As morning broke on the third day of his month-long clinic with the Sudanese national basketball team in the summer of 1982, Don Feeley, the coach at New Jersey's Fairleigh Dickinson University, stood on a scruff of hill in Khartoum and caught his first glimpse of Manute Bol. In the bright sun, Feeley watched Bol, all 7'6" of him, loom over the outdoor court like a giant exclamation mark.
"Who's that?" Feeley asked the other Sudanese players.
"That's Manute," they all chorused.
"Boys," said Feeley after a long pause, "from now on we're going to play a very different game."
It had taken Bol, a Dinka tribesman, six days by train to travel the 600 miles to Khartoum from his home village of Gogrial in the savanna country west of Sudan's vast, central swamp, the Sudd. Basketball was a relatively new game to Bol, who had been playing it for two years around Gogrial, but Feeley was struck by the way Bol could dunk while standing on tiptoes and touch both sides of the backboard simultaneously. "Manute [pronounced sort of like minute, as in tiny] had a six-foot wingspan," recalls Feeley. Probably because Bol distributed all that body on a mere 190-pound frame, Feeley's expectations for him were modest: "I thought of him more as the next Bill Russell than Wilt Chamberlain."
Feeley showed Bol which basket he should slam balls into and which basket to bat them away from. Now, Bol has it down pretty well. Since that fateful journey to Khartoum, he has followed the bouncing ball to Cleveland and Connecticut, where he's now a freshman at the University of Bridgeport. In his college debut on Nov. 19 he scored 20 points, had 20 rebounds and blocked six shots in a 75-63 victory over Stonehill College of North Easton, Mass. At the end of last week he was averaging 19.8 points, 16.5 rebounds and 8.5 blocks through four games, all of which Bridgeport had won.
Feeley returned from the Sudan, and after the 1982-83 season he was let go by FDU. So he steered Bol to Cleveland State, where Feeley's buddy, Kevin Mackey, was coach. But, like many Dinkas, Bol didn't know how to read or write, which made it difficult for him to meet the academic requirements necessary for basketball eligibility. So Feeley sent him to nearby Case Western to learn English. Bol, obviously a fast learner, soon knew his new language well enough to understand that at Division I schools, the NCAA docks a player one year of eligibility for every year he is over the age of 20. Although Bol's passport indicates he's 21, some doubt its veracity. No wonder: The same document lists his height as 5'2". Bol explains, "When they measured me, I was sitting down."
Feeley, who's looking for another coaching job, lives near Bridgeport and suggested Bol come East this fall. As a Division II team, Bridgeport isn't subject to the strict eligibility rules that Cleveland State is. Bol can play four years for the Purple Knights, and he can also continue studying English. Bridgeport is one of 21 schools in the U.S. that offer a program in English Language Skills.
Around the Bridgeport campus Bol was at first treated like a UFO. Reported sightings would be disbelieved until each astonished skeptic made his own observation. "I thought Coach [Bruce Webster] was joking when he said I was getting replaced by a 7'6" Dinka," says 6'4" junior Clarence Gordon, the Purple Knights' starting center last season. "Manute was sitting down when I met him, and then he got up and started to...unfold!"
Not since that old showman P.T. Barnum discovered Charles Stratton, a.k.a. Tom Thumb in Bridgeport in 1842 has a spectacle so astounded the local gentry. "When Manute walks into Famous Pizza, everyone stops eating," says Webster. "He's like E.F. Hutton."
If Bol is a sight in a pizza parlor with his knees propped up around his ears, you should see him in the university's Harvey Hubbell Gymnasium. He dribbles down the floor on spindly, Q-tip legs, massaging the ball with long, sleek fingers.
Bol has a watchful reserve and an imperious smile that's almost as thin as his frame. He speaks proudly in Dinka and Arabic as well as his improving English, and from a great height, his head thrown back for a better view of the ceiling. Bol doesn't do much he doesn't want to do, but his teammates say that if they cajole him and treat him with respect, they couldn't have a better friend.
He tends to show the same disdain for strangers that Dinka herdsmen display toward the 60 or so species of mosquitoes that inhabit the Sudd. "Getting Manute to give an interview," says Webster, "can be like pulling teeth." Which would not be easy with Bol, who is missing 15 choppers. He sacrificed four or five in a tribal ritual that marked his passage to manhood at age 14. And he lost a few more four years ago in his passage from backcourt to frontcourt. "The first stuff I ever try," he recalls, "the ball go slam-dunk! in the basket." And his front teeth went bam thunk! on the rim.
Bol got his first face job at 14. In a sort of Dinka Bar Mitzvah, an elder carved three lines across his forehead. The English translation of Manute is Only Son, and indeed he's the only son of Madot and Abouk Bol. But back home some of his friends still call him Raan Cheg. That's a Dinka joke. Raan Cheg means "short stuff."
Sudan is the biggest country in Africa, about one-third the size of the continental U.S. From the harsh desert that borders Egypt in the north, it runs through desolate stretches of scrub and grassland to the marshy waters of the Sudd and then to the green uplands along its southern border with Uganda. Before Bol began playing hoops, he had led the traditional life of a seminomadic Dinka herdsman. In summer, when the White Nile-fed Sudd would flood to the size of Maine, he would take his cattle to the higher ground of his village. He would also head for the swamp during the winter drought. The nearest city was Wau (pronounced wow), which, according to Bol, resembles Bridgeport. "Both have trees," he says.
Giraffes used to trample Abouk Bol's vegetable garden, but Manute was more concerned about the lions and hyenas that pounced on his father's cattle. The Dinkas revere cattle: They sing their praises in songs, drink their milk and blood, trade them for wives and other essentials, and warm themselves by burning cattle dung. "I protected the cows by talking," Bol says. "Lions would not attack if they heard my voice." Or maybe they were surprised to hear the voice coming out of a mouth that was seven feet in the air. Actually, in the Bol family, 7'6" is not all that outstanding: Ma Bol was 6'10" and Pa Bol was 6'8". Grandpa Bol Chol, chief of the Thwig tribe, is said to have been 7'10", but he was born too early to be discovered by American hoop recruiters. Bol's sister, also named Abouk, who has never seen a basketball, is back home tending his 150 cattle. She's 6'8".
What Bol says he misses most about Sudan is the milk.
"American milk, plecchh!" he roars ruefully. "Pasteurization! Homogenization! Skim! White! Tree milk!"
Lately, Bridgeport has been milking this tree for all he's worth. Despite the fact that the Purple Knights had a losing record the last two years, they're now talking national title. Normally, Bridgeport can't even sell out its annual game with archrival Sacred Heart. Now there isn't an empty seat for an intrasquad scrimmage. Nearly 1,800 fans jammed Hubbell Gym for the home opener. To paraphrase Jimmy Durante, they came to see the Dinka dunker do.
And dunk he did. He showed a splendid sky hook, a fabulous fadeaway hook and stuffed more baskets than an old Connecticut River tobacco farmer. "You can't zone or zone-trap Bol," moaned Stonehill coach Ray Pepin after the Chieftains' loss. "We should have stuck our 5'8" point guard on the shoulders of our 6'6" center."
Feeley had been so high on Bol that he talked another friend, Jimmy Lynam, coach of the Los Angeles Clippers, into picking Bol in the fifth round of the 1983 NBA draft, sight-unseen. The NBA voided the pick because Bol was under the legal draft age of 22 for foreigners who haven't attended college. "Manute's problem is that he lacks stamina and endurance," says Lynam, who later scouted Bol and insists he's 7'7". "He needs body strength and body weight."
Bol could stand to put another 30 to 100 pounds on his frame. But then this is a fellow whose life has been marked more by abstinence than excess. As a teenager, he once subsisted for four months on milk. Bol now inhales pizza, spaghetti and chicken, and quaffs a few cans of Nutrament a day. And Webster has him on the same sort of weight program that Ralph Sampson did at Virginia.
Webster is understandably euphoric. "In my wildest dreams, I wouldn't have even asked for a guy seven-six," he muses. "I'd say, 'Just give me somebody six-nine or six-ten.'
"I mean, why be a hog?"
Bol dunks on tiptoes and spreads his ample wings across the board.
Bol needs more than a tall drink of milk to add some meat to his 190-pound frame.