As morning broke on the third day of his month-long clinic with the Sudanese national basketball team in the summer of 1982, Don Feeley, the coach at New Jersey's Fairleigh Dickinson University, stood on a scruff of hill in Khartoum and caught his first glimpse of Manute Bol. In the bright sun, Feeley watched Bol, all 7'6" of him, loom over the outdoor court like a giant exclamation mark.
"Who's that?" Feeley asked the other Sudanese players.
"That's Manute," they all chorused.
"Boys," said Feeley after a long pause, "from now on we're going to play a very different game."
It had taken Bol, a Dinka tribesman, six days by train to travel the 600 miles to Khartoum from his home village of Gogrial in the savanna country west of Sudan's vast, central swamp, the Sudd. Basketball was a relatively new game to Bol, who had been playing it for two years around Gogrial, but Feeley was struck by the way Bol could dunk while standing on tiptoes and touch both sides of the backboard simultaneously. "Manute [pronounced sort of like minute, as in tiny] had a six-foot wingspan," recalls Feeley. Probably because Bol distributed all that body on a mere 190-pound frame, Feeley's expectations for him were modest: "I thought of him more as the next Bill Russell than Wilt Chamberlain."
Feeley showed Bol which basket he should slam balls into and which basket to bat them away from. Now, Bol has it down pretty well. Since that fateful journey to Khartoum, he has followed the bouncing ball to Cleveland and Connecticut, where he's now a freshman at the University of Bridgeport. In his college debut on Nov. 19 he scored 20 points, had 20 rebounds and blocked six shots in a 75-63 victory over Stonehill College of North Easton, Mass. At the end of last week he was averaging 19.8 points, 16.5 rebounds and 8.5 blocks through four games, all of which Bridgeport had won.
Feeley returned from the Sudan, and after the 1982-83 season he was let go by FDU. So he steered Bol to Cleveland State, where Feeley's buddy, Kevin Mackey, was coach. But, like many Dinkas, Bol didn't know how to read or write, which made it difficult for him to meet the academic requirements necessary for basketball eligibility. So Feeley sent him to nearby Case Western to learn English. Bol, obviously a fast learner, soon knew his new language well enough to understand that at Division I schools, the NCAA docks a player one year of eligibility for every year he is over the age of 20. Although Bol's passport indicates he's 21, some doubt its veracity. No wonder: The same document lists his height as 5'2". Bol explains, "When they measured me, I was sitting down."
Feeley, who's looking for another coaching job, lives near Bridgeport and suggested Bol come East this fall. As a Division II team, Bridgeport isn't subject to the strict eligibility rules that Cleveland State is. Bol can play four years for the Purple Knights, and he can also continue studying English. Bridgeport is one of 21 schools in the U.S. that offer a program in English Language Skills.
Around the Bridgeport campus Bol was at first treated like a UFO. Reported sightings would be disbelieved until each astonished skeptic made his own observation. "I thought Coach [Bruce Webster] was joking when he said I was getting replaced by a 7'6" Dinka," says 6'4" junior Clarence Gordon, the Purple Knights' starting center last season. "Manute was sitting down when I met him, and then he got up and started to...unfold!"
Not since that old showman P.T. Barnum discovered Charles Stratton, a.k.a. Tom Thumb in Bridgeport in 1842 has a spectacle so astounded the local gentry. "When Manute walks into Famous Pizza, everyone stops eating," says Webster. "He's like E.F. Hutton."