- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 21, 2002

WEST HARTFORD, Conn. The last time Manute Bol was in the spotlight was when he stood toe to toe with William "The Refrigerator" Perry on Fox TV's "Celebrity Boxing" on May 22.
It was an amusing scene. The 7-foot-7, 240-pound Bol towering over the 6-3, 350-pound Perry in the made-for-TV extravaganza. It didn't matter that, surprisingly, Bol won the fight. The stunt put the former Washington Bullets player back into the public consciousness and brought about this question: Whatever happened to this human anomaly from the Sudan?
At 42, Bol's joints ache from rheumatism, but he still carries his long frame erect and proudly. His face is a little fuller than during his years in the NBA, when his celebrity and singular ability to block shots earned him millions.
The money is all gone now. The house he lives in in suburban Connecticut is sparsely furnished. The rent is paid by Catholic Charities, a group that helps political refugees. That's what Bol is now.
He moved here with his wife, son and half sister a few months ago, having finally left the Sudanese homeland that he loved but could not find a place in anymore. He ended up making a daring escape, complicated by the September 11 terror attacks.
Bol never forgot Sudan during the years of wealth and fame. He couldn't, he says. "I have to pay my people back." But it cost him nearly everything.
Bol was born in Turalie, a village in the southern Sudan, a nation where civil war has left almost 2million dead. Most casualties have been in the south, where Christian and animist rebels battle a northern Islamic government based in Khartoum.
Southern Sudan is the home of the Dinkas, the tallest people in the world. Heights of 6-8, 6-10, even 7 feet are common. The first time Bol tried to dunk a basketball, he smashed his face on the rim and lost two teeth. He was the tallest man to play in the NBA, until Gheorghe Muresan a Romanian with a pituitary condition who also played for the Bullets exceeded him by a fraction of an inch.
Even as others gawked and laughed, Bol never has been ashamed of his height. "God gave this to me," he says.
Bol's grandfather, Bol Chol, reputed to be 7-10, was a powerful chieftain and had 40 wives. Bol's father, Madut Bol, was only 6-8 but had seven wives and a large cattle herd. His second wife, Okwok, was 6-10. After having stillborn twins twice, she gave birth to Manute, whose name means "blessing from God."
Unlike his city-dwelling cousins, Bol never went to school; instead, he herded goats and cattle. When he was 15, at the suggestion of relatives, he tried basketball. Bol walked three days from his village to join his first team.
An American college basketball coach, in Sudan for a summer, learned of the tall athlete and soon arranged for Bol and a translator friend to fly to the United States in 1982. Bol wound up at Bridgeport, where games at the school's 1,800-seat gymnasium suddenly became packed, frenzied events.
Early on, Bol blocked 15 shots a game and averaged 22.5 points. He made Division II All-American. After just a year at Bridgeport, Bol joined the Rhode Island Gulls, a pro team in the U.S. Basketball League. A few months later, he was drafted by the Bullets.
Many speculated that Bol's 205-pound frame couldn't take the wear and tear of the NBA. But Bol went on to lead the league in blocked shots with 397 in 1985, the second-highest total in NBA history.
In the next 10 years, Bol cycled through four different teams: the Bullets, Golden State Warriors, Philadelphia 76ers and Miami Heat. He was essentially a one-dimensional player, averaging just 2.6 points and 4.2 rebounds, but he lived the NBA high life, making $1.6million a year at one point.
His loopy sense of humor and trash talking, full of hilarious malapropisms, made him popular with teammates. Even now, his English tumbles out in a strangely accented monotone, sprinkled with slang phrases like "Yo dawg."
A knee injury in 1994 relegated Bol briefly to the CBA and then to a league in Italy. It seemed he would just retire and enjoy his earnings. But his heart was still in Sudan. Bol visited his native country nearly every summer during his NBA career. On one of his early trips, he met and married his first wife, Atong, a southern Sudanese refugee.
Starting in 1991, Bol began making visits to southern Sudanese refugee camps. Many of Bol's relatives were leaders in the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA), the rebel movement.
He became an important backer of the rebels, contributing an estimated $3.5million. Bol and his cousin, Ed Bona, a former college basketball player at Fordham, met with dozens of members of Congress, warning of Muslim extremists and begging for American intervention.
Hope came in 1996, when a group of southern Sudanese split from the SPLA to sign a cease-fire with the government. A leader of the splinter group invited Bol to join a government delegation in talks with the SPLA in Kenya. Two weeks later, the talks collapsed.
Bol returned to Khartoum, where the government, promising more talks later, offered him a post as minister of sport. Their offer was conditional, however. He would need to become a Muslim first. A Christian since childhood, Bol refused.
As time passed with no progress toward peace, Bol began to feel used. On visits to refugee camps, he told his people that there was still hope, even though he didn't think so.
A lone bright spot was his second marriage to Ajok, a tall 21-year-old. (Bol's first marriage had soured. Atong later remarried and moved to New Jersey with their four children.) Bol met Ajok through her father, an SPLA leader. In the Dinka tradition, Bol paid 150 cows for her. Soon, they had a son.
In August 1998, Bol was sitting on his roof in Khartoum to escape the heat when an explosion a half-mile away lit up the night sky, followed by 15 to 20 more.
President Bill Clinton had ordered the cruise missile strike on a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant suspected of aiding the manufacture of chemical weapons. It was retaliation for the bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, linked by U.S. officials to Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network.
Bol was worried for his family's safety, and the attack also was a turning point for him. The government accused him of being a spy, he says. He tried to leave in 1999, but the government stopped him. His money dwindled as he supported himself and as many as 20 relatives.
On his second attempt in 2001, Bol marched to the immigration office and demanded an exit visa. An officer told him to come back with a bribe. In Connecticut, friends swung into action, buying plane tickets in London and secretly shipping them to Bol via a travel agent in Khartoum.
In July 2001, Bol, his wife, son and half sister, Achuil, then 9, flew to Cairo, with the idea of going on to the United States. In Egypt, U.S. consulate officials explained he needed to apply for refugee status if he wanted to bring his entire family. Bol settled in to wait.
Then came September 11. It wasn't until March 7, nearly six months after his arrival, that Bol's family finally departed, catching flights that brought them to Hartford.
Today, friends are shopping around a screenplay on Bol's life in two very different worlds. He has made a few public appearances for small fees and plans to petition the NBA to give him an advance on his NBA pension, roughly $24,000 a year.
His height remains an access pass and his strange celebrity was underscored in one especially strange event when Fox asked him to fight another oversized former athlete Perry.
Bol agreed to the bout, so long as Fox agreed to air a toll-free number for the Ring True Foundation, a West Hartford-based charity he set up to benefit southern Sudanese children. He donated his $35,000 fight fee to the group.
Though relieved to be out of Sudan now, Bol still dreams of returning home. His ideal retirement would be split between the countries he's called home.
"I want my country to be like this someday," he says. "This is my dream."

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide