Phil Jasner: Remembering the best of times with former NBA player Manute Bol

Former 76er Manute Bol, here guarding Patrick Ewing in 1973, was popular with teammates and opposing players.
Former 76er Manute Bol, here guarding Patrick Ewing in 1973, was popular with teammates and opposing players.
Posted: June 21, 2010

SOME PEOPLE said Manute Bol was 7-6. Most said he was 7-7. All I know is that he was and always will be bigger than life.

The former 76ers center - a renowned freedom fighter for his native Sudan - died of kidney problems and a rare skin disease Saturday in Charlottesville, Va. He was reported to be 47.

And that's part of the magic, the charisma, the lore of the Dinka tribesman. Some of what we know about him is fact, some is legend, stories told through the years. There are times when it's virtually impossible to separate fact from legend, and all you can do is laugh. Which is what Bol always did. He would tell stories, set up pranks, be the subject of pranks, then laugh. Invariably, he would laugh with you.

I was in the old Salt Palace in Salt Lake City when Bol, then a Sixer, stepped in to jump center against Mark Eaton, the Utah Jazz' massive 7-4 center.

"Man, you are big," Eaton said.

"No mon," Bol said in that hard-to-describe twang of his. "You are big. I am just tall."

I was in the Sixers' locker room at Saint Joseph's, then the team's practice site, when Bol giddily picked up a colleague's briefcase and hung it from a water pipe along the ceiling, leaving it several inches out of my colleague's reach. I remember the look of anguish on my colleague's face, then the subsequent sigh of relief when a 6-10 teammate of Bol's stepped out of the shower and volunteered to help.

Jim Lynam, then a rookie head coach with the then-San Diego Clippers, tried to draft Bol in the second round in 1983. Don Feeley, a former coach at Sacred Heart, had been in Sudan working for the U.S. State Department and helping as an assistant with the Sudanese national team and had seen Bol.

"He said they kept telling him about the big guy from the bush," Lynam recalled. "He had never seen him. Then, one day, the door opened and in stepped what he said was 'the biggest guy he ever saw.' ''

The Clippers' management told Lynam they wouldn't "waste" a second-round pick on this guy. Lynam waited until the fifth round. But the NBA wouldn't allow the pick. The executives overseeing the draft had never heard of Manute Bol.

Bol's passport said he was 21, but somebody somewhere came up with information that the age was incorrect. And under Bol's passport photo, it said he was 5-7.

"He said, 'They took my picture when I was sitting down,' '' Lynam recalled.

Bol landed at an English language center at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, played a year at Division II Bridgeport, spent a season in the United States Basketball League, then finally joined the then-Washington Bullets as a second-round pick in 1985.

"We were afraid for him, with his lack of weight [about 205 pounds]," then-Bullets assistant Fred Carter said. "Instead, he blocked shots with such ferocity that he had an advantage."

Carter also recalled that, because of Bol's height, in most hotel rooms he had to get on his knees to wash his face and brush his teeth. To sleep reasonably comfortably, Bol would place two single beds end-to-end. One year, at the Sixers' training camp in Lancaster, the team ordered a specially sized bed for him.

He bounced to the Golden State Warriors in 1988, then came to the Sixers in '90.

I wanted the first interview with him as a Sixer, and Frank Catapano, his New England-based agent, gave me a phone number in Egypt. My son insists that I located Bol in a hut; I just know that the phone line was scratchy and that Bol was difficult to understand from thousands of miles away. But I got what I wanted.

So what is fact and what is legend?

I have read that Bol was born in a village in a remote part of Sudan, where civil war had left millions dead. His grandfather, Bol Chol, was said to stand 7-10; he was also said to have been a powerful chieftan with 40 wives. Manute's father, Madute, was said to have been 6-8 and had seven wives and a large herd of cattle, a sign of wealth. When Manute joined his first basketball team, he was said to have walked 3 days from his village to take part.

When Manute married his second wife, he was said to have paid 150 cows for her. He reveled in telling NBA teammates and friends about how he had killed a lion with a spear.

"He was a unique guy," said Jeff Ruland, a teammate with the Bullets. "Like me, he had a great sense of humor. But he was also very caring. He would give you the shirt off his back. I got him as a rookie, and one night I took him to see an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie called 'Commando.' The rest of the season, he called me 'Commando.'

"He told me he had killed a lion with a spear, and I said, 'You probably killed it with one of your free throws.' We laughed a lot, but he had a lot of grief in his life, and he did a lot of good for his people."

He was a specialist in the NBA. He didn't have a lot of skill, but he could block and intimidate shots. He averaged five blocks as a rookie and, in the course of his career, once blocked 11 shots in a half, eight in a quarter. In a game against the Orlando Magic, he rejected four successive shots.

And, amazingly, he loved taking threes. He was an astounding 20-for-91 with the Warriors in '88-89, and playing for the Sixers in '92-93 knocked down six of 12 in the second half of a loss to the Phoenix Suns. He finished his career with 1,599 points, 2,647 rebounds and 2,086 blocks.

Bol would donate virtually all of his salary to the rebel movement in Sudan, and to feed the hungry there. He would make personal appearances, then donate his fee. He beat the Chicago Bears' legendary William "Refrigerator" Perry in a celebrity boxing bout. He signed a 1-day contract with a minor league hockey team in Indianapolis, even though he could not skate.

"He was a great person who enjoyed life," said Rick Mahorn, Bol's teammate with the Sixers. "He was proud of his heritage, very confident in his size. He enjoyed being with people who were honest and truthful. When he told me about killing the lion, I told him it must have already been an old, dead lion. But if he took it, he could dish it out as well."

I can remember days at St. Joe's when Charles Barkley or Mahorn would come rushing out of the locker room, a barefoot Bol chasing them, hurling his sneakers at them. I never really knew what went on to precipitate those scenes.

I do know that the first time he stepped into the shower room at St. Joe's, his teammates dubbed him with a nickname that I can't repeat here.

Ruland wondered about Bol's age.

"I always thought he put down a lower number so he could play more years," Ruland said. "For all I know, he could have been 70 when he died."

Mahorn viewed Bol's passing as "a sad moment."

"He was a good player, a good friend," Mahorn said. "And once you were his friend, you were always his friend. That's just how he was. Every moment with him was just fun, but he was a soldier, proud of who he was, trying to help everybody around him."

Send e-mail to jasnerp@phillynews.com

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