Manute Bol: The ultimate defender
An excerpt from Defender: Manute Bol's Journey from Sudan to the NBA and Back
A fan-favorite in Golden State, Bol died at 47 last year of a kidney ailment
Saturday is the inaugural independence day for Bol's homeland, South Sudan
The following is an excerpt from The Defender: Manute Bol's Journey from Sudan to the NBA and Back, a multimedia e-book published by The Atavist. Coming just over a year after the death of the former NBA player and humanitarian legend, and on the eve of the inaugural independence day for his homeland, Southern Sudan, Conn's extended account includes never-before-reported aspects of Bol's life. The full book is available here.
When 7-foot-7 Manute Bol opened the 1985 NBA season with the Washington Bullets, he played the game unlike anyone before or since, making the impossible look easy and the easy seem impossible. He set an NBA single-season rookie record with 397 blocks -- the second-highest total, for any player, in league history. "No one could shoot over him," says Tim Hardaway, who later played alongside Bol in Golden State. "We used to funnel guys toward Manute. You just couldn't understand how long he was until you got up close." On two separate occasions he blocked 15 shots in a single game.
And yet Bol tended to be an embarrassment on offense. He'd played only a single year of Division II college ball and struggled with the most routine plays, missing layups, bricking free throws, dropping the ball or allowing it to roll away between his legs. Several fingers on his right, shooting hand were disfigured, the result of a birth defect. "It looked like a claw," Bob Ferry, the general manager of the Bullets who drafted Bol, says. "He couldn't straighten his fingers, and that really hurt him." Bol soon became branded as a role player, a guy who could come in for a few minutes and block a few shots but never be a consistent starter. His playing time dwindled in his second and third seasons, and in 1988 Washington traded him to the Golden State Warriors.
In the fall of 1988, Bol arrived in Northern California to begin training camp. He settled into a modest home in Alameda, just outside of Oakland on the San Francisco Bay. Warriors coach Don Nelson had long coveted Bol's services. Nelson believed he could unlock the potential that a man of such size must inherently possess. One day shortly after arriving, Bol entered the gym with his teammates for a round of two-a-day practices. Some players were still working their way into playing shape, but Bol approached Nelson with a special request. "Coach," he said, "we have to end practice early today." When Nelson asked why, Bol informed him that an urgent matter had arisen: He had to get home because the cable guy was coming. Nelson laughed, considered the matter, and addressed his team: "Guys, we're not going to practice for long today. Nutie has to get cable at his house."
"There's no way anyone else in the league would ask something like that," says Winston Garland, who played for the Warriors at the time. "And there's no way a coach would let anyone else get away with it." But Nelson loved Bol. He let him shoot three-pointers, giving Bol the green light if he was open during the Warriors' secondary fast break. Every time Bol fired a shot from long range, he broke a cardinal rule taught to big men on basketball courts around the world: Tall guys should stay close to the basket. Instead, the tallest of them all fired away, his arms jerking back and flinging forward, the ball launched as if from a catapult. The Warriors often ended practice by running a drill that finished with Bol shooting threes. Sometimes they would run the same drill at the beginning of practice. If Bol made his three-pointer, practice ended right then -- no further work necessary. In games, most of Bol's threes missed, but a few splashed through the net, inevitably followed by riotous applause. "Just a raggedy-ass jump shot," Rick Mahorn, who played for the Detroit Pistons at the time, describes it. "He'd make it, and you'd just have to look at him like, Ain't that a bitch?"
Though Bol came to love his jump shot -- "He started talking all kinds of s--- when he made jumpers, like he was a real ballplayer or something," Mahorn says -- Bol still made his money blocking shots. He turned would-be dunkers away and yelled at them not to try scoring on him again, adopting every shot blocker's favorite phrase: "Get that out of here!" Occasionally, however, opponents got the best of Bol. They would rise to dunk and he would rise with them, through skill, athleticism, or sheer luck the opponent would finish with a dunk over or around Bol's outstretched arms. "He hated to get embarrassed," says Garland, "so he was always coming up with excuses." Maybe another defender had missed his assignment, or maybe someone had blocked Bol's path to the rim, but always there was something or someone Bol could blame. Soon teammates took to calling him Mr. Alibi: the man with an explanation for everything.
One day in November 1988, the Warriors were playing the Chicago Bulls, and Michael Jordan caught the ball on the perimeter, then drove around his defender and skied for the rim. Bol and 7-4 teammate Ralph Sampson rose with him, the fiercest shot-blocking pair in the league taking on the best player in the history of the game. But Jordan kept climbing and then flushed the ball through the basket, sending Bol in a daze toward the bench, where teammates were laughing, eager to hear his excuse. "What happened?" they asked. In response, Bol uttered two words that Warriors players had never heard paired, joined together in a phrase that soon would become ubiquitous on blacktops across America. Eventually, legend would hold that Bol created this saying, though some linguists dispute that claim. Either way, when Bol delivered it in his rumbling, Dinka-inflected baritone, the Warriors players erupted as if they'd just heard the best joke of their lives.
"My bad," he said. "My bad."
For the rest of the season, Warriors players said it whenever they made a mistake, always low and guttural in their best impression of Bol. When players were traded the phrase spread, and before long everyone across the league was saying "My bad."
Bol kept blocking shots and firing threes, and as fall turned to winter a pattern emerged at Warriors home games. Bol caught the ball outside the arc; the crowd screamed, "Shoot!" so he fired away; they gasped as it sailed through the air and then groaned if it missed or erupted if it swished, then went back to waiting for Bol to shoot again. He was still not a great player, nor even a particularly good one. But the crowd noise told you what the stat sheet could not: In the late 1980s, Bol was a star.
Because he was a star, Bol's phone rang often, bringing praise or requests, introducing him to people eager to be helped by his fame. And because he was a star, Bol was often unfit to answer the phone in the mornings -- another night out, another few rounds of Heineken or Beck's. Bol hated mornings. If a fan approached him at night or even in the afternoon, he would offer a smile, even grinning through jokes about his height if he was in the right mood. His natural friendliness was a source of pride, and he'd worked hard to become a cult figure and fan favorite, shaking hands and signing autographs. Mornings, however, were different. "At that time we flew commercial, so we always had to get up the morning after a game and go to the airport," says Hersey Hawkins, a former teammate. "People would always come up and want to talk to him, saying things like 'How does it feel to be so tall?' and he'd just say, 'Go away' and grumble something like, 'Stupid Americans.' We always laughed when people walked up to him, because we knew what was coming."
But early one morning late in 1988, Bol's phone rang persistently enough that he was forced to get up and answer it. He was grumpy, but he listened to the voice on the other end. The man on the phone spoke Dinka, the native tongue that Bol used home and with the other southern Sudanese who were scattered around the States. But most of them knew not to call so early, and in those days, calls from Sudan itself were rare. The charges were too expensive, the chances to use a phone too scarce.
Dinka or not, Bol had no patience for a man who'd dare interrupt his sleep. "Why are you calling me so early!" Bol yelled. "Don't you know that I am sleeping?" The man on the other end was unsympathetic. He'd called because militias were sweeping through southern Sudan, leaving villages burned and children orphaned, terrorizing anyone who stood in their way. "You are sleeping?" he fired back. "While you are sleeping our people are dying!"
Bol hung up, furious. Several weeks later, the man -- a representative of the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement, the southern Sudanese rebels --visited the Bay Area while traveling through the U.S. to gain support for his cause. When the caller arrived, Bol's cousin Nicola, whose family lived with Bol in Alameda, warned the man not to mention the phone conversation. And when the two met in person, Bol started coming around. He liked this guy -- liked his passion, his ideas. It took a little convincing, but eventually the SPLM rep prevailed. It was time, Bol decided, to join the fight.
The full book is available at http://atavist.net/defender/