Death is never easy to grasp, especially when it comes unexpectedly, much like today’s passing of former NBA center, Manute Bol at the age of 47.
I had no idea Bol was even sick but apparently the seven-foot-seven gentle giant became gravely ill in May with kidney problems and Stevens-Johnson Syndrome, a rare skin disease contracted while visiting his home country of Sudan.
According to the University of Virginia Hospital in Charlottesville, the official cause of death was kidney failure.
My personal connection with Manute dates back to the winter of 1985. At the time I was the weekend sports anchor/reporter for WMUR Television in Manchester, N.H. The University of Bridgeport men’s basketball team was in town to play the New Hampshire College Penmen, and guess who was the starting center for Bridgeport?
Until that night, the tallest athlete I had interviewed was former Boston Celtic center Robert Parish who was seven-feet tall. Manute at seven-feet-seven inches was just an unbelievable sight to see in person, especially standing next to the other nine players on the court.
Needless to say, the Dinka Dunker dominated the boards at both ends of the court that night and as expected; his English was not that great. Until arriving in America, Manute had spent his entire life in his tribal Dinka village in the Sudan.
Later that spring, Bol was selected in the second round of the NBA draft by the Washington Bullets (Wizards).
Bol was actually first drafted by the by the San Diego Clippers in the fifth round of the 1983 NBA Draft, but at the time the league ruled that Bol had not been eligible for the draft and declared the pick invalid.
In 1988 he was traded to Golden State then traded to the Philadelphia 76ers, 1990.
It was here in Philly where Manute and I crossed paths once again and not only had his English improved but he had developed quite a personality, which was greatly magnified when in the presence of his side kick Charles Barkley, whom Bol would affectionately call “Charlie”. Yes, Charlie and Manute used to make those Sixers practices at St. Josephs University quite entertaining.
Manute would tell the story about how he once killed a lion with a spear while watching over his family’s herd of cattle back in Africa.
We also learned that Manute’s mother was six-feet-eight inches tall, his father six-ten, sister six-eight and his grandfather seven-feet-ten inches. It was Bol’s grandfather who actually gave Manute his name which means, “Special Blessing.”
Well, this Special Blessing, played 10 seasons in the NBA with Washington, Golden State, Philadelphia and Miami. During that 10 year span Bol averaged 2.6 points, 4.2 rebounds, 0.3 assists and 3.3 blocks per game while only playing an average of 18.7 minutes per game. A true specialist, Bol finished his career with totals of 1,599 points, 2,647 rebounds, and 2,086 blocks, having appeared in 624 games.
After the end of his NBA career, Bol played 22 games for the Florida Beach Dogs of the Continental Basketball Association during the 1995-1996 season. In 1996, the Portland (Maine) Mountain Cats of the United States Basketball League announced that he would be playing with the team, and included him in the game program, but he never actually appeared in uniform. He then played professionally in Italy and Qatar before rheumatism forced him to retire permanently.
Following his Hoop career, Manute worked closely with Sudan Sunrise, a humanitarian group based in Lenexa, Kan., that promotes reconciliation in Sudan, Unfortunately, between funding Sudanese freedom fighters, children’s charities and a vice of casino gambling, Bol lost the several million dollars that he earned in the pros, but it never stopped him from trying to continue to raise money to help the refugees and children from his country.
As a matter of fact, as a publicity stunt to raise money, Bol once signed to play hockey for a minor league team even though he couldn't skate. When he became a jockey at a horse racing track, also to raise money for charity, it was widely suspected that he just might have been the tallest professional jockey ever.
Most people will remember Manute as the Freakish seven-foot-seven basketball player who swatted basketballs like a dad swatting flies while grilling in the back yard, but I will remember him for his big heart, infectious smile, and great personality.
Bol is survived by 10 children, including four with his second wife, Ajok, of Olathe, Kan., his nephew Mayom Majok Said.