If Bol is a sight in a pizza parlor with his knees propped up around his ears, you should see him in the university's Harvey Hubbell Gymnasium. He dribbles down the floor on spindly, Q-tip legs, massaging the ball with long, sleek fingers.
Bol has a watchful reserve and an imperious smile that's almost as thin as his frame. He speaks proudly in Dinka and Arabic as well as his improving English, and from a great height, his head thrown back for a better view of the ceiling. Bol doesn't do much he doesn't want to do, but his teammates say that if they cajole him and treat him with respect, they couldn't have a better friend.
He tends to show the same disdain for strangers that Dinka herdsmen display toward the 60 or so species of mosquitoes that inhabit the Sudd. "Getting Manute to give an interview," says Webster, "can be like pulling teeth." Which would not be easy with Bol, who is missing 15 choppers. He sacrificed four or five in a tribal ritual that marked his passage to manhood at age 14. And he lost a few more four years ago in his passage from backcourt to frontcourt. "The first stuff I ever try," he recalls, "the ball go slam-dunk! in the basket." And his front teeth went bam thunk! on the rim.
Bol got his first face job at 14. In a sort of Dinka Bar Mitzvah, an elder carved three lines across his forehead. The English translation of Manute is Only Son, and indeed he's the only son of Madot and Abouk Bol. But back home some of his friends still call him Raan Cheg. That's a Dinka joke. Raan Cheg means "short stuff."
Sudan is the biggest country in Africa, about one-third the size of the continental U.S. From the harsh desert that borders Egypt in the north, it runs through desolate stretches of scrub and grassland to the marshy waters of the Sudd and then to the green uplands along its southern border with Uganda. Before Bol began playing hoops, he had led the traditional life of a seminomadic Dinka herdsman. In summer, when the White Nile-fed Sudd would flood to the size of Maine, he would take his cattle to the higher ground of his village. He would also head for the swamp during the winter drought. The nearest city was Wau (pronounced wow), which, according to Bol, resembles Bridgeport. "Both have trees," he says.
Giraffes used to trample Abouk Bol's vegetable garden, but Manute was more concerned about the lions and hyenas that pounced on his father's cattle. The Dinkas revere cattle: They sing their praises in songs, drink their milk and blood, trade them for wives and other essentials, and warm themselves by burning cattle dung. "I protected the cows by talking," Bol says. "Lions would not attack if they heard my voice." Or maybe they were surprised to hear the voice coming out of a mouth that was seven feet in the air. Actually, in the Bol family, 7'6" is not all that outstanding: Ma Bol was 6'10" and Pa Bol was 6'8". Grandpa Bol Chol, chief of the Thwig tribe, is said to have been 7'10", but he was born too early to be discovered by American hoop recruiters. Bol's sister, also named Abouk, who has never seen a basketball, is back home tending his 150 cattle. She's 6'8".
What Bol says he misses most about Sudan is the milk.
"American milk, plecchh!" he roars ruefully. "Pasteurization! Homogenization! Skim! White! Tree milk!"
Lately, Bridgeport has been milking this tree for all he's worth. Despite the fact that the Purple Knights had a losing record the last two years, they're now talking national title. Normally, Bridgeport can't even sell out its annual game with archrival Sacred Heart. Now there isn't an empty seat for an intrasquad scrimmage. Nearly 1,800 fans jammed Hubbell Gym for the home opener. To paraphrase Jimmy Durante, they came to see the Dinka dunker do.