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 cat-tie. 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."