The Defender

by July 18, 2011

Jordan Conn is the author of “The Defender: Manute Bol’s journey from Sudan to the NBA and back again,” a multimedia e-book published by The Atavist. Coming just a year after the death of the former NBA player and humanitarian legend, and just after the inaugural independence day for his homeland, South Sudan, Conn’s extended account includes never-before-reported aspects of Bol’s life. The full book, which is $2.99 on the iPhone and iPad and $1.99 on Amazon, is available here.

by Jordan Conn / @jordanconn

I never saw Manute Bol play, but he still became one of my favorite players. That happens when you’re a kid. When your time in front of the TV is limited, you become aware of players’ existence through osmosis. Their names appear on trading cards. Tales of their heroics get passed around the schoolyard. You collect fragmented impressions of who they are as athletes, until you can form your own opinions without ever seeing them on the court.

Maybe it was better that way, I thought. Because even though I’d never watched him on the court, I was still pretty sure I’d learned all I needed to know about Bol.

I’d seen his height, 7-foot-7, listed on a trading card, and I thought it was a misprint. But then I’d seen his picture, showing arms that could flail about like fly-swatters, legs that stretched as if they belonged to Gumby, and a face with scars marking him as a man from a far-off place. I’d heard the stories — about the time he killed the lion, about his teeth being ripped from his gums, about the NBA games he dominated only by blocking shots, never needing to score a single point.

Sixteen years later, Bol died, and bits and pieces of his larger narrative emerged through obituaries. I learned he was a revolutionary and a rebel, a flawed-but-fearless humanitarian, a man who’d devoted his life to the cause of his people in Sudan.

I decided I wanted to tell his story. I would write it for The Atavist, a new digital publishing company that publishes stories that are longer than magazine articles but shorter than books. It seemed fitting — I’d become a fan without ever seeing Bol play; now I would write his story without ever hearing him tell it.

In some ways, it seems best to think of Bol as the collection of the myths that enshroud him. The stories are so good, the mythology so rich, that it’s hard to imagine that the reality had ever matched up.

As I spent the last several months working to hear as many Bol stories as I could, that was how I saw it. I talked to Bol’s former teammates, and each had a different favorite story. There was the time he asked Don Nelson to end practice early because Bol had to get cable installed in his new house. The time he freaked out at the border crossing between Michigan and Canada, scared because he’d forgotten his passport, worried that he and Rick Mahorn wouldn’t be able to visit strip clubs as they’d planned. The time he dropped an F-bomb on Charles Barkley after he’d dared question if Bol really killed a lion.  The times he made 3-pointers and jogged back down the court as if he did it all the time, as if he were just another ballplayer, nailing a few spot-up threes, and not the giant who’d played the game unlike anyone before or since.

But when I traveled to Bol’s home village of Turalei, Sudan, I saw the other side of Bol’s legacy. There, plenty of tales — some of them true, some perhaps not — are still passed around the village, but for his people, Bol did not just symbolize hope; he created it. He was there, every year, working with the Sudan Sunrise organization to build schools. He traveled around the country engaging in political campaigns, working to elect leaders who would fight for his people to be free. One day I sat under a tree, just feet away from the hut Bol called home and the pile of sun-beaten dirt where his body now rests, and I talked to village elders about Bol.

“Whenever he was here,” one told me through a translator, “we knew everything would be OK.”

In Sudan, Bol was not a mythological character. He was a man, deeply missed.

Yet his grander legacy still lingers. I spoke with a group of Sudanese activists — from a group called “Girifna,” who are the heirs to the protest movement shaking the Middle East — and I learned that they had begun rallying around the image of Bol. Rather than becoming known by what they stood against, the activists wanted to be known by what they stood for. They decided to take on the cause Bol had adopted late in his life, to build schools in his name.  They would balance protesting with school-building; fighting against tyranny one week, teaching children to spell the next.

So if this is how Bol continues to live on — in the construction of schools, in the sustained peace of his homeland — then perhaps the images and stories that surround him may add up to something greater than any man. But when you ask those closest to him, they speak less about the legacy he left and more about the man he was.

After returning to the states, when I’d almost finished writing the piece, I looked through YouTube to see clips we could include in the multimedia version, and after all these years, I finally watched Bol play. The shots he blocked, the threes he made, the spectacle he created when he loped up and down the court — they all coalesced into images unlike anything I’ve seen from any NBA player since.

On the computer screen, at least one thing became clear: when I was a kid, I’d missed out.