The story goes that when he was growing up—figuratively not literally–Manute Bol killed a lion with a spear. That was one of the rites of manhood for members of the Dinka tribe in The Sudan. ‘Nute, as was often called by his teammates and members of the media throughout his 10-year NBA career, refused to confirm it or any other stories associated with his previous life.
It wasn’t that he was the least bit ashamed of any of it. More that this proud warrior didn’t like people making fun of his heritage or suggesting he was some kind of freak just because he stood 7-7 and was built like a string bean.
On the other hand, he was warm and friendly, with a terrific sense of humor, often liking to play practical jokes on people. Or having the tables turned, like the time Charles Barkley had him lift a series of serving dishes, the last one revealing growling teammate Rick Mahorn which startled ‘Nute.
That’s the lasting image I’ll have of Manute Bol, who died earlier today in a Virginia hospital, from a rare skin disease he contracted on one of his frequent missions home. Not only was he fascinating to cover, durinjg his three seasons with the Sixers in the early 90’s;, there was no pretense about him.
While ‘Nutie may have been almost cartoonish on the court, a pipe-cleaner figure in sneakers, who could block a shot without having to leave the floor, he knew his limitations. Yet there was also that part of him which delighted in launching shots from beyond the 3-point arc when opponents dared him to fire,
For the most part that was sound strategy, except for one night in Phoenix in 1993 when Bol did his Ray Allen imitation, knocking down 6 of 12 from behind the line against his pal Barkley’s Suns, flashing that unique grin with each trey.
That essentially proved to be his final season in Philadelphia, other than a four-game stint late the following year. He retired after being released the following November by Golden State, the other team where he’d made a name for himself before being traded to the Sixers in 1990.
Over the past 15 years Manute Bol continued to be an ambassador for his homeland, donating money to help his people, his ultimate goal to build a series of schools. He’d visit whenever possible, which wasn’t an easy proposition in a war-torn land, where he was viewed by some as a target rather than a hero.
As a result ‘Nute had to do much of his work from a distance, speaking out against the oppression back home and doing whatever possible to raise awareness of the situation. He also served on the advisory board of Sudan Sunrise, whose aim was to bring the warring parties to reconciliation.
It was in that capacity that he became ill, having returned from his final trip to The Sudan to Washington a month ago. According to most reports that’s where he contracted Stevens-Johnson Syndrome, a skin disorder which affects the kidneys.
Despite closely monitored treatment in the hospital Bol never recovered from the disease, which eventually took his life far too soon.
The name Manute means “special blessing’’ in the Dinka language, a term Bol often used with pride when talking about his height.
Well, `Nute, whom I last saw during NBA All-Star Weekend a few years ago, giving me that trademark smile and a hug, there’s only one thing I can say today.
Getting to know you, I was the one who was blessed.