Update 6/19/10: I am terribly saddened to have to update this post, which was originally written on 5/20/10.
One of my favorite basketball players of all time – and, in truth, one of my favorite people – passed away today. Manute Bol, who spent his life using his God-given gifts to benefit his war-torn homeland of Sudan, died today at age 47 from complications arising from acute kidney failure and Stevens-Johnson syndrome.
I am recycling this post back to MSF’s home page in honor of Bol. Watch the documentary embedded below. It is a great testament to what a wonderful man Manute Bol was.
Rest in peace Manute. I can say something about you that I hope someone can someday say about me: this world is a better place because you were in it.
One of the hottest stories in the sports world this morning is Floyd Landis’ admission that he used performance enhancing drugs for most of his cycling career. While we can, on some level, applaud Landis for coming forward, this story mostly serves as a reminder of everything that is wrong with sports.
Another story, one that is getting far less national media play, serves as a reminder of everything that is good, and right, and altruistic about sports and the men who play them.
Sadly, said story revolves around the exigent health circumstances of former NBA player Manute Bol, who is currently being hospitalized with kidney failure and Stevens-Johnson Syndrome, a skin disorder (possibly caused by kidney medication) that left the skin around his mouth so sore that Bol could not eat for 11 days.
Most people know Bol for the shot blocking prowess that was a natural byproduct of his massive height. What not enough people know is how Bol – in an era defined by many apolitical, self-serving sports heroes – used his celebrity and income as an America sports figure to help out his civil war ravaged homeland, the Sudan.
The following series of videos, entitled “Basketball Warrior” provides some background on the Sudanese culture, the problems the nation faces, and how Bol found basketball and used it as a way to make a difference.
These quotes from Bol himself, which you can see in the second video, are as telling as any:
It was 1991. This was the first time I had seen Sudan on TV and I saw it, the Sudan government were killing my people. I say no. This cannot be right. I have to do something, you know? I decided to be a fighter. I feel I made a lot of money. I should give it back to my people.
Video: Manute Bol – Basketball Warrior
What an amazing story huh?
We know Bol here in the United States for his career as a basketball player, but the impact he had on the court pales in comparison to the importance of what he’s tried to do off of it. Of course, so much of what Bol has tried to do he’s done as a result of the influence and resources he gained playing basketball.
If you are at least a semi-serious basketball fan, you probably know that Manute Bol, the first African-born player drafted by the NBA, stood 7’7 and is one of the tallest players in the history of the NBA. Because of this height he was a natural shot blocker who averaged 3.3 blocked shots per game for his career, despite logging only 18.7 minutes per game.
Bol is also rail thin, listed at a mere 200 lbs during his playing days, which is not very much when stretched over 90 inches of human body. Like many tall and extremely thin basketball players, this lack of girth and strength negatively impacted Bol’s ability to have much impact on the offensive end of the floor.
He was at least able to compensate a little bit by stepping out for the occasional 3-pointer. Bol wasn’t Dirk Nowitzi by any means, but he did make 43 3’s in 205 attempts during his career (21%). On the old NBA highlight videos I used to watch when I was a kid they would always show Bol and his tall, gangly body grab the ball behind the arc and launch it with his overhead release. It would hurtle towards the basket for what you expected to be a brick…but it would go in.
Because of his height and specialized skill set, Manute Bol was one of the most unique players to ever wear an NBA uniform; and he wore many. Bol’s career spanned stints with Washington (twice, when they were the Bullets), Golden State (twice), Philadelphia (twice), and Miami.
What truly made Manute Bol stand out though was not his height; rather, it was the humanitarian side of him that made you believe every effort he gave as a basketball player was meant to serve a higher cause and purpose. For Bol, that cause was trying to do whatever he could do to support the poor, destitute nation he was from.
For example, Bol started the Ring True Foundation in an effort to deliver aid to his poor countrymen. Most of the $3.5 million Bol made playing basketball went to support Ring True. Bol also used his celebrity and peoples’ curiosity with his size to make extra money after his playing career was over. There was the celebrity boxing match with The Fridge as well as the time he suited up for the Indianapolis Ice of the Central Hockey League. In both cases the money he made went back to the Sudan.
Bol also has been active politically in the Sudan, hoping to affect change that will improve conditions in the country.
Because of his celebrity in the Sudan, where is cheered as a hero by so many, the Sudanese government once attempted to give Bol an official position. Sudan’s government, however, is based in Islam and Bol refused the position because of the precondition that he convert from Christianity. Not coincidentally, Bol was later not allowed to leave the country by the Sudanese government, and it took the concerted efforts of people in the United States – including Senator Joe Lieberman – to negotiate Bol’s release back to the U.S.
In recent years, Bol has remained active in delivering aid to the Sudan and in building awareness for the horrific living conditions faced by so many. He was involved in the Sudan Freedom Walk, an event aimed at bringing awareness to human rights violations in the Sudan. Bol also runs a basketball camp in nearby Cairo, Egypt. One of his former pupils at the camp is Luol Deng, who currently plays for Chicago Bulls.
Unfortunately, this kind and committed man now lies ailing in a Virginia hospital, unable not only to continue his current work with the Sudan Sunrise project, but also unable to see his recently newborn daughter.
Bol became ill after returning from several months in the Sudan working on the Sunrise project that is helping to build schools in the Sudan. He had been asked to stay longer than planned so that he could help out with the country’s recently held elections. Despite the impending the birth of his daughter and a bunch of speaking engagements he had lined up, Bol stayed to do his part to help prevent electoral corruption.
This quote from Bol’s friend Tom Prichard, who has been working with Bol on the Sudan Sunrise project, seems to sums up Manute Bol:
Prichard said Bol is on morphine and in terrible pain, but is able to talk with visitors and seems to be stabilizing.
“He’s pleased that he accomplished what he was so determined to do in Sudan,” Prichard said. “He was fighting with every bit of his strength to try to keep Southern Sudan on course towards a referendum in January of next year. … It put him right on the edge of survival, and he made it.”
Manute Bol has seemingly always fought with every bit of his strength to make the Sudan a better place for the people that he left behind – but certainly never forgot – when he moved to the United States. In fact, Bol never really left the Sudan behind. He clearly carried the burden of his nation’s plight during every step along his path to the NBA and, much like Dikembe Mutombo after him, used his God-given height to play a game that would pay him well and afford him the opportunity to make a difference on a contient that so desperately needs difference makers.
This good, decent man now lays ill, undoubtedly wanting nothing more than to see his wife and kids and get back to his life’s work of helping his homeland. He is, quite thankfully, expected to survive, and hopefully he is able to do so soon and at full strength .
In an era when it’s often easier to identify the narcissism and greed of so many of the athletes who play the sports we love, this generous giant chose a different path. Manute Bol was always unique for an athlete; the most amazing thing is that his height was perhaps the least significant of the reasons why.
Update 5/31: Here is the latest on Manute Bol, who is sadly still in the same Virginia hospital bed but still expected to make a full recovery. Sam Mellinger of the Kansas City Star wrote a very update on Bol with more details of his good deeds, including when he was once fined by the Miami Heat for missing two preseason games….to go to New York to help broker peace in Sudan.
To close, here are a few YouTube videos showing some of the most memorable moments from Manute Bol’s playing career:
Video: Charles Barkley Pranks Manute Bol
Video: Manute Bol Mix
Video: Manute Bol Shot Blocker and 3 Point Marksman
* – Manute Bol close up photo credit: AP via The Examiner
* – Manute Bol and Dr. J photo credit: Free Republic