Manute Bol died today at 47. In 2006, Rick Chandler caught up with him as he worked to bring relief to his native Sudan. "How can I stay in America and live a good life," Bol asked, "when my people are suffering?"
We tend to be pretty jokey around here (so that you don't have to), but every once and a while an athlete will pop up and exhibit enough true character and bravery out in the real world to kind of mess with our equilibrium. Manute Bol is such a guy. Perhaps most famous for being the only NBA player who could peer into second story windows — plus there was that goofy-ass 3-point shooting style — the 7-foot-7 former Dinka tribesman became a star in the NBA without really ever being a starter, carving out an 11-year pro career with four teams.
By now you know the legend — how, at the age of 18, he chipped a tooth on the rim while attempting his first dunk. The exhibition boxing match with Refrigerator Perry. How, when he was 15, he reputedly killed a marauding lion with a spear. A literal rags to riches story, he was spotted in his native Sudan by a college recruiter and brought to the U.S. to play for Cleveland State, before becoming the one of the first foreign players drafted in the NBA, by the Washington Bullets in 1985. But Bol's post-athletic life has been anything but a novelty act. He's currently acting as a tireless spokesman for a number of organizations seeking to bring relief to the people of his wartorn homeland — the Darfur region of the southern Sudan — who are being systematically wiped out by Islamic militarist groups.
We caught up with Bol at Notre Dame de Namur, a small private university on the San Francisco Peninsula, a few miles north of Stanford. He had flown there from his home in Connecticut, to speak for the cause.
"The government of Sudan and its Janjaweed militias are committing genocide against the black African tribes of Darfur," said Bol, who is a native of the Khartoum region, which is a bit further to the North. "Since 2003, more than 400,000 people have died, and more than 2.5 million have been driven from their homes. I call home every day. I know how many people die every day. What I am trying to do is to get people in America to write to their representatives, to their congressmen, to the President, to lead efforts for U.N. peacekeeping forces to enter the region."
Bol admitted that there were many times in recent years when he felt like giving up. Upon his retirement from the NBA in 1996, he returned to the Sudan during their civil war and was promptly thrown into prison by the anti-Christian government. He languished there for two years before escaping and returning to the U.S. He was in a serious automobile accident in 2004 when the taxi in which he was riding careened off the road, killing the driver. He spent six months in the hospital (and still walks with a cane). Bol had spent the majority of his money in Sudanese relief work during his many trips there and was nearly broke. So the Golden State Warriors, for whom he played for four seasons, picked up most of his medical bills.
"I realized then, that I really can't complain," Bol said. "I figured that God has decided to keep me around for a reason. How can I stay in America and live a good life when my people are suffering? I can't do that." Among his advocates have been Charles Barkley and Chris Mullin, good friends from his playing days. But in general, response from past and present NBA players has been weak, he said. "I'm going to work on that," Bol said, smiling. Bol calls the displaced youth in his homeland The Lost Boys of the Sudan. "They are lost from their families, but they are not lost from God," he said on Wednesday. "As long as I live, I will never stop fighting for them."
Story originally published Feb 2, 2006