In 1996, 1997 and 1998, Bridgehampton's Killer Bees were state high school basketball champions and Maurice Manning was the team's undisputed star.
The Killer Bees, winners of eight state titles, had long been the pride of the diverse school district so small that all students attend kindergarten through 12th grade in one building.
Manning, whose full name is Charles Maurice but is known as "Mo," seemed to have a limitless future.
"He was one of the best players on Long Island at the time," said his high school coach, Carl Johnson.
But last week, Manning, 29, and four other ex-Killer Bees were arrested and accused of selling crack. Authorities described Manning as the ringleader, charging him and Kareem Coffey, 29, with conspiracy to distribute cocaine and distribution of cocaine base. Terrence K. Johnson, 34, Allen T. Hopson, 32, and Raymond E. Gilliam, 27, are charged with distribution of cocaine base.
"I coached all of them," said Johnson, 48, himself a Killer Bee whose team won state titles in 1978 and 1980. "It's really sad. It's a tragic situation."
Manning's attorney, Richard Haley of Islandia, said he would not allow his client to be interviewed. His only comment: "Under our law, Mr. Manning is presumed to be innocent. Let's proceed on that basis." Coffey's lawyer, Richard Miller of Commack, said his client is innocent. The others either declined to comment or couldn't be reached.
Attorneys for Manning and Coffey are expected to make bail applications Thursday in U.S. District Court in Central Islip.
Manning enrolled in 2003 at Suffolk County Community College in Selden, where he helped lead the team to 55 consecutive wins and two national titles, reigniting hope he could flourish beyond Long Island.
But that's where his success on the court ended."When you're from a small town, everybody wants you to do well," said Johnson, who still coaches the Killer Bees. "Everybody's in your corner. He did have a world of potential."
A new school
Manning purposely did not earn a high school diploma during his senior year so that he could attend St. Thomas More, a prep school in Connecticut, with tuition from local benefactors. His father and Johnson hoped the extra year, and the opportunity to keep playing high school basketball in a rigid environment, would give him direction. But he dropped out when his girlfriend became pregnant, they said.
"He came home for Thanksgiving and he never went back," said Johnson.
After five years of landscaping and odd jobs, Manning arranged for a Bridgehampton teacher to give him math and English lessons to earn his high school diploma, allowing him to attend Suffolk, said Rich Wrase, his coach there.
"He was 22, he was heavy," Wrase recalled. "He worked hard. He was very dedicated and he lost 15 to 20 pounds."
Wrase credits Manning's best friend, Ronnie White, with steering him to Suffolk.
White and Manning grew up two houses apart on Huntington Crossway, a close-knit area of Bridgehampton comprising tidy middle-class homes tucked in the shadow of Hamptons luxury.
They were teammates at Bridgehampton and at Suffolk.
White, 28, a real estate broker and Bridgehampton district trustee, worries how the arrests will reflect on the school. "I don't think where they came from has anything to do with their choice in life," he said. "It had absolutely nothing to do with it."
John Edwards, district superintendent from 1990 to 1997, expressed disappointment for Manning, a teen he remembered as friendly, who willingly accepted academic help from teachers.
"He could have done anything he wanted in basketball," said Edwards.
A realistic father
Despite the high hopes others pinned on Manning, and the fire engine escorts through town when the team won state titles, his father had more realistic ideas of how far basketball would take the 6-foot-2 guard.
For the past few years, Maurice Manning has been working at jobs such as a nursing home and the local Kmart. Most recently, he was a groundskeeper at Atlantic Golf Course in Bridgehampton, collecting unemployment during the offseason, his father said.
Manning seemed to be the biggest barrier to his own success, coach Wrase said. He was raised by a supportive father and stepmother.
"To me, he doesn't have a lot of confidence in the mainstream world," Wrase said. "He doesn't trust a lot of people."
Maurice Manning doesn't look back on the glory days of basketball, his father said. Rather, he said his son's proudest moments are raising his own son, now 11.
As teens, White said, they didn't "understand how important you are to your community. You don't really understand what a big deal that is."
The day before the arrests, Maurice Manning and White played basketball together. They talked about a job at Home Depot that Manning hoped to land, an apartment he wanted to rent in Quogue and his engagement to his girlfriend.
"We said we were going to make a pact to get back in shape," White said. "He was doing the right things."