowly ebbed, from phenomenal to very good to good to OK to serviceable to marginal to disposable.

He doesn’t need this life. Most players wouldn’t want it, sitting on the end of a bench, rarely getting in the game, acting as cheerleader.

But there’s Manning, night after night, knuckling down, then knuckling up.

At peace with career

Langston Hughes once asked in a poem, “What happens to a dream deferred?” Manning could answer. He has spent as many days rehabbing his NBA dream as he did nights when it actually seemed tangible. He never won a title. He was out of basketball altogether, coaching his kids, before the Pistons signed him a few months ago.

“I can’t say I’m content with my career,” Manning says, “but I’m at peace with it. Everyone wants to play. But you can’t sabotage things because of that. So I sit, and I look for things. Maybe I can tell the guys, ‘Hey, your man is playing off you,’ or ‘Hey, here’s the foul situation.’ “

He smiles. “You can’t do too much talking, though, or they get sick of you.”

How many of us would do what Manning is doing? How many CEOs, for example, would move back onto the assembly line to try to help out? How many bank presidents would go back behind the teller cages?

It’s true, Manning has been paid well through the years. But you don’t put money in a photo album. What does happen to a dream deferred? How many of us could even stand to be around it, knowing, for us, it would never come true?

Mateen Cleaves fits the mold

There are players like Manning around the league. The Sacramento Kings, for example, have former Spartan Mateen Cleaves. Like Manning, Cleaves was the star of his college championship team. He is now considered so disposable the Kings didn’t even put him on their playoff roster. But every night, he sits on a towel on the floor — there are no seats for him on the bench — and cheers as if his life depended on it.

It takes a lot to encourage others to do well. It takes even more when they are doing it in your place. Players like Manning and Cleaves could have gone bitter. They didn’t. In becoming reserves, they found a certain reserve of character.

“I remember in college, guys who didn’t play did that for me, cheering me, slapping hands,” Manning says. “It’s OK for me to do it now.”

“What happens to a dream deferred?” Hughes wrote. “Does it dry up, like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore, and then run?”

The answer, in Manning’s case, is neither. It gives you a chance, you give it what you can, then you curl it in your palm, close the fist and try to pass it on to someone else.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com.

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