Bol dies as basketball’s gentle giant

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At 7-foot-7, Manute Bol towered over the NBA for 10 seasons from 1985-94

Packed small college gym on a cold winter night in ’85, and a friend’s father had driven us to campus to see Manute Bol for ourselves. No one had ever seen such a sight on the basketball court, arms and legs that went on forever, rising and rising until they reached a narrow face with such uncertain eyes. Plopped across the world, here was Bol, a 7-foot-7 center out of the Sudan, out of your wildest imagination.

Near the end of the night, Bol had obliterated a muscular, undersized Division II center who had spent the night throwing elbows into his kidneys and chest. As Bol watched the final minute, we walked slowly behind the University of Bridgeport’s bench and some kid stopped a few feet from him and said loudly enough for Bol to hear: “Is he real? Can I touch him?”

I’ll never forget Bol glancing back toward him, his sad, soft eyes delivering an answer to a question that no one ever needed to ask. Basketball has never had a truer humanitarian, a most gregarious and generous gentleman. His life was an inspiration, heroic and ultimately tragic. Bol died on Saturday at age 47 in a Virginia hospital, and the wire report says he lost out to kidney disease and a painful skin condition.

“A beautiful man, someone you would never stop laughing with,” Jeff Ruland said by phone Saturday afternoon. Ruland had been a veteran when Bol arrived as a rookie with the Washington Bullets in ’85, and they had stayed in close contact through the years. “He always talked about how he had killed a lion with a spear in the Sudan, but I was always pretty sure he had done it with one of his free throws,” Ruland said.

Bol had planned to spend his life selling cows in the Sudan until one day he picked up a basketball, lurched to try to dunk and knocked out his front teeth. An improbable chain of circumstance and good fortune led him from the Sudan to the United States, from Cleveland State to the University of Bridgeport, from the Rhode Island Gulls of the United States Basketball League to a most improbable 10 seasons in the NBA.

Between funding Sudanese freedom fighters, children’s charities and a vice of casino gambling, Bol lost the several million dollars that he earned in the pros.

“He gave a lot of money away and he lost a lot gambling, too,” Ruland said. “If that guy didn’t have bad luck, he wouldn’t have any at all. Once, his ex-wife won a million dollars on the slot machines.”

After Sept. 11, 2001, Bol struggled to raise money for his Sudanese charities and let people make a mockery of a proud man. In exchange for donations, Bol wobbled on skates for a minor league hockey team and traded punches in televised celebrity boxing events. “My God, they’ve turned him into a circus act,” John Nash, the old Washington Bullets general manager, once told me.

To Bol, the only shame would be an unwillingness to use whatever means available to raise money and send it home. No, nothing was ever easy for him, except that laugh and a sweet, sweet disposition.

Still, it just seemed he could never catch a break. Six years ago, Bol made the mistake of climbing into the taxi cab of an unlicensed and drunk driver. The car crashed, Bol was thrown from the back seat and eventually lay for months in a hospital bed with a broken neck. Ruland and old friends would go visit him, and Manute Bol could still light up the room. Everything about Manute Bol – from those spindly arms and legs unfolding 7 feet, 7 inches, to his incredible story – was bigger than life.

“One of a kind,” Ruland said Saturday afternoon. “Never another like him.”