Big shoes

Big shoes June 21, 2010

Manute Bol was tall.

Taller than that. Whatever it is you picture when you read the word "tall" doesn't quite capture how tall he was.

ManutePatrickJust look at that picture there to the right. That's not some Iverson-sized guard he's defending there, that's Patrick Ewing. Patrick Ewing is 7-feet tall.

Manute Bol was more than a half-foot taller than Patrick Ewing.

When people saw Bol for the first time, they stared. It took a moment for their brain to accept what their eyes were taking in. It didn't matter if they'd seen pictures of him, or if they'd read all the statistics — 7-feet, 7-inches, with an 8 1/2-foot wingspan. It didn't even matter if they were NBA players accustomed to hanging around with 7-footers on a regular basis. Even opposing players, when they saw him for the first time would stop and stare, grinning from ear to ear.

You couldn't help but grin as you stared. Manute Bol wasn't just tall, he was delightfully tall.

That same reaction — incomprehension giving way to astonished delight — was how Manute Bol himself responded to America, the delightfully outsized country that plucked him from his home in Sudan — first as an NCAA recruiting infraction and NBA draft pick, and then again years later as a political refugee.

Manute Bol played in the NBA for 10 years, blocking more than 2,000 shots for the Bullets, Warriors, 76ers and Heat. He also scored 1,599 points during his career — retiring as the only NBA player with more blocked shots than points.

Some of those points came from behind the arc. Manute Bol's three-point shot was a glorious thing to see. Bol weighed less than 250 pounds and had the rail-thin frame of a Giacometti sculpture, so he could never really post up or fight for position inside. Instead he'd get the ball outside, looking to pass while holding the ball in both hands above his head, 10 feet above the court. And every once in a while, if no one was open, he'd flick his wrists sending the ball zipping toward the basket in almost a straight line.

I saw him hit one of those at the Spectrum, flat-footed from about five-feet beyond the arc. Flick, zip, swish. We went wild. "Manuuuute!"

The truth, though, is that Manute Bol was never a great basketball player. He came to the sport relatively late in life and — apart from shot-blocking — never really mastered the skills of the game.

It was often said that Bol lacked the "killer instinct" that great players need. I suppose that was true — even if it's a strange thing to say about the only NBA player who ever killed a lion with a spear.

Yes, Manute Bol really did that. As a teenager. He was raised in a Dinka village in southern Sudan, a place shaped by subsistence farming and herding. He killed the lion to protect his herd. With a freaking spear.

But what I think people meant about Bol's "killer instinct" was that he never seemed to take the game of basketball quite seriously enough. He hadn't chosen this game, it had chosen him. It discovered him in that Sudanese village and plucked him out of it, whisking him halfway around the world. All for the sake of a game.

ManuteNancy Bol always seemed bewildered and slightly amused by that. Eugene McCarthy said that politics was like being a football coach, "You have to be smart enough to understand the game and dumb enough to think it's important."

Manute Bol never seemed to master the second part of that equation. He always seemed to think we Americans were a little crazy, imagining that this game was such an important thing. It was never the most important thing to him. He had other priorities.

Those priorities weren't something he chose either. They were, for him, the unavoidable consequence of where he came from and the things that were happening there: war, slavery, oppression, genocide.

Basketball offered him a chance to escape all that, and he could have gone that route — play the game, take the money, don't look back. But instead he viewed basketball as a way to raise money and awareness to do whatever he could to help the people of his country. Manute Bol earned about $6 million dollars during his decade in the NBA. He spent it all on the Sudan — backing peace talks and political movements, building hospitals and schools.

"I don't work for money, I work to save people," he said. "I can always make more money, but you can't bring back those that are gone."

So he was also willing to cash in on our strange American obsession with games and to capitalize on people's delighted astonishment at his height. He laced up skates to play with a minor league hockey team and saddled a horse as the world's tallest jockey.

Some regarded this as an undignified freak show, but to Bol it wasn't any stranger than being paid millions to put a ball through a hoop (or, in his case, to prevent others from doing so). And if it raised money for his people and gave him a platform to speak about slavery or Darfur or human rights, then how could he say no just because he didn't know how to ice skate or ride a horse? "Whatever I can do to help my people I will do," he said.

And if concern for his own dignity couldn't be allowed to interfere with that, neither could concern for his own comfort or safety. Manute Bol died this weekend from a cascading series of ailments contracted while working back in the Sudan, trying to finish building yet another school for kids who wouldn't otherwise have one.

His obituaries ran in the sports pages of American newspapers. He was remembered as a prodigious shot-blocker and an exotic fan-favorite. And as having been really, really tall.

But he was never an All-Star. He retired with a modest career average of only 2.3 points per game. He won't ever be remembered as one of the NBA's all-time greats.

He had other priorities.

(Top photo by Jim Sulley, Associated Press, from a 1993 game at Madison Square Garden. Lower photo by Mark Wilson, Getty Images, from an April 2006 rally on genocide and slavery in the Sudan. Shaking hands with Bol is then House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.)

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