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A Gift from On High
June 28, 2010
On his remarkable journey through life, Manute Bol played even bigger than his height
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June 28, 2010

A Gift From On High

On his remarkable journey through life, Manute Bol played even bigger than his height

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He was tall. Inordinately tall. This was his passport, his golden credit card that would take him from the stone-age simplicity of loincloths and spears, from lions walking through the bush, to the accelerated big-city civilization of the late 20th century. His height made him valuable. Sight unseen. "I'd grown up in Philadelphia when Wilt Chamberlain was in high school there," Lynam said. "He was just God. Tall as he was, he could do anything he wanted."

Chamberlain was 7'1". Bol was six inches taller. He had been in the United States now for less than a month. Four years earlier he had never heard of basketball, the NBA or even the USA. Height was height. Lynam picked him despite never having seen him play. "Here's the thing: The NBA rejected the pick on some technicalities," Lynam said. "They said that Manute hadn't filed to enter the draft. And they said that he was too young. Here's the thing ... the NBA used his passport to say that he was only 19 years old. His passport also said he was five feet two. Manute said he was sitting down when he was measured."

College basketball became Bol's next goal. That June, Cleveland State coach Kevin Mackey sent him to an instructor in English as a second language at Case Western Reserve.

"He was starting from ground zero, not only in English, but in 20th-century culture," the instructor, Arleen Bialic, said. "He couldn't use a telephone. He couldn't operate a Coke machine. He didn't even know how to hold a pencil, never had done it."

The lessons stretched through the next year. The basketball became much better—Bol scrimmaged in Cleveland with NBA players such as Charles Oakley, Ron Harper, Mark West, John Bagley—but the English was still not ready for the ACT or SATs. Bol spoke the language of basketball ("my bad," "get that stuff out of my house") and American quiz shows ("come on down!"), but those weren't phrases on the tests.

He wound up at Division II Bridgeport for a raucous, shot-blocking season in which he was allowed to take exams orally and he compiled a 2.8 grade point average. He was a sensation wherever he went. He returned, legally this time, to the 1985 NBA draft. He was selected in the second round by the Bullets.

"He screws up the game more than anyone I've ever seen," Washington general manager Bob Ferry said after watching Bol block Bill Walton's jump shot and disrupt the Celtics. "He throws everybody out of synch."

He continued to throw people out of synch for the next 10 years. Never a star, he always was a curiosity, an attraction. He played 624 games for four teams, averaged 2.6 points, 3.3 blocked shots and 4.2 rebounds. Tied to his Dinka tribe and its troubles in the Sudan throughout his career, he always tried to raise money for his many relatives and friends and did not cease calling attention to the starvation and suffering of a never-ending civil war.

He became even more involved after his retirement in 1994. At the time of his death he was working with a group in Kansas City called Sudan Sunrise, trying to build 41 schools.

"I am never bothered by the fact that I am tall," he once said. "When I was younger, I was bothered, but not now. My height is a gift from God. That is what I say. I did not create it. You have to live with what you are given. Who knows what God is dreaming for us? There is a reason. Look at what he has dreamed for me."

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