The voice at one end of the telephone belonged to Jimmy Lynam, who was the new coach of the Clippers. The voice at the other end of the phone belonged to high school basketball authority Howard Garfinkel, founder of the Five Star camps, who was seated at the team's table at the headquarters for the 1983 NBA draft in New York City. The subject of the conversation was the Clippers' pick in the fifth round.
"We pick Manute Bol," Lynam told Garfinkel. "That's M-a-n-u-t-e."
"What's his first name?" Garfinkel asked.
"That is his first name. His second name is Bol. That's B-o-l."
"Never heard of him. Where's he from?"
"Never heard of it. What kind of school is that?"
"It's not a school. It's a country."
"Never heard of it."
This was the beginning. A fable would unfold—the tale of this 7'7" Dinka tribesman from the Sudanese jungle who would play 10 improbable years in the NBA, then become known for his great humanitarian spirit before he died last Saturday at the announced age of 47 in a Virginia hospital due to complications from kidney disease—but this was before all that, back when he was a surprise, a question, a doodle come to life from a cocktail napkin.
He was tall. Inordinately tall. This was his passport, his golden credit card that would take him from the stone-age simplicity of loincloths and spears, from lions walking through the bush, to the accelerated big-city civilization of the late 20th century. His height made him valuable. Sight unseen. "I'd grown up in Philadelphia when Wilt Chamberlain was in high school there," Lynam said. "He was just God. Tall as he was, he could do anything he wanted."
Chamberlain was 7'1". Bol was six inches taller. He had been in the United States now for less than a month. Four years earlier he had never heard of basketball, the NBA or even the USA. Height was height. Lynam picked him despite never having seen him play. "Here's the thing: The NBA rejected the pick on some technicalities," Lynam said. "They said that Manute hadn't filed to enter the draft. And they said that he was too young. Here's the thing ... the NBA used his passport to say that he was only 19 years old. His passport also said he was five feet two. Manute said he was sitting down when he was measured."
College basketball became Bol's next goal. That June, Cleveland State coach Kevin Mackey sent him to an instructor in English as a second language at Case Western Reserve.
"He was starting from ground zero, not only in English, but in 20th-century culture," the instructor, Arleen Bialic, said. "He couldn't use a telephone. He couldn't operate a Coke machine. He didn't even know how to hold a pencil, never had done it."
The lessons stretched through the next year. The basketball became much better—Bol scrimmaged in Cleveland with NBA players such as Charles Oakley, Ron Harper, Mark West, John Bagley—but the English was still not ready for the ACT or SATs. Bol spoke the language of basketball ("my bad," "get that stuff out of my house") and American quiz shows ("come on down!"), but those weren't phrases on the tests.
He wound up at Division II Bridgeport for a raucous, shot-blocking season in which he was allowed to take exams orally and he compiled a 2.8 grade point average. He was a sensation wherever he went. He returned, legally this time, to the 1985 NBA draft. He was selected in the second round by the Bullets.
"He screws up the game more than anyone I've ever seen," Washington general manager Bob Ferry said after watching Bol block Bill Walton's jump shot and disrupt the Celtics. "He throws everybody out of synch."
He continued to throw people out of synch for the next 10 years. Never a star, he always was a curiosity, an attraction. He played 624 games for four teams, averaged 2.6 points, 3.3 blocked shots and 4.2 rebounds. Tied to his Dinka tribe and its troubles in the Sudan throughout his career, he always tried to raise money for his many relatives and friends and did not cease calling attention to the starvation and suffering of a never-ending civil war.
He became even more involved after his retirement in 1994. At the time of his death he was working with a group in Kansas City called Sudan Sunrise, trying to build 41 schools.
"I am never bothered by the fact that I am tall," he once said. "When I was younger, I was bothered, but not now. My height is a gift from God. That is what I say. I did not create it. You have to live with what you are given. Who knows what God is dreaming for us? There is a reason. Look at what he has dreamed for me."
Leigh Montville was an SI senior writer from 1986 to 2001. His book Manute: The Center of Two Worlds was published in 1993.
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He was tall. INORDINATELY TALL. This was his passport to the big city civilization of the late 20th century.
ILLUSTRATION BY DARROW