DALLAS — The end is like a bee sting, a quick moment of sheer pain. And when the whistle blew and the referee pointed at him and the crowd exploded, Danny Manning threw his arms back innocently but he knew his moment had come.
He stood frozen for a second, then walked slowly toward his Kansas teammates, who had gathered in a small circle near the foul line, tired, dizzy, gulping air, looking up at the scoreboard, which read 65-65, 2:47 left.
A buzzer honked.
Manning leaned over into the circle. “I’m out,” he said. “Don’t quit.”
An announcer called his name. “Foul on No. 23, Danny Manning . . .”
“Don’t quit,” he urged again.
” . . . that’s his fifth personal . . .”
The Duke fans rose in glee. They hollered “1-2-3-4-5!” their callous way of letting a player know it’s bye-bye time.
And Danny Manning began the longest walk of his young life, back to the bench.
The star was sitting down.
The game was not over.
Little victories, little defeats. Maybe years from now, nobody will remember this game, this 71-67 win by Duke over Kansas on Saturday to make it to the NCAA basketball final. But Danny Manning will never forget it, because it will never leave him alone.
It was awful. Just awful. Here’s a guy who has people talking about him as if he’s the next Magic Johnson and when all the lights go on and all the TV sets click in and when his whole season is on the line, his game goes south.
He gets four points, five fouls and he’s out with everything still on the line. All he could do is watch
Manning dropped to the bench, a towel around his neck, and watched the final minutes, which for a star basketball player is like starving inside a bakery. There were two games going on. The one on the court and the one in his head.
His Kansas teammates pulled ahead on a 10-foot jump shot — Good! All right! — then surrendered a basket on a rebound shot by Duke’s Johnny Dawkins
— I should have had that rebound — then gave up the ball on a missed jumper
— I should have shot that jumper — then fell behind for good when Duke got an easy rebound for a lay-up — If I was in there! If only I was in there!
He wasn’t. Neither was starting center Greg Dreiling (fouled out) nor sixth man Archie Marshall, who was playing superbly until he landed on his knee after a lay-up and wound up with an ice pack and a bandage and a seat on the bench.
They all could only watch the last shot by Ron Kellogg ricochet off the rim, their season following in its rotation.
A few seconds later, it was all over. Kansas was out of the tournament. Duke was in Monday’s final against Louisville. The Duke fans mobbed their players. Manning headed quickly for the lockers.
How do you explain yourself? How do you tell people that all they thought you were, you still are; it just wasn’t there this night. How do you do it?
You begin with a whisper.
“This is so tough to take,” he mumbled into the sweaty faces of three dozen reporters. “It wasn’t my game. . . .”
He held a hand over his eyes to hide the water forming there. “I just didn’t play my game . . .” The great season ends in tears
That was undeniable. Anyone who has seen Manning knows he shoots with the softest of touches, rebounds with deft authority, and moves as fluidly as many players a foot smaller than his 6-feet-11. Many coaches have hailed the sophomore as the finest player in the country.
But on Saturday night he was none of this. His shots clanked. His movement was out of sync. He even messed up an inbounds pass. He wound up two for nine with not a single free throw attempted, and this is someone who averaged 17.1 points a game. He spent nearly half the game on the bench.
“Is this the lowest you’ve felt?” he was asked.
He barely nodded.
“What will you do now?” he was asked.
“Talk with the guys,” he whispered, “learn from the mistakes, and try to forget it.”
Big victories, big defeats. The questions kept coming about what was wrong, and a voice inside Danny Manning wanted to scream and another wanted to cry and they both wanted to say he was not who the world saw this night, and he was not supposed to end the season on this kind of note.
Instead he sniffed and stroked those big hands over his face, wiping the sorrow, and asked if the reporters wouldn’t mind if he went to the bathroom for a second.