Manute Bol: Tall tower of faith

Time for a trip into the tmatt folder of guilt.

If you dig around on the Washington Post site you can find the following weblog post that quotes a U.S. Senate tribute by Sen. Sam Brownback to the late Manute Bol of Sudan, who, at 7-foot-7, with a fingertip-to-fingertip wingspan of 8-feet-6, was one of the most unusual athletes to ever play in the National Basketball Association.

“I do want to speak about the passing, the untimely passing of a giant, a giant in the heart of the Sudanese people. … Manute had a gentle nature and an unmistakable humor. He was also a Christian, and his faith guided his advocacy for his fellow Sudanese brothers and sisters. Manute was the son of a Dinka tribal chief, and was given the name Manute, which means ‘special blessing.’ Manute was indeed special, and what made him special was not his height, but his heart. Manute often returned to Sudan to visit refugee camps, and subsequently created the Ring True Foundation to assist those less fortunate than himself….

“The world needs more Manute Bols, individuals who dedicate their lives for others. Our thoughts and our prayers go out to Manute, his family, his friends and the people of Sudan.”

Bol played here in Washington, D.C., for much of his career, so you would be right if you predicted that the Post would do a major story on the passing of this shot-blocking phenomenon (check out the YouTube offerings on that). It’s an excellent story, in many ways, and you can catch some of the complex nature of his relationship with the blood-drenched soil of South Sudan.

But there is a ghost in this story, no doubt about it. Still, readers are told:

There is no precise record of Manute Bol’s birth, but he said he was born near the village of Tularei, Sudan, on Oct. 16, 1962. He descended from tribal chieftains, and one of his grandfathers was said to be taller than 7 feet. Once, while herding cattle in his youth, Mr. Bol saw a lion lurking nearby and killed it with a well-aimed spear. …

He could speak several languages, including Arabic, but he could not read or write any of them before moving to Khartoum in his late teens to play basketball. His unusual height and ethnic background made him the target of repeated slurs. He developed a reputation as a fierce fighter, often using a tree limb as a weapon.

And later on:

Throughout his career, Mr. Bol remained devoted to his homeland and its customs. When he proposed to his Dinka wife, Atong, he gave her family 80 cows as a gift. He sometimes protested outside the Sudanese Embassy in Washington to draw attention to the protracted civil war in Sudan, which pitted the Muslim elite of the north against the Christian and animist southern peoples, including Mr. Bol’s Dinka tribe. The troubles later spread to the region of Darfur in western Sudan.

“You know, a lot of people feel sorry for him, because he’s so tall and awkward,” Charles Barkley, a former 76ers teammate, once said. “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.”

There are many other details to this complex, sad and yet inspiring story.

Suffice it to say that Bol gave away almost every penny that he had to help those trapped in the civil war in South Sudan, a conflict that has always been far off the radar of American editors and reporters. The Post story stresses the sports elements, which is understandable. However, once the newspaper opened that door to the Sudan conflict, it really needed to give readers one or two crucial facts.

For example, is Bol a Christian or an animist? The way the that passage is structured blurs that detail at the heart of his life and ministry of reconciliation.

However, if you head over to a story at an alternative news site — NewsDesk.org — you can find out all kinds of things.

With his death, the war-torn Sudan lost a tireless and good-natured friend who gave most of his estimated NBA earnings of $6 million back to his country for a variety of peace efforts, including the construction of schools. … His family was wiped out by Darfurians, but when that country became victims, Bol was one of the first Sudanese to speak out in support. A Christian, he told his people that extremists were the enemy, not Muslims. …

After his career, he frequently visited Sudanese refugee camps and in 2001 was offered a post as minister of sport by the Sudanese government. Bol, who was Christian, refused because one of the pre-conditions was converting to Islam. As a consequence he was hindered from leaving the country by the Sudanese government, who accused him of supporting the Dinka-led Christian rebels, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army.

The schools that he funded? He asked that they be open to Christian, animist and Muslim students — in the same classrooms.

Bol was much more than a basketball player and he was not a generic humanitarian. His acts were shaped by the conflicts and complexities of his homeland. To understand the size of his heart, readers need to know the remarkable nature of the forgiveness that he preached.

Memory eternal, big man.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • bt

    This is the second great story I’ve read about this basketball player’s life. What a noble person!

  • Jerry

    To understand the size of his heart, readers need to know the remarkable nature of the forgiveness that he preached.

    Amen.

  • Jay

    Tmatt,

    How could you write about the press treatment of Manute Bol’s death and not mention the WSJ article which lamented the general omission of his (and other NBA players’) Christian faith?

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704853404575323043046894012.html?mod=googlenews_wsj

    Jay

  • http://kingslynn.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    I was just going to mention the WSJ story before Jay beat me to it. Here we have a MSM article that doesn’t so much acknowledge religion as walk up to it and embrace it.

  • tmatt

    JAY:

    Easy, I didn’t see it and it didn’t show up in Google News scans. Tomorrow is my daughter’s wedding, so I am sort of busy.

    Also, that is an editorial, not a news piece.

    But I would have mentioned it anyway. Thanks for the URL.

  • Peggy

    Wow. What a heroic man. Incredibly tall too. I confess, I’ve never heard of him. Not from an NBA town, though I was in DC for years. The NBA, nay, the world, need much more men like him. May he rest in peace.

    Tmatt: Best wishes on your daughter’s upcoming wedding. God be with your entire family on this joyous day.

  • FredoM

    Here’s a person whose heart towers to the sky. Goodbye Mr. Bol. May your spirit inspire a thousand more people to continue your efforts of love and kindness. Rest in God now…

  • http://www.rachanadcinternshipblog.com/ Rachana

    That was an absolutely AWESOME and inspirational story. I usually don’t like sports stories but that touched a chord in my heart. Just shared it on my Facebook wall!

    -Rachana

  • http://www.freemaninstitute.com/manute.htm Joel Freeman

    Great overview. I was chaplain for the Washington Bullets for 19 years (’79-’98). Manute Bol joined the team in 1985. After he found his way on the team, he became a spark plug of joy and good humor.

    Feel free to check out the tribute I wrote for Manute here: http://www.freemaninstitute.com/manute.htm


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