You could say life has come full circle for Manute Bol. Eighteen years ago the Dinka tribesman fretted about leaving his father's cows behind in southern Sudan as he embarked on an odyssey that eventually took him to the NBA. Today Bol is again preoccupied with bovines. In the concrete two-bedroom house he rents and shares with up to 20 relatives near the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, he complains that one of his brothers married two women while Bol was away but has yet to compensate the women's families in the Dinka tradition. Sudanese men often take more than one wife and pay the dowries in cows, the Dinkas' most important commodity. By Dinka custom, as the wealthiest member of his family he has taken responsibility for supporting his relatives. Therefore, Bol is expected to pay his brother's debt. "I sold 40 cows for the first wife, 30 for the second," Bol says of the payments. Bol's wife, Ajok--who cradles their 19-month-old son, Bol Manute Bol, on her lap nearby--cost him a whopping 150 cows.
It's safe to say that the average former NBA player does not have such financial concerns. Then again, nothing about Bol has ever been typical. No one in the league's history has been taller (7'7") or probably skinnier (225 pounds), and he cut an unusual figure playing for the Washington Bullets, Golden State Warriors, Philadelphia 76ers and Miami Heat from the 1985-86 season through '94-95. With a 10-foot wingspan he averaged one blocked shot for every 5.6 minutes he played. (The 76ers' Dikembe Mutombo, for instance, has averaged one block every 10.5 minutes.) However, if his body seemed cartoonish--he has a 48-inch inseam, size-16 feet and a flat-footed reach of 10'5"--his story was a fairy tale.
Bol had been expected to follow in his father's farming footsteps until Fairleigh Dickinson basketball coach Don Feeley discovered him in 1982 during a monthlong stint coaching the Sudanese national team. A year later Bol arrived in the U.S. wearing a leisure suit and missing 15 teeth, most of them courtesy of his first attempt at a dunk. (He smashed his mouth on the rim.) In Sudan he had killed a lion with a spear, but he had never read a book, and he had only briefly been to school. The only language he spoke was Dinka, and his only job experience was tending cattle. He started playing basketball at age 15.
Bol took classes at Case Western Reserve English Language School in Cleveland for a year and then moved on to the University of Bridgeport, in Connecticut, where in 1984-85, his only college season, he became a Division II All-America. After he averaged 11.2 blocks a game with the Rhode Island Gulls of the U.S. Basketball League in the summer of '85, the Bullets drafted him in the second round. "He screws up a game more than anybody I've ever seen," Washington general manager Bob Ferry said of Bol's ability to make opponents alter their game. "He throws everybody out of sync."
In an era of larger-than-life talents--Jordan, Magic, Bird--Bol really was larger than life. "He's the best shot blocker I've ever seen, and I played with Bill Russell," said Don Nelson, who coached Bol with Golden State. Bol blocked the kinds of shots that no one had blocked before, including 15-foot fadeaways and baby hooks, and he had the ability to keep the balls he rejected in play.
In his rookie year he swatted a league-leading 397 shots. "I remember going up to shoot my fadeaway jumper against him, and I just kept fading and fading and fading," the Detroit Pistons' 7'1" James Edwards said. "By the time I thought I had a clear shot, I didn't even hit the rim."
Before Washington played the Boston Celtics in the first exhibition game of Bol's rookie season, Larry Bird started a pool to see which of his teammates would be the first to dunk on Bol. Every Celtic anted up $50. At the end of the season no one had won the pot, and the players gave the money to Boston's equipment manager. "Don't you have cable?" Bol would scold those players who tried to dunk over him. "Didn't the other guys tell you? Nobody dunks on Manute B-O-L!"
Once he'd mastered English, Bol became one of the top trash-talkers in the league. He didn't accept insults from anyone without a retort, especially the dim bulbs on the street who would ask, "How's the weather up there?"
"Who do I look like," he would answer with disdain, "Willard Scott?"
"One of the remarkable things about Manute was that he was never self-conscious about his height," says Bol's longtime agent, Frank Catapano. "He carried himself with a regal bearing--he never slouched. He didn't consider his height a burden; he considered it a gift from God."
Bol also appreciated the many rewards that go with an NBA career. Although he often rode the end of the bench because of his limited offensive skills, he averaged $1.5 million a year in salary during his prime. He owned homes in Alameda, Calif.; Alexandria, Egypt; Glendale, Md.; and two in Khartoum. He flew first class and enjoyed a celebrity status that few of his countrymen knew. His wit and extraordinary size drew the attention of entertainment glitterati from David Letterman (Bol was a guest on his show in 1986) to Woody Allen, who said, "Manute Bol is so skinny [his team] saves money on road trips. They just fax him from city to city."
Among Bol's many friends were 76ers teammate Charles Barkley, with whom he maintained a long-running exchange of good-natured insults, and Warriors teammate Chris Mullin. (In Mullin's honor he named one of his sons Chris.) Despite numerous predictions that Bol would never last in the league--in 1985 Dallas Mavericks coach Dick Motta said he would "break like a grasshopper" the first time he got hit--the Sudanese Sultan of Swat survived 10 seasons, and only eight players in NBA history have blocked more shots. He never averaged more than 3.9 points or 6.0 rebounds in a season.
In 1994-95 Bol missed all but five games with a right knee injury. After the Milwaukee Bucks released him in October '95, he signed with the Florida Beachdogs of the CBA. But he was unhappy about the falloff in pay (he earned $2,500 per week) and the lack of first-class travel, and the Beachdogs waived him in January '96. Later that year, with his pro career foundering and the restaurant he had opened in Washington, Manute Bol's Spotlight, headed for bankruptcy, Bol went to play in Italy, leaving behind his Sudanese wife, Atong, and their four children--boys Madut, 12, and Chris, 11, and girls Abuk, 13, and Akak, 9. He hasn't been back to the U.S. or seen his family since. (Atong, who divorced him, is remarried and lives in New Jersey.)
Bol returned to Sudan in 1997, hoping to help bring an end to the civil war between the nation's Muslim Arabic north and its Christian and animist south. For years Bol had contributed money, totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars, to the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA), a Dinka-dominated rebel faction in the south led by John Garang. When he returned, however, Bol went to Khartoum, home of the northern elite and the Arab-led government, in part because peace talks were under way. There, as a government-appointed representative of six southern factions, he was a signatory to a peace agreement among the parties, which did not include the SPLA. (That group does not believe a peaceful solution is possible.)
Despite his efforts the fighting has continued, and Bol has become frustrated with the peace process. "I want to go back to the U.S., get my [NBA] pension and raise my children," says Bol, who has stated his age as being anywhere from 41 to 44, even though NBA records list him as being born on Oct. 16, 1962. "Maybe I can be an assistant coach. I want to forget about politics--politics are not doing me any good. I thought I was doing something good for my country, but they keep fighting."
For Bol to return to the U.S. with Ajok and their son, he would need visas. The American Embassy in Khartoum is no longer in operation, so Bol would have to travel to Cairo to get the paperwork completed. If the Sudanese government allows him to leave the country--a prospect his friends think is unlikely because of his propaganda value to the government--there's still the matter of paying for the trip. Poor investments and a constant stream of relatives who have come to him for money have left Bol nearly broke. (He can't start collecting his NBA pension, which will be roughly $24,000 a year, until 2007.)
Although he owns a wheat and sesame farm in eastern Sudan, he doesn't own a car. He sold one of his houses in Khartoum about a year ago. (He rents the other one.) Recently he peddled all his furniture, too, in a bid to pull together enough money to make his way back to the U.S. Meanwhile Bol spends his time listening to music, drinking the sorghum beer brewed by refugees living on the outskirts of Khartoum and, he says, "I walk around and speak to people." Sometimes he visits a neighbor who has a satellite dish that picks up NBA games. Bol, who has rheumatism in both knees and wrists, hasn't played basketball since a stint in Qatar in 1998, but he still loves the sport. "I like Washington because the Bullets are the ones who brought me up to be someone," he says, "and Golden State, because the year before I joined the team the Warriors had won 20 games, and then we made the playoffs that first year I was there."
Save for a worn basketball, his residence contains no mementos of his NBA career, but he has many memories. "I had a good time with the American people," he says. "I hope they remember me as a good guy who played hard. I wasn't Michael Jordan, but I was somebody called Manute Bol."