The real story of Manute Bol

August, 5, 2011
8/05/11
12:51
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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Fresh off my summer vacation, I wrote this big ol' TrueHoop post about Keith Richards.

The gist of it was that players, journalists, the league, and the forces that be unconsciously collaborate to tell us a fraction of the NBA's real deal stories. Stories with controversial, dangerous or edgy aspects just don't get told, either because they're hard to tell or because there's a shortage of will to tell them.

The lesson of Richards, and his newish book "Life," however, is to demonstrate that even if you've done some truly hairy stuff (and trust me, he has done some truly hairy stuff) in the right circumstances you can be frank as hell about a lot of that, in defiance of common thinking, and people will love you for it.

There's no reason, in 2011, to believe young, mostly black NBA players could enjoy all the leeway of an old, white rock legend. But the players have more leeway, I argue, than most of them use.

Charles Barkley is walking (or, talking) proof that there's a way to be both frank as hell and beloved.

Since publishing that Richards post, I have come across several mini-examples of what I'm talking about, and one huge one: Manute Bol.

As an NBA legend, the prematurely deceased Bol is -- in the NBA version of his life story -- something of a goofy footnote. The 7-7 stringbean who, legend has it, killed a lion in his youth (somewhere in Africa) and, more importantly, spent a time in Washington as the tallest player in NBA history playing alongside the shortest, Muggsy Bogues. A lot of Bol's income, during and after his playing days, came from his value as a curio -- not unlike a circus freak. He was just so tall.

And in the NBA, that's basically the story. But it was nothing like the real story, which has now been told in a must-read account by Jordan Conn for the Atavist. Conn's painstaking work, based on extensive time in the Sudan, tells of a far more fascinating, important, likable and fallible human than NBA fans ever got a chance to know.

Of course, he wasn't really a clown. He was a complex human who loved Heineken and gambling, but was also a key figure in his nation's history, determined to do whatever he could to heal the broken heart of what was southern Sudan and is now, in some part because of the efforts of Bol, the independent nation of South Sudan.

In 1988, when he was averaging about seven blocks per 36 minutes for the Bullets, slaughters like we would later hear about in Darfur had been underway for years in Bol's home region of Sudan. As one of his country's most famous and rich men, he had long been preaching tolerance and peace to all sides, thinking the best move was to avoid taking sides and encouraging more fighting.

But the killing just rolled on. Conn says Bol later estimated that 250 of his own family members were either killed, sold into slavery, or starved to death. The sports section can barely carry the weight of this story. In trying to prevent all that, things grew complicated. Conn writes:
Because he was a star, Bol's phone rang often, bringing praise or requests, introducing him to people eager to be helped by his fame. And because he was a star, Bol was often unfit to answer the phone in the mornings -- another night out, another few rounds of Heineken or Beck's. Bol hated mornings. If a fan approached him at night or even in the afternoon, he would offer a smile, even grinning through jokes about his height if he was in the right mood. His natural friendliness was a source of pride, and he'd worked hard to become a cult figure and fan favorite, shaking hands and signing autographs. Mornings, however, were different. "At that time we flew commercial, so we always had to get up the morning after a game and go to the airport," says Hersey Hawkins, a former teammate. "People would always come up and want to talk to him, saying things like 'How does it feel to be so tall?' and he'd just say, 'Go away' and grumble something like, 'Stupid Americans.' We always laughed when people walked up to him, because we knew what was coming."

But early one morning late in 1988, Bol's phone rang persistently enough that he was forced to get up and answer it. He was grumpy, but he listened to the voice on the other end. The man on the phone spoke Dinka, the native tongue that Bol used at home and with the other southern Sudanese who were scattered around the States. But most of them knew not to call so early, and in those days, calls from Sudan itself were rare. The charges were too expensive, the chances to use a phone too scarce.

Dinka or not, Bol had no patience for a man who'd dare interrupt his sleep. "Why are you calling me so early!" Bol yelled. "Don't you know that I am sleeping?" The man on the other end was unsympathetic. He'd called because militias were sweeping through southern Sudan, leaving villages burned and children orphaned, terrorizing anyone who stood in their way. "You are sleeping?" he fired back. "While you are sleeping our people are dying!"

Bol hung up, furious. Several weeks later, the man -- a representative of the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement, the southern Sudanese rebels --visited the Bay Area while traveling through the U.S. to gain support for his cause. When the caller arrived, Bol's cousin Nicola, whose family lived with Bol in Alameda, warned the man not to mention the phone conversation. And when the two met in person, Bol started coming around. He liked this guy -- liked his passion, his ideas. It took a little convincing, but eventually the SPLM rep prevailed. It was time, Bol decided, to join the fight.

And here's where the story gets really interesting. As Bol was in Washington, this comedic cartoon of height, he was holding regular war strategy sessions in his basement. Thanks to his bankroll and his connections, Bol quickly became "John Garang's man in Washington." Garang, the head of the SPLM, would go on to become Sudanese vice president. But in the 1980s he would spend a lot of time with guards standing outside, looking for spies or terrorists, huddled in Bol's basement. Bol would reportedly contribute $3.5 million to Garang's SPLM, and in the offseason, Bol accompanied Garang on secret trips to the war zone, to see his investment in action.

It is well worth reading Conn's entire account to get a sense of the mixed bag that resulted from all that. As something of a happy ending, however, comes the story of Bol in Spring 2010. On his last night in Sudan before a flight back to the States, he drank wine with Salva Kiir Mayardit, who is now the president of South Sudan.

They spoke of upcoming elections, which both believed held the key to South Sudan's eventual independence. An inspired Bol ignored his arthritis, and his scheduled flight to the U.S., and hit the campaign trail. His health declined, traveling rough roads, but he went village to village all the same. "Handlers would carry him from the car and place him in a chair under a tree, where he would sit and wait for the villagers to arrive," writes Conn. "Then he'd offer a charge, urging the onlookers to push their country forward, to vote for the party that had brought southern Sudan to this, her highest point in modern history."

On and on he traveled, making his case. In April, the elections proved his campaigning well worthwhile -- SPLM candidates rolled to victory, which set the state for South Sudan to become the earth's newest nation in July 2011.

But Bol was not there to see the birth of his nation. Feeling incredibly weak coming off the campaign trail, Bol set out for Kansas City for treatment of various ailments. He connected through Washington D.C. -- the city where he first became famous to a basketball audience -- too late for the last Kansas City connection and checked into a hotel.

In the morning, too feeble to fly, Bol was rushed to an emergency room. In June 2010, in suburban Washington, Bol died of kidney failure and other complications, not long after telling a friend "I did it, I did it," in discussing the recent elections.

Knowing this more complete, no-holds-barred version of the story Conn has masterfully assembled, it's easy to see why the speakers at his funeral (see the quotes here) called him things like "no ordinary man," "a messenger ... sent to do something in this world," who spent his time "reconciling warring groups" and "gave his life for his country." The gritty story of his life explains all of that.

Meanwhile, the simplified version, of Bol as a buffoon, was not just incomplete, but false.

Of all his accomplishments, the story that made it through to most sports audiences, the easy-to-grasp one about killing the lion ... Conn reports that Bol told one of his closest friends that he had simply made that one up.

Henry Abbott | email

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