LOS ANGELES -- Meet "the Brace Brothers," linked by trade and fate.
One grew up in Greensboro, N.C., and Lawrence, Kan., where the relative calm was broken by the stampede of college recruiters before he chose to attend national power Kansas. The other is from Dayton, Ohio, and landed at Miami of Ohio.
One grew up around the media and crowds because his father played six seasons in the National Basketball Association and American Basketball Association. The other hated attention because of a stuttering problem that was so acute that he dreaded being called on in class.
It came after Manning had joined them as the first pick in the 1988 draft and tore a ligament in his right knee in January of that rookie season. And after Harper had come over in trade from the Cleveland Cavaliers in November 1989 and suffered the same injury -- a torn anterior cruciate ligament -- in his right knee later that season.
It developed, in many ways, because of the common denominator of the injuries. Both had to wear braces with metal rods for support before graduating to the foam-rubber sleeves they now use.
"The knee thing gave us something very special," Harper said. "We've both been through a troubling thing that was supposed to end our basketball career, something that we have fought back from. We both had the same goals and the same dreams."
So what has come from this special thing? For one thing, Manning and Harper are the Clippers' top two scorers.
"I know that he would do anything for me," Harper said. "It is like we are kin."
Comrades in legs.
Manning and Harper had never played against each other when Harper joined the Clippers. They were acquaintances, and, as fans of the game, aware of each other. But otherwise, Harper said, they had only "a hi-bye thing."
Harper had been with the Clippers for five games before Manning's return from 11 months on the sidelines. About a month and a half later, Harper was injured.
Manning, having traveled the road, helped Harper in his recovery, just as Bernard King had been there for Manning on a long-distance basis.
"It was a thing where I needed someone to talk to," Harper said. "Somebody to tell me, 'It's going to be all right. What you have to do is just work hard, take some time.' He was calling me three times a week. We'd just talk for a while. He'd tell me how the team was going and who's playing good and things. It kind of helped me get through what I had to go through -- a lot.
"We would talk about a variety of things. We wouldn't just talk about playing basketball. He talked about my family because I had a little girl and his wife was due; we talked about our families, we talked about how a kid would change our lifestyles."
Said Manning, "It was a funny situation. Here we are, both of us getting ready to go through something we've never been through before, and we have someone who has been through that road. It was real helpful for me, and I hope it was helpful for him, too."
It was. Taylor Elizabeth Manning was born Sept. 17, 1990, about two weeks before the opening of training camp. Ron Harper's career was reborn when he returned to action 42 games into that season, Jan. 26, 1991. The game, as it had been on Manning's return, was against the Milwaukee Bucks at the Sports Arena.
Harper began to look for the same landmarks in his comeback he had seen in Manning's. Most of them would go unnoticed by everyone except the fraternity members -- the ability to make a sharp cut instead of a rounded turn.
The bond was enhanced by other mutual interests. Both were basketball junkies, enjoying conversations about the college or pro game when they weren't playing. Both had young daughters. Both enjoyed music and golf.
"But the thing about us is that we love the game of basketball," Harper said.
"Both of us are competitive," Manning said. "We like to have fun and we like to win, but when we are in practice, I'll go to the basket and he'll knock me down and not help me up. He'll go to dTC the basket and I'll knock him down, and we'll foul each other hard and we'll make sure we have some kind of contact going downcourt. But when it's over, it's over. We still go out to lunch after practice and relax."
Said Harper, "Sometimes, he will be on one team and I will play for the other. He'd tell me, 'I'm going to shut you down.' And I'd tell him I was going to shut him down. We know we kind of are the two key guys.
"Some days I'll guard him and some days he'll guard me, and we will be going downcourt throwing elbows. He'd throw an elbow at me, and I'd give one back at him. I'd push him, he would bang me. He always tells me, 'You are too small. You are too damn light.' And I'd tell him, 'I don't care, I can hold you.' We love to compete."
The notion that those days may come to an end soon isn't far-fetched. These close friends may soon become former teammates. The Clippers continue to pursue a deal for Manning, with the Feb. 25 trade deadline looming. Harper is in the final year of his guaranteed contract and might become an unrestricted free agent in the summer if the team sticks to its plan not to pick up a $4-million option.
The conversation won't be as frequent, and the competition will be for real. But the bottom line, both say, is that the friendship -- the kinship -- will last.