Professional basketball player
At a Glance…
A Cousin Suggested Basketball
The Washington Bullets Took a Chance
Ties to the Sudan Remain Strong
Manute Bol is the tallest player in the history of the National Basketball Association. He is also the only player in the NBA to have killed a lion with a spear and to have paid 80 cows for his wife. Bol, a native of the Sudan and member of the Dinka tribe, left his troubled homeland to play basketball in the United States. At just under 7’ 7”, he towers over almost everyone, drawing stares wherever he goes. The stately Bol has learned to handle the attention, though—just as he learned to speak English and block his opponents’ shots on the basketball court.
Washington Post correspondent Blaine Harden noted that Bol “has traveled farther and faster than almost any African. The particulars of his cultural dislocation are as exaggerated as his height. The life he knew in Dinka land was among the most arduous, violent and isolated in Africa. The life he knows now is among the highest paid, most transient, least secure in America. Lions, spears and malaria end the careers of Dinka cowherds. Cocaine, coaching changes and stress fractures bring down NBA players. As they grow older, Dinka men become respected elders who give advice on cows and marriage. NBA players can expect an average career of less than four years before they are cut.”
Perhaps this is why Bol has never severed the ties with his homeland, even though a civil war there makes it impossible for him to visit. He is supporting a number of family members who are stranded in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, and is married to a Dinka woman. Bol is proud of his heritage and deeply concerned about his native country, but he is also proud of the success he has achieved in the United States. Bol told the San Jose Mercury News: “God gave me [this] height. He gave me a chance to play in the NBA. I have a good life. I’m going to raise my kids to have the good life. I’m really happy with it.”
In the Dinka language the name Manute means “special blessing.” Bol was given that name because his mother had miscarried twins before he was born. Although no birth certificate exists to document the fact, Bol says he was born on October 16, 1963, near the Dinka village of Turalei. He is a descendent of Dinka nobility—his great-great grandfather, Bol Nyuol, was a chief of the Tuie Dinka of the northwest Sudd, and his grandfather was also a wealthy chief who had some 40 wives and 80 children. Although Bol’s father did not inherit the family
Born October 16, 1963, in Turalei, Sudan; son of Madut (a cowherd) and Okwok Bol; married, wife’s name, Atong; children: Abuk (girl), Madut (boy). Education: Attended University of Bridgeport, 1984.
Professional basketball player, 1985—. Drafted in sec-ond round by Washington Bullets; traded to Golden State Warriors, 1988; traded to Philadelphia 76ers, 1990.
wealth, he was nonetheless quite comfortable, with a herd of 150 cows and a position as tribal elder.
Young Manute enjoyed a number of privileges as the descendent of a chief, but he also rebelled against some of the Dinka customs, especially the manhood rites that all teenage boys must undergo. Several times he ran away rather than face the ritual scarring of his face and— worse—the removal of six of his teeth. His education was entirely practical, concerning only the care and sale of cows; Bol never learned to read or write his native tongue. But he did learn every aspect of animal husbandry necessary to insure the health of his cows, including how to kill a sleeping lion with a spear before it could harm his herd.
Bol was also forced to attend “milk camp” as a teenager. The purpose of the camp was to see which young man could gain the most weight over four months. “From May to August, or September, you’re not doing nothing, you’re just sitting there drinking milk,” Bol told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “You just sit there and sleep and drink milk. You take 10 cows. One gallon of milk is not enough. I can drink three gallons of milk a day. Some people in the camps weigh almost 400 pounds.” What weight Bol gained at milk camp was just as quickly lost again; he grew taller and taller, but remained slender as a reed.
The Dinkas are among Africa’s tallest people, but even so, Manute Bol was a phenomenon. In 1978, during a lull in the almost constant civil war that has engulfed the Sudan, a national politician visited Bol’s village. Bol posed for a picture with the official, and that photograph came to the attention of Nyuol Makwag Bol, a cousin in Khartoum. The cousin suggested that Bol take up basketball. The nearest town with a team was Wau, a city of some 80,000 residents. Manute journeyed to Wau and began to play for the police team. Not surprisingly his father objected, saying that basketball was “not good work for a Dinka,” but Bol persisted. “I started playing basketball more and more,” he told the Washington Post “I went on the court to shoot, dribble, and then lay-ups, whatever. And then my cousin … told me, ’Why don’t you try dunk?’ And then I tried. I took one dribble and then I went up to dunk the ball. When I came down I hurt my teeth in the net.”
Even his fear of dental distress did not deter Bol however. In 1979 he joined his cousin in Khartoum and won a position on the city’s Catholic Club team. Khartoum, however, was not an ideal place for Bol; its largely Arab population—much like that of the northern Sudan— harbors an intense hatred of blacks. “I did fight a lot in Khartoum,” Bol said. “I was bad. I don’t take anything. Sometimes I can say we Dinkas are crazy. That is what I can say. We don’t give up. In the United States they call black people nigger, you know, that thing. In my country, the Moslem people call us the abid (Arabic for slave). Really, I don’t like. If they say it to somebody, not even me, I fight them.” Bol’s cousin had to counsel him to save his aggression for the basketball court, where he was still clumsy and slow-footed.
Bol played basketball in Khartoum for three years, both for the Catholic Club and for the military team. While living in the capital he fell in love with a Dinka girl. His father disapproved of the match, however, and the girl’s father demanded a large payment for her. Eventually the marriage negotiations broke down and the girl married another man. “I was hurt really. It bust me up,” Bol told the Washington Post That breakup—and hostile conditions in Khartoum—made Bol willing to leave the Sudan behind. Since his departure he has returned only once, for a brief visit.
Don Feeley, a coach from Fairleigh Dickinson University, met Boi in Khartoum and convinced him to come to the United States. Bol was drafted sight unseen by the San Diego Clippers, but when Clipper scouts saw the gangly, 180-pound Bol they decided he needed some time with a college team. This proved to be a problem, of course— Bol could not even speak English, let alone read it. Kevin Mackey of Cleveland State University invited Bol to Cleveland, where the young African took English classes at Case Western Reserve. Although Bol never played for Cleveland State—never even practiced with the team— his presence in the city was viewed as a violation of NCAA rules. Even after he had left Cleveland for the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, CSU and its coach were placed on probation.
Bol was enrolled as a student at Bridgeport and for the first time played with an American team. There he averaged 22.5 points, 13.5 rebounds and 7.5 blocked shots per game. After one season with Bridgeport he was signed by the United States Basketball League’s Rhode Island Gulls. Bol quickly became a presence there as well, with an average of 12.3 blocks in eight games. NBA scouts attended Bol’s games in droves, but opinion was mixed on the tall, skinny player; some found him clumsy and hesitant on the court, while others were awed by his height and blocking ability. In 1985 the Washington Bullets decided to take a chance on Bol and he was drafted in the second round.
The Bullets were reluctant to use Bol at first, but when center Jeff Ruland was sidelined by injuries in 1986, Bol got the job. He quickly became a factor on defense, just missing the record for most blocked shots in the history of the NBA—he had 397 for the season—and was runner-up for defensive player of the year. Almost overnight Bol found himself a star in his new country. He was recruited for product endorsement of fried chicken and athletic gear and was credited with increasing attendance at Bullets away games in every American city. In the Boston Globe Charles Kenney observed that Bol was “portrayed by the media as a man who grabbed hold of a jungle vine, let out a Tarzan whoop, and swung out of primitive times, forsaking loincloth, spear, and grass hut in favor of the jet age, America, and basketball.”
Those who know Bol best—other players and NBA coaches—offer a more realistic picture. Bol is from a culture that in fact champions many so-called “American” values: courage, pride in one’s heritage, and the accumulation of wealth. With his custom-built car and suburban townhouse, Bol has assimilated quickly and is still somewhat reluctant to speak about the political troubles in his homeland. On the basketball court he has never quite equalled the statistics of his starting season. Although he has gained in strength and poise over the years, he is still working at a disadvantage; Bol began playing basketball late and has never developed instinctive reactions to the game’s flow. He is also hampered by three clawed fingers on his right hand, a birth defect. Nevertheless, the athlete’s fantastic height and grim determination have made him a potent force in the NBA—first for the Bullets, then the Golden State Warriors, and most recently the Philadelphia 76ers.
Conditions in the Sudan have become desperate since Bol left in 1983. Rebels from the country’s south—including many Dinkas—have taken arms against the repressive tactics of the Arab-run government. Many of Bol’s family members have lost crops and cattle in government raids; he supports some forty relatives who live in cramped quarters in Khartoum. Bol himself cannot travel to the Sudan because he fears the government there might harm him. ’There are rumors I was helping the rebels,” Bol told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “They think I am sending food to the rebels. If I have anything to send, I send it to the hungry people, to help those people live.”
Bol has indeed become more outspoken on the plight of his Sudanese countrymen. A sizeable portion of his $1.3 million annual salary goes to family in Khartoum, Red Cross relief efforts, and to the Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Association in Silver Spring, Maryland. Still, he says, all he can send is not nearly enough. “I love to help,” he said, “but… food is very expensive. Sometimes, even if you have money for food you cannot buy it…. My people just sit there. There are no jobs.” Bol hopes that by speaking about the Sudan he can educate the American people—and the American government— about the needs of his homeland’s black citizens.
Before the situation in the Sudan became so dire, Bol married a Dinka woman for whom he paid eighty cows. Manute and Atong Bol have two children whom they plan to raise in America. Bol has often been the butt of jokes—comedian Woody Allen once quipped that Bol’s team “doesn’t bother taking him on the road. It just FAXes him from town to town”—but he has met the laughter with a quiet dignity and intelligence that inevitably win people over. He is very glad to be living in America, far from the war that has claimed the lives of so many of his kin. Asked what he might be doing now had he never left Africa, Bol speculated: “I might be in trouble. I might be dead. Nobody knows. I just thank God I’m not there anymore.”
Akron Beacon Journal, December 11, 1987.
Boston Globe, September 16, 1984; June 16, 1985; August 18, 1985; November 16, 1988.
Chicago Tribune, July 1, 1985.
Orlando Sentinel, October 16, 1985.
Philadelphia Daily News, January 11, 1985.
Philadelphia Inquirer, October 27, 1985; November 6, 1990.
San Jose Mercury News, December 18, 1988.
Washington Post, March 22, 1987.