Manute Bol did more than block shots.
Bol’s former teammates, however, remember him more for his locker room presence. “One of the greatest guys you can have in the clubhouse,” Tim Hardaway says. “He was always upbeat and asking about your family. He also talked about how he killed a lion [when he was growing up in Sudan]. We’re still trying to figure that one out. We’ll go by his word: He said that he killed a lion, so he killed a lion.”
“He was funny, always cracking jokes,” adds Charles Barkley. “We had a ball—me, him, Rick Mahorn and Mike Gminiski—we joked all the time.”
Injuries began taking a toll on Bol during the ’92-93 NBA season. He appeared in only 14 contests the next season and played his final game November 22, ’94.
At times Bol was a prankster in the locker room, but he was also contemplative and educated teammates during quieter moments. “He would try and teach us about the civil war [in Sudan],” Barkley says. “We’re Americans, we don’t really know anything about that, but he was trying to teach us.”
War returned to Sudan during Bol’s NBA career. In ’89, Col. Omar al-Bashir came to power in the north and launched an offensive into southern Sudan. According to Tom Prichard, Bol went into harm’s way visiting Sudanese refugee camps while he was still playing in the NBA. His mission was to help the “Lost Boys of Sudan,” the Sudanese children orphaned during the civil war. “So many Lost Boys were trapped in southern Sudan and the government was cutting off supplies. Manute went in there and two days later, from his own money and influence, food was dropped in and they eventually [escaped] into Kenya,” he says. Bol reportedly spent over $3 million supporting the south and their Sudanese People’s Liberation Army. “There were a couple of times that Khartoum sent planes to bomb Manute. I asked some Sudanese people, ‘Was that them trying to send a message to Manute?’ And they said, ‘No, that’s them trying to kill him.’”
The conflict between the Muslim North and the mostly Christian and animist South took more than two million lives and later extended to the Western region of Darfur. “The black Muslims in Darfur were suffering at the hands of the Arab Muslim-dominated government,” Prichard says. “Manute was one of the first Southerners to stand up and say that [the Darfurians] were not our enemies. Muslims weren’t the problem. It was the government.”
In what appeared to be a peace effort, the government asked Bol to be Minister of Sport, but he declined after being told he would have to convert to Islam. Prichard says Bol was then “held in house arrest for over two years.” He managed to escape to Cairo, Egypt, and later returned to the United States as a religious refugee in 2002, and worked tirelessly, even badgering members of Congress, to raise awareness of the genocide in Darfur.
By then, his NBA money was gone—he reportedly earned $6.5 million during his career—and Bol started appearing in kooky promotional stunts such as signing a one-day contract with a mid-level professional hockey league, suiting up as a horse racing jockey and even boxing former football player William “The Refrigerator” Perry during a televised celebrity boxing special. “I called him when he was boxing and told him that he was nuts,” says his friend, former UConn star Tate George. “He needed the money and wanted to help the people in his country.”
Despite the sideshow antics, Bol was still a powerful voice for his country. In April ’09, in Washington, DC during a conference on reconciliation, he scolded former Soviet head of state Mikhail Gorbachev for the rumored sale of Russian weapons to Northern Sudan. “North and South Sudan had a peace agreement in 2005 but since then the North had been getting more weapons from Russia and China,” McFarlane says. “Manute stood up at the end of Gorbachev’s speech and said, ‘You should use your influence to stop this.’ Gorbachev kind of blew him off and said that he had no influence, which is nonsense. If he didn’t focus on the [Russian] government, he could write articles and bring media [attention].”
Sudan now faces an uncertain future. On January 9, 2011, there will be a referendum in the South on self-determination; they are expected to secede from the Arab North. And in early October, Southern Sudan President Salva Kiir declared he will vote for separation. Stoking tensions, the North then said it would send troops to monitor the voting. “I really hope it goes well and goes peacefully,” says Chicago Bull Luol Deng, a Sudanese national. “I’m hoping that South Sudan gets their independence and becomes its own country. The country is two different cultures and a lot of lives have been lost because of the civil war. The way to end it is peacefully for both countries to get what they want and to separate.”
But it won’t be that easy. Southern Sudan is oil-rich and the North doesn’t want to lose that resource. Plus, even if the secession goes peacefully, the South will lose access to the ports in the North. “I believe it will be a very difficult future for southern Sudan as a landlocked independent country without much resources other than oil,” McFarlane says. “[Oil] is valuable, but you got to find a way to get it to market either through the existing pipelines that go through the north or a $10 billion project to build a new pipeline. Either way it’s a struggle.”
Bol will not be able to vote in the referendum. He was lost too soon. But it’s not sad. He lived his life with purpose. In death, he left his country with hope.
“Several years ago, Manute was at a graduation of a few Lost Boys,” Prichard says. “Manute said, ‘Some people say that I’m a poor man. Look at this. Am I a poor man?’ He had saved the lives of all these boys. Yeah, he was a pretty amazing guy.”
Thomas Golianopoulos is a writer living in New York City. He is the features editor at XXL magazine and has contributed to the New York Times, New York Observer, Spin and Good.