Unusual for a man with a broken neck, a broken left wrist, a shattered left kneecap, a massive head wound, manifold internal injuries and a hole in his neck you could fit your fist into, Manute Bol feels fortune-kissed. "It's a miracle," he says. "God did good. If He had broken these legs, I'd have big problems."
Those legs, with their 48-inch inseam, scarcely make a ripple beneath his hospital bedsheets, from which the rest of Bol's body--215 pounds on a 7'7" frame--emerges like a wisp of smoke. "I was down to 205," says Bol, horizontal in his nine-foot bed.
The Dinka Dunker has been hospitalized since a car accident on June 30, when he was pitched from a taxicab onto a Connecticut highway. "In all the time since," says his friend Drew Kearns, "I've never seen him in a bad mood."
On the contrary, Bol feels blessed, saved by God and American ingenuity. Found near death on Route 2 in Colchester, strapped by paramedics to two body boards held together end to end by duct tape, Bol was flown by Life Star helicopter to Hartford Hospital. "If this accident happened anyplace but America," says the native of Sudan, "I wouldn't be talking to you." He is thankful that he can walk, however slowly, down a hospital hallway.
Arthritic knees leave Bol incapable of driving, so he often rearranges his body, like a folding ruler, to fit into a cab. On the night of the accident, after leaving a Connecticut Sun WNBA game, he found himself in a taxi chauffeured by Neville Robinson. Unbeknownst to Bol, the 48-year-old Robinson was driving without a license, which had been suspended after a drunken-driving arrest. While Bol dozed in the backseat, Robinson--according to a preliminary report by Connecticut state police--struck a median guardrail and careened into a rock ledge. He and Bol were ejected when the car apparently cartwheeled. Robinson, who was legally intoxicated, died at the scene. "Should I be mad at someone who's dead?" says Bol. "No, I cannot be."
Some 50,000 of Bol's fellow non-Arab Africans in Sudan have died in the last 18 months, many at the hands of government-sponsored Arab militiamen, in a war that is two decades old. And yet Bol speaks as if he's won life's lotto. "If I didn't play in the NBA," says Bol, "maybe I would be killed in that war." Thus he's given his life savings--his salary averaged $1.5 million during his 10-year NBA career--to his countrymen.
"Manute always felt like the money he made wasn't his," says Chris Mullin, Bol's friend and former teammate with the Golden State Warriors. "He thought it belonged to his country."
"God guided me to America and gave me a good job," says Bol. "But he also gave me a heart, so I would look back."
Indeed, Bol pummeled William (the Refrigerator) Perry on Fox's Celebrity Boxing not for the national ridicule, of which there was plenty, but rather for the $35,000 fee, which he quietly donated to a fund for Sudanese orphans. "A lot of people love themselves and no one else," says Bol, recumbent in the Hospital for Special Care in New Britain, Conn. "I didn't throw my money away. I did good things with it."
Which leaves Bol broke, bereft of health insurance and unable to pay his colossal hospital bill. He cannot collect his NBA pension (of $24,000 a year) until he turns 45 in 2007. "He's in real dire straits," says Bol's lawyer, Michael Jainchill. "Cab companies in Connecticut are only required to carry very limited liability coverage, which isn't going to be nearly enough for poor Manute." (Donations can be sent to the Manute Bol Medical & Special Needs Fund, c/o Fleet Bank, 4 N. Main St., West Hartford, Conn., 06107.)
Of his former NBA teammates, Bol says he has heard only from Mullin, for whom Manute named his 13-year-old son, Chris. Mullin, now a Warriors executive, will headline a fantasy basketball camp next month in Oakland. (A few openings remain, at $5,000 apiece; details are at warriors.com.) The money raised will put a small dent in the large bill of a very tall man.
"I met Manute through my little brother, who played with him in college [at Bridgeport]," says the Brooklyn-raised Mullin. "He slept at my parents' house on Troy Avenue. These weren't the biggest houses. Manute would sleep in the living room. His head was in the living room--his feet were in the kitchen."
"Chris would take me to an Irish bar with no seats," recalls Bol. "I think the Irish, they don't like to sit."
A continent away in California, Mullin says fondly, "Manute's a guy I think about a lot. And worry about."
Bol is asked to describe his own worries. He is scheduled to leave the hospital this week to continue his convalescence at home. And so he says after a silence, "When you are in a hospital for a long time, you get a big bill, and I don't know how that bill will be paid. That does worry me."
With his 125-inch reach, Bol has spent a lifetime touching people without them ever touching back. Maybe this time, someone will.
For a collection of Steve Rushin's columns, go to si.com/writers.
"If this accident happened anyplace but America," says Manute Bol from his hospital bed, "I wouldn't be talking to you."