RICHFIELD, Ohio -- The swagger that carried him through collegiate stardom is gone now, replaced by almost a sad look. Once a mighty buck in the forest of intercollegiate athletics, Danny Ferry seems now more like a hopeful fawn trying to recover from a collision with the speeding car of great expectations.
"I'm looking more to get my career started still, really," says Ferry, now a backup third-year forward/center with the Cleveland Cavaliers. "I'm learning more about myself and the kind of player I need to be. I haven't exactly bowled anyone over yet, but I still believe I can be a successful player."
Thus far, the big surprise, is Ferry, 26, hasn't given anyone much reason to believe he will be.
He has proven too slow to play small forward, not enough of a jumper or strong enough to play power forward and not big enough to play center. When he graduated from Duke in 1989 as the Naismith Award winner, the second pick in the NBA draft and the first player in Atlantic Coast Conference history with more than 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 500 assists, the consensus was this was another Larry Bird.
A little more than three years later, the joking goes, Ferry finally is like Bird: not playing.
"It's been a little bit of a roller coaster ride," Ferry admits.
The sad part about Danny Ferry's plight, if that can be said about a player who signed a contract that guarantees him close to $30 million over 10 years, is one can sense Ferry's own torment about his failings.
Concepts like "being rattled," "forced things" and "emotional roller coaster" come quickly in discussion. Having been frustrated and discouraged readily are admitted. Professional athletes, as competitive as they are, usually are loath to admit failings, especially of their confidence.
"Every player gets rattled at times," Ferry says.
But that's another reason why so many believed Ferry would be so special. He thought the game, saw it more clearly than most. His father, Bob, was a pro player and executive of the Washington Bullets. And he had great skills, even if not the so-called "athleticism" that defines today's NBA stars.
He could shoot and, like Bird, rebound without being a great jumper. He always saw the open man. He was the acclaimed top collegiate player in 1989, selected second to Pervis Ellison in the NBA draft only because Bill Russell (not a particularly sagacious evaluator of talent) was making the choice for Sacramento.
Disdaining the then woeful Los Angeles Clippers, Ferry was the prized catch of Il Messaggero in Italy for $3 million, a decision he now implies was wrong.
"The one thing about going overseas was I had a lot of momentum coming out of college and that kind of got ground down a little," Ferry says. "But more than anything else, when I came back the knee bothered me. It was not something I talked about."
Ferry was unsigned when he returned for the 1990-91 season, but signed with the Cavaliers when they traded Ron Harper and two first-round picks for him.
But Ferry, though missing just one game that season, said he really was playing just day-to-day with knee problems.
Harper was a popular Cavalier. Ferry averaged 8.6 points and shot 42.8 percent that season. He displayed none of his expected brilliance and wasn't near the help Harper
had been to the team.
Cavaliers management and Ferry came under attack for the supposed blunder.
Unhappy with his progress as an outside, small forward-type player, Cavaliers management asked Ferry to get bigger to try to play big forward and center. He went up to 248 pounds, about 20 pounds above his collegiate weight, and the results were predictable.
Always a player who relied on quickness, if not speed, Ferry seemed to lose that, too. And with the Cavaliers becoming a contender again, they had little time to experiment with him as they did in their injury-plagued 1990-91 season.
He averaged less than 14 minutes per game, with 5.1 points and 3.1 rebounds.
There were moments like his 15 points against Portland and 16 rebounds against the Hawks. Bulls fans, however, mostly remember his near fight in the playoffs with Michael Jordan, which was a metaphor for his pro career. He missed that shot, too.
"I have forced things and rushed things some," Ferry says. "I haven't always handled my situation the best I could. But I've worked hard and I've done just about everything physically and mentally I could do. The expectations have been there, but the opportunity has not."
Ferry has played reasonably well in the preseason, averaging 10.8 points and 6.5 rebounds in about 23 minutes per game.
The question of opportunity remains.
"It's not a make or break year for him," GM Wayne Embry says. "I come out of the Boston system and I look at the years K.C. [Jones] and Sam [Jones] sat behind [Bob] Cousy and [Bill] Sharman and nobody wondered why they didn't play. With consistent minutes, we think he will improve."
But youth always is impatient. Ferry, 6 feet 10, worked himself back down to 234 this summer.
"I'm leaner and moving better," he says, "playing like I did in college, more active. I never knew how good I could be coming out of college and I still don't.
"But if I can get a good start the first 20-25 games this season, it will help me the rest of the year and for my career to build on."