CLEVELAND—The stars of the locker room are Barkley and beefy forward Rick Mahorn, Messrs. Bump and Thump, but they have made room for Manute. He quickly has become a third in their group. He is involved in the routines, the pranks, the fun. Barkley and Mahorn are pie-in-the-face outrageous. Loud. Manute is the more quiet partner. He sometimes seems as if he is the good kid gone wrong, sitting now in the back with the class rascals.
"Manute," Barkley says. "You might have been tough back home, but you're just another tall guy over here."
"Manute," Mahorn says. "If it weren't for basketball, you'd be back in Africa with a bone in your nose. You'd be a sheep-herder somewhere."
The game is an hour away, perhaps an hour and a half. There does not seem to be a lot of tension. Barkley has been stealing soap from the Richfield Coliseum shower room. Mahorn is eating popcorn. The dialogue is the same as it always is, "twenty-four hours a day, including room service," according to Manute. He has a response.
"The problem with you black guys from America is that you do not have any tribes," he says. "You belong nowhere. You roll around the country. You are like loose balls on the court. That is what you are. Loose balls. When the referee says, 'Loose-ball foul,' do you turn around because you think he is talking about you? Think about it. Loose balls."
The shyness is gone. He speaks English very well. He has been to virtually every American city, to some many times. He has seen snow. He has a tailored overcoat to guard against it. There is a home in Alameda, Calif., that he may try to sell. There is a home in Glendale, Md., that is being built with eight-foot doors on the inside, but with a normal-sized door on the front to keep tourists away. He is married. He has two children, a boy and a girl. He also owns two homes in Khartoum in Sudan, where relatives live. He also owns an apartment in Alexandria, Egypt, where he sometimes lives in the summer. He will average $1.5 million per year, guaranteed through 1992-93. He fits. He more than fits.
"We've adopted him," Mahorn says. "You know that ad, Adopt-A-Kid? Manute is our kid."
"He's just like us," Barkley says. "He wants to win and have fun. That's one thing that surprised me, how bad he wants to win. He really does. And he wants to have fun. That's what it's all about. He's just a skinny us."
Manute's size is not a factor. Then again, maybe it is. He is not the typical backup center, a quiet big man wondering about the next names that might appear on the waiver wire. He is a presence. He is the one who is noticed first in the airports, the hotel lobbies, even the pregame warmup lines.
"You know, a lot of people feel sorry for him, because he's so tall and awkward," Barkley says. "But I'll tell you this—if everyone in the world was a Manute Bol, it's a world I'd want to live in. He's smart. He reads
The New York Times
. He knows what's going on in a lot of subjects. He's not one of these just-basketball guys. Basketball's just one per cent of it. You know what he was talking about the other day? Milk. He was saying that he grew up on milk straight from the cow. Squeezed it himself. Milk. He says, 'Charlie, what's this lo-fat milk, this two percent milk, all of this other milk? Cows don't give lo-fat milk, two percent milk. We shouldn't drink it.' I don't know. Maybe he's got something."