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Thursday, November 25th, 2010 at 12:00 pm  |  22 responses

The Fighter

Manute Bol did more than block shots.

As you may have seen on Tuesday, SLAM 144 is on newsstands now. This issue’s Old School profiles the recently deceased Manute Bol—a good player and great man. In honor of his memory, and in honor of Thanksgiving, below you can read Thomas Golianopoulos’ excellent feature exactly as it appears in the new issue. For bonus Bol content, as promised in the mag, check page No. 3. Otherwise, enjoy.—ed.

SLAM 144 old school: Manute Bol

by Thomas Golianopoulos

Manute Bol sent word in advance of his final visit to his homeland, the Republic of the Sudan. This gave the elders in his home village of Turalei time to prepare a house and to arrange the killing of a cow, a Sudanese tradition for important visits. When Bol arrived in late-November, 2009, children and adults flocked to the 7-7 former NBA star. “It was almost [like] a worshipping attitude,” says Robert  McFarlane, a former national security advisor to former president Ronald Reagan, who traveled with Bol. “He was somewhat able to lift the next generation and give them a sense of purpose and hope for a better future.”

Since its independence in 1956, Sudan has intermittently been mired in civil war, and Manute Bol, the most famous Sudanese man in the world, was there to celebrate construction of a school in his home village. It’s the first of 41 schools Bol planned to build with the group Sudan Sunrise. (Why 41 schools? Bol admired the 41st president of the United States, George H.W. Bush.) The schools would be open to students of all religions—Islam, Christianity and Animism.

Bol’s journey home got off to an inauspicious start. When Bol flew from the capital, Khartoum, to Turalei, he had to leave one bag behind because of too much weight on the flight. It was the bag with his kidney medication. “It wasn’t crucial [to his health],” says Reverend Tom Prichard, Executive Director of Sudan Sunrise. “But it didn’t help.” Bol was due back in the United States months later for some major fundraisers. The Miami Heat planned on recognizing his work, as did the Washington Wizards. He was even supposed to meet with George H.W. Bush. But Bol delayed his return. He wanted to remain in  Sudan through the April elections.

His health, however, was failing. At one point, Bol even traveled to Nairobi, Kenya, for treatment, and suffered a bad reaction to medication. While hospitalized, he heard that the government in Khartoum was bribing villagers for their votes, so he returned to Turalei. Bol’s message to the villagers was simple: Take the bribe, but don’t give them your vote. “He was so weak,” Prichard said. “People had to carry him from his car. But when he got up in front of everybody he was joking and animated.”

He returned to the United States in May and was quickly admitted to the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville with acute kidney failure and complications from Stevens-Johnson Syndrome, a painful skin disease. But it was too late. Manute Bol died on June 19, 2010. He was 47.

—–

Manute Bol lost approximately 250 relatives in the civil war, gave away all his money, was nearly crippled by a drunk driver in an ’04 car accident and, ultimately, died way too young. Still, his story isn’t a sad one. It’s a story about a freakishly tall, freakishly charismatic man and his convictions. It’s a story about celebrity. It’s a story about basketball. It’s a story about bad people and the bad things that they do. It’s also a story of purpose and hope.

Bol grew up in southern Sudan as a cattle-herding member of the Dinka tribe. He was going to be a farmer like his father but moved to Khartoum as a teenager to play basketball. It was there in 1982 that Fairleigh Dickinson basketball coach Don Feeley discovered him and recommended that Bol come to the US. Bol entered the ’83 NBA Draft and was selected by the then-San Diego Clippers, but he was ruled ineligible and eventually enrolled at the University of Bridgeport, a DII school in Connecticut. He was an instant star.

“Before, we played in front of a couple hundred people,” says John J. O’Reilly, a teammate at Bridgeport. “But when Manute came, we got huge crowds and the same reaction everywhere we went: There was a collective gasp when we came out of the locker room.”

During his one season at Bridgeport, Bol averaged 22.5 points, 13.5 rebounds and 7.1 blocks per game, and foiled a mugger. “Some guy tried to rob us,” O’Reilly says. “Manute was like, ‘What are you trying to do?’ He started to lecture the guy. He tried to talk some sense into him like, ‘You have to get yourself together.’ We weren’t robbed. Manute’s personality and ability to communicate settled the situation and made it a non-event.”

After showing even more potential with the Rhode Island Gulls of the fledgling spring-time minor-league USBL (he blocked 16 shots in the league’s first-ever game), Bol was drafted in the second round of the 1985 NBA Draft by the then-Washington Bullets. “The biggest thing was getting him used to this culture,” says Bob Ferry, then-Bullets General Manager. “He didn’t have a place to live. He had to buy clothes. We had to find a car he could sit in and drive. We had to teach him how to eat healthy.”

The responsibility fell to a 23-year-old member of Washington’s front office, Chuck Douglas. “Everything was so new to him,” Douglas remembers. “It was like being with an 8-year-old boy. We could have had our own reality show. He was still learning the language and would misuse words. Some of it was hilarious.”

Bol called a fly swatter a “fly spear.” When he had a stuffy nose, he said that his “left nose was broken.” A vacuum cleaner was a “train for his rug.” And he perfected his  English watching daytime television. The Price is Right was a favorite. Learning to drive was also an adventure, especially since Bol had become a NASCAR fan.

Like in college, Bol was an attraction in every NBA city. He was a guest of David  Letterman’s on TV and got swarmed in public. He even found a way to deal with his newfound celebrity. “He was so intelligent,” says Bullets teammate Jeff Ruland. “When people bothered him for his autograph, he would say, ‘I don’t speak English,’ and sign ‘X.’”

He also adjusted to the NBA after being thrust into the lineup when Ruland injured his knee. “People wondered if he could hold up for the entire 82 games,” says teammate Dan Roundfield of Bol’s frame. “When he got going, he was tougher than everyone thought.”

Bol blocked an NBA-leading 397 shots during his rookie season—the most ever for a rookie and the second-highest single-season total for any NBA player—and created havoc on the defensive end. “He was so tall, seldom ever got faked out of position and had wonderful timing,” Ferry says. “He affected the game more than any player then.” He also made teammates better defenders. “He allowed you to be aggressive, pressure, play passing lanes and go for steals,” says Hersey Hawkins, Bol’s Philadelphia 76ers teammate in later years. “We knew that if we got beat [off the dribble], we had Manute behind us.”

As disruptive as he was on defense, Bol’s offensive skills were severely limited. But after landing on the Golden State Warriors in ’88, he debuted an awkward, not-exactly-effective-but-definitely-crowd-pleasing three-point shot. Later, as a member of the Philadelphia 76ers, Bol shot 6-13 from behind the arc in a blowout loss to the Phoenix Suns on March 3, 1993. “Every time he made one, we were like, ‘Are you kidding me?’” Dan Majerle says.

For his 10-year career, Bol—who also lead the L in blocks in ’88-89—averaged 2.6 points, 4.2 rebounds and 3.3 blocks per game (second all time to Mark Eaton’s 3.5).

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  • http://www.danchamb.com.br Lz – Cphfinest3

    Manute was a great man. Also kind of nice that he averaged more BPG than PPG for his career.

  • benno

    The nba needs a few more players with his character. Most of the players are in it for d monies, and when they get their monies, they blow it on flueseys, instead of helping people.

  • fsdfsdfd

    no need to talk about his game. hes dead and there are more important things than basketball.

    same with guys like phil jackson or kobe bryant. everybody talks about them like the are they are gandhi and martin luther king, but they have nothing in common with those men. theyre just basketball players man lets keep it real. what if kobe wouldnt be able to play because of some injury, what would he be ? just an average person, and being a good athlete doesnt make you a better person. everybody sayin he got that “killer” instinct but im not sure wether hes still a killer when it comes to real life or not, you know what im sayin?

  • fsdfsdfd

    best example: michael jordan.

  • The Philosopher

    For real, the NBA needs to establish an award in Manute Bol’s name.

  • jedi420

    @Philosopher – that’s a great idea, perhaps an award for the most charitable international player or something like that..

  • The Philosopher

    Tate George, I have spent considerable time with him, too. An anal kind of guy, if you do not know him.
    For a guy who has once made his living off of a single shot, one would think that he saved the world. or something.
    Manhute Bol REALLY must have been a hell of a guy to befriend Tate George.

  • http://minusthebars.blogspot.com don

    Ecellent piece. I feel blessed to have read about such a tremendous human being.

  • http://thetroyblog.com Teddy-the-Bear

    RIP Manute Bol.

  • http://slamonline.com Ugh

    ” For real, the NBA needs to establish an award in Manute Bol’s name. ”

    Seconded.

  • http://slamonline.com Ben Osborne

    This was so well done.

  • tavoris

    great article…and a classic reminder that there is always work to be done.

  • hillbilly

    I remember watching an old episode of “Inside the NBA” back when Manute was playing for the Sixers. The team was all standing around this big banquet table with a domed, silver serving tray in the center. Charles Barkley looks over at Manute & says something like, “Man, check out all this food! Let’s get some of this.” Without hesitation, Manute reaches over and lifts the lid of the srving tray, revealing the screaming head of Rick Mahorn. Manute’s horrified reaction was priceless. Hilarity ensued. RIP to one of the greatest pranksters & humanitarians the game has ever seen.

  • The Philosopher

    ^^

  • Kent Kanada

    Manute’s a role model no doubt. Wish he was still around so I could learn more from him

  • http://slamonline.com Ugh

    “Manute reaches over and lifts the lid of the srving tray, revealing the screaming head of Rick Mahorn.”
    It’s on YouTube. It’s pretty funny.

  • Silent Storm

    I saw Manute in Annapolis Maryland last year. He was in a restaurant having dinner and when he finished everyone was mobbing him trying to get a picture. I was waiting to be seated and as he exited I held the door for him, he seemed like a well mannered and down to earth person. RIP

  • P.J.

    First celeb/athlete I ever saw in person was Manute at Dulles airport. I was 8, and too shy to approach; so my brother got the ‘graph. Might be cliche, but when they say ‘a better person than a player’, he was a better man than MOST of the greatest players to EVER hold the pill. R.I.P

  • http://twitter.com/coemgen17 Kevin

    I happen to live in the city where Manute last lived (Olathe, Kan.). I was a reporter for The Olathe News during part of the time he lived here. Manute’s life is a great story. However, the best part is not what happened to him, but what he did with it. If more professional athletes did even a fraction of what he did with his life to help others, instead of chasing money, women and fame, the influence on the world would be incredible. Sure, there are a lot of great philanthropic athletes out there — no doubt — but Manute set the standard. There’s more to live for than yourself — that’s what Manute’s example teaches us. Thanks for writing this article, Thomas. It’s a great and necessary one.

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  • Dylan

    I wasn’t really aware of who Manute Bol was, outside of a literal giant and a former NBA star, until I read this issue. And man, what a great story. I had no idea how much this man wanted change in his country and just how committed he was to doing just so. His really is a moving story.
    There need to be more stories like this.
    Stories about people being truly extraordinary. Stories about athletes that say more than simply how many assists a man can get in a game.
    I hope to make a career in Journalism after college, and it’s pieces like this that convince me it’s something worth doing.
    So, thank you Golianopoulos for one of the best sports stories I’ve ever read, and R.I.P. Manute Bol

  • gakbrenti

    muresan muresan muresan muresan

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