The Sixth Man

The '97-98 season was a bittersweet one for Suns forward Danny Manning and his family
NBAE/Getty Images

By Brian Bujdos, Fastbreak Magazine

Originally published: 1998

This time, it happened on TV.

And Julie Manning was watching, like she always does when the Suns play. Resting on the same L-shaped couch her husband likes to kick back on in their spacious living room, she watched him dribble down the lane and plant for a driving layup. Then, something gave and he crashed to the floor.

"And I knew," she says. "1 knew what had happened."

Danny Manning, who had previously suffered torn ACLs in both knees, laid motionless with his hands clasped over his right knee, curled up in a near-fetal position. A few minutes later, he was carried off the Sacramento court.

Darnelle Manning, Danny's mother, watched it all on the same couch with Julie that Tuesday night in April. They weren't taking it very well. Julie had cried so hard the last time she found out Danny blew an ACL, their young daughter, Taylor, interrupted the phone conversation and asked Mom if Dad was killed in a plane crash. That put things in perspective, Julie says, and helped her realize things could be worse. But when Danny goes down, the pain still stings just as hard.

"I asked him, 'Well, what do you want to do? Are you going to [keep playing]? Is it really worth it to you?' He said, 'If I didn't try this again and know that I've done everything that I can possibly do, I couldn't live with myself and you sure couldn't live with me.'"

— Julie Manning

"This time was really, really tough because it caught us off guard," she says. "I just didn't think it could happen a third time. I never in my life dreamed it would happen again. The first time it happened, the doctors said it was common for it to happen to the other knee. Okay, that's fine. Both knees were taken care of. You never think of it happening again."

Darnelle, a retired school teacher, refers to Danny as her "first baby," and when she sees him out on the court, she still sees a young
boy. Mothers like that don't take well to watching their sons get hurt. And Darnelle is the kind of mother who'd grasp her knee and hold it even harder than Danny himself.

"For me," she says in her slow, soft, native-Mississippi accent, "it was devastating because I couldn't see him going through it a third time. For him to have to go through it a second time, and then a third time, I couldn't believe it."

After witnessing Danny's tumble in Sacramento, Julie and Darnelle still held out hope that it wasn't as bad as it looked. Maybe he'd be all right. Maybe another surgery wouldn't be necessary. Maybe another rehab was out of the question. This couldn't happen a third time, could it?

The phone finally rang. It was Danny.

Sitting in the visitors' locker room inside Arco Arena, he knew his wife and mother didn't want to hear the answer to that question. The pain and the circumstances of this injury felt hauntingly close to what he felt after the first two times around. A return to the court any time soon didn't look good. So, as soon as Julie picked up, Danny asked the first question — one  Julie had heard before.

"Every time that he's been hurt," she says, "the first thing Danny asks me is, 'Are you okay?'"

Manning might be the one who can't walk or run, but he'd rather console than be consoled. It's not that he expects his family to ignore what he's going through. But when he senses that someone feels sorry for him, he'll turn his cheek.

"Don't shed any tears for me," he says. "This is only part of the game."

Despite Manning's seemingly superhuman makeup — no NBA player has ever come back from two blown ACLs, let alone three — he did get uncharacteristically upset when the bad news became official a couple days after the game against the Kings. Magnetic resonance imaging revealed that the ACL was, in fact, blown.

"And that's when 1 thought, 'How are we going to do this again,'" Julie says.

Manning made a quick recovery. Within 24 hours, he knew what he was going to do. His mind was already made up when Julie brought up retirement the next day.

"I asked him," she says, "'Well, what do you want to do? Are you going to do it? Is it really worth it to you?' He said, 'If I didn't try this again and know that I've done everything that I can possibly do, I couldn't live with myself and you sure couldn't live with me.'"

Soon after making his decision, Manning's spirits were lifted — at least a little — when he was named the NBA's  He had averaged 13.5 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.0 assists throughout the season before missing the final six games.

"When it happened," Julie says of Danny's most recent injury, "it just seemed like he was playing so well. It was really frustrating, very frustrating."

Manning's trophy did him little good come playoff time, when his absence may have been fatal for the Suns. Phoenix was eliminated, three games to one, by San Antonio in the first round as their versatile forward recovered from his surgery in Los Angeles.

The '97-98 season will always be a bittersweet one for Manning. Recovering from two ACL surgeries to become the NBA's top Sixth Man — unbelievable. Helplessly watching his team bow out of the playoffs — unbelievably frustrating.

But Manning does a pretty good job of hiding his emotions. He talks about his return to the court, not how tough it is not playing. He talks about what it will be like to have two healthy knees again, not about how hard of a grind it is to get there. That's if he talks at all. Normally, when Danny has a big game, an imposing challenge, or a tough day, his emotions are likely to stay in one place.

"I keep them inside," he says.

Julie, unsurprisingly, is just the opposite.

"She probably talks a little bit more than I do," Danny says, "but we have a good relationship. Our chemistry is good. She understands there are certain times when I need to be left alone."

Julie refers to her husband as self-motivated and, with a laugh, hard-headed. When it comes to dealing with his setbacks, she admits, Danny is "the stronger one." It would be pretty easy for someone in his position to turn around, to call it a career, end it all on a high note as the NBA's best player off the bench. Reaching a milestone like that certainly wasn't easy, considering what it took to get there.

After coming back from his second surgery, his first with the Suns, it took a while for people to recognize him as the old Danny Manning — on the court, anyway. The doctors were certain that he was ready to go, but his playing time and contributions were limited because of the surgery and he didn't really put it all back together until this past season.

Suns coach Danny Ainge even said in January that Manning had an outside shot of being named an All-Star. He got the Sixth Man Award instead — a huge honor in itself — and some of the first people he thanked were his doctors and therapists.

Up until the injury, things were looking up. Way up. The Suns were on a roll and so was Manning, whose court presence seemed to give Phoenix an added edge as soon as he checked into a game. He was one of the NBA's top 15 from the field, as well. And then, with one step, one weight transfer onto his right knee, it all came down as fast as he could hit the floor.

Most people had serious doubts about his return. But not Manning. The rigors of rehabbing would be tough, but he knew what he had to do. When he came to America West Arena to empty his locker before the surgery, one reporter made the mistake of asking him to respond to the "thoughts" that he might retire.

"Those might have been your thoughts," Manning quipped back. "I've come too far to turn around."

Manning is 32 years old now and he figures his knees should get him through a few more seasons. Under contract with the Suns for three more years, he might have felt cursed after his Sacramento tumble. But when he says he doesn't look at it that way, you almost have to believe him. After all, a pessimist wouldn't make it through a third extensive rehab.

"It's just another challenge," he says. "We all have different challenges and different obstacles, adversity in our life. This is just another challenge in front of me. I don't mind stepping up to meet it once again."

Thanks to his surgeons, Dr. Stephen Lombardo and Suns team physician Dr. Richard Emerson, Manning will be able, quite literally, to step up again. And Emerson, who repairs some 250 ACL injuries each year, says he wouldn't blame Danny for feeling unlucky.

Emerson says some people are prone to ACL injuries due to the size of a "notch" in their knee — the notch that contains the ACL. Manning, Emerson says, "may be somewhat predisposed." But even if he's not, Danny's second blown ACL on the same knee is an aberration. Less than three percent of repaired ACLs are ever blown out again," Emerson says.

Luckily, the rest of Manning is put together just right. Especially his head. Being able to make the tough times seem run-of-the mill has to help during all these recoveries.

"Rehabbing, to me, is easy," he says, "because I want to play basketball again."

But Julie knows different. Having seen three ACL rehab programs first-hand, she knows how much work goes into one, how slow they can go. Day after day after day of the same exercises, maybe adding a little more weight now and then, until you can hop on the treadmill. Just getting to that point takes five months, on average.

“It's just another challenge. We all have different challenges and different obstacles, adversity in our life. This is just another challenge in front of me. I don't mind stepping up to meet it once again.”

— Danny Manning

And then, on the treadmill, Danny will walk, jog and run enough miles to wear out a pair of sneakers. Every day, he spends about three or four hours in the gym he had built in his back yard. And he's not watching TV or using the electronic putting green.

"I see him ice morning, noon and night, and get his treatment," Julie says. "I see him work out every day. That's just kind of how it is. You can either do it and get back and play or you can choose not to do it. And he's not to that point yet."

Manning says thoughts of retirement have yet to enter his mind.

"That's not an option," he says. "Never has been. I think the first time I injured myself, people thought it was career-threatening. The second time, they said, 'It can't be done.' And I'm sure I'll hear different people saying things, 'You can't come back a third time.'" Manning's drive is relentless. But where did it all come from?

Part of it has to do with his love for the game.

"When he was in fourth grade, he started playing," Darnelle recalls. "And we could always tell when Danny was coming, when he was around, because he always bounced the basketball. You could always hear him coming from the playground, in the kitchen, raiding the refrigerator, bouncing that basketball."

After giving up baseball and football before his sophomore year in high school, Danny focused completely on hoops. The extra dose of dedication paid off, as he accepted a scholarship to play at the University of Kansas. There, he met Julie at a party during their sophomore year.

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