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.
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).