The Legend of Manute Bol
Manute Bol shares the record for tallest player in the NBA, at 7 foot 7 inches. He remains the only player in NBA history to average more blocks than points. His greatest works, however, were the ones that came off the court.
Manute was raised in a small village, Tularei, in southern Sudan. He was a Dinka tribesman, who are noted for their height and believed to be the tallest people in Africa. “My mother was 6 feet 10, my father 6 feet 8 and my sister is 6 feet 8,” he said. “And my great-grandfather was even taller — 7 feet 10.”
Manute was certainly tough. As a boy, he ran away from home twice to avoid the Dinka tradition of removing your six lower teeth. Eventually though, to please his father, he submitted to the procedure, and would later wear false teeth in the United States.
A college coach working in Sudan encouraged Manute to travel to the United States for basketball, and he eventually went in 1983, without speaking a word of English. He developed a tough reputation, and became a crowd favorite soon after being drafted by the Washington Bullets.
Legend has it that Manute killed a lion with only a spear as a young boy. “First of all, the lion was asleep. Otherwise,” Manute said, “I would be killed.”
He recalls that day:
“A lion killed one of the cows. Then I saw this lion — I don’t know if it was the same lion who killed the cow, but he was under a tree. I threw this spear — we carry about 10 of them. I wasn’t close to the lion, but I hit him. He jumped up and hit the limbs of the tree and he looked all around like he was looking for whoever shot him. Then he fell down and died. I was behind a tree.”
During his rise to fame in the NBA, he made frequent trips back to Sudan. During conflict in 1991, 250 of his tribesman were amount the estimated 86,000 civilians killed during a coup. He began contributing money and donating his time to relief efforts.
Manute would be welcomed as royalty when visiting Sudanese refugee camps. It is estimated during his career that he made about 6 million, almost all of it went to relief efforts and establishing the Ring True Foundation, to help Sundanese refugees.
He was a fierce believer in education as a method of reconciliation. He lobbied the United States Congress to get involved in the conflict, and in 1996 a cease-fire was achieved.
“I don’t work for money,” Manute said, “I work to save people. I can always make more money, but you can’t bring back those that are gone.”
He brought major sports stars to South Africa to interact with the kids in Alexandra, one of the most impoverished townships in the region. He also became a Southern Sundan Sunrise boardmember, which begin delivering aide to refugees from Darfur in 2004. This aid effort was extraordinary because the Darfurians had previously been involved in a 22-year war against the Southerners which left 2 million of them dead and 4 million displaced.
Manute was later barred from leaving the country by the Sundanese government, who accused him of supporting Dinka led rebels. Assistances came from congressman Joe Liberman, who raised money to provide Manute with plane tickets to Cairo, Egypt.
After the NBA, he made carnival-like appearances as the world tallest jockey, a hockey player, and celebrity boxing – even though he’d never ridden a horse or used skates. He won his boxing match, and like always, the money he earned from appearances went straight to the Sudanese.
He was beginning a project to build reconciliations schools in southern Sudan. The schools would welcome all faiths. They would have teachers of both Christian and Muslim faiths, with the idea that reconciliation could be achieved through education.
“There’s no way I can put the money in my pocket while my people are getting beat up,” he once said. “Whatever I can do to help my people I will do. I feel whatever I make here I make for my people.”
During his last trip to Sudan, he fell ill, it seems from medicine he was taking in Sudan. He was in the midst of completing the first school, and also extended his trip several months to promote fairness in the upcoming elections. Upon returning to Washington D.C., he was in a very weakened condition, and died in a D.C. hospital at age 47.
Manute’s friend and collaborator on many projects in Sudan, Tom Prichard, spoke after his death:
“I will remember him as a man who literally gave his life for his country,” Prichard said “He felt he had to stay behind in Sudan through this election. When he got to the States, he’s comment was kind of like, ‘I did it.’ He helped have a positive influence on this election, and that was more important to him than his health.”
He will be remembered by his former teammates and young kids sitting in Sundanese schools and camps made possible by the money, time and effort he gave.
“You know, a lot of people feel sorry for him, because he’s so tall and awkward,” Charles Barkley, a former 76ers teammate, once said. “But I’ll tell you this — if everyone in the world was a Manute Bol, it’s a world I’d want to live in.”