Saying that Manute Bol stood out in the NBA is an understatement, like saying Gulliver stood out among the Lilliputians. Bol, who died Saturday at the age of 47 at the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville, definitely made a distinct impression during his 10-season NBA career (1985-95). But it wasn't just his rail-thin frame, prodigious wingspan and towering height. Although those physical characteristics made him an unusual player, they alone didn't make him different from others in basketball.
It was more than being a spindly 7 feet, 7 inches tall, with the ability to extend his hand above the rim while standing flat-footed. It was more than weighing a measly 190 pounds, with an arms-stretched-wide width measuring 8 feet, 6 inches from fingertip to fingertip. And it was more than his unique background as a Sudanese cattle-herder who once killed a lion with a spear, going from never playing basketball until his late teens, to setting the NBA rookie record for blocked shots in only 26 minutes per game.
What really separated Bol from his NBA peers — and for that matter, most professional athletes — was his humanitarian efforts, his willingness to spend his money and risk his life for the sake of others. He was among the rare athletes, such as Arthur Ashe and Dikembe Mutombo, who absolutely dedicate themselves to something bigger than sports and their personal well-being. In Bol's case, it was the plight of the people in his native Sudan, where civil war, poverty, sickness, crime and a lack of educational opportunities was the status quo.
Bol left Sudan to improve his basketball and wound up at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, where he spent one year before being drafted by the Washington Bullets in 1985. He became an instant sensation — for his pleasant personality as much as his height — and the Bullets began to draw fans on the road as a result. The team became even more of a circus act when it signed 5-foot-3 Muggsy Bogues, giving Washington both the shortest and tallest players in NBA history.
Aside from his proficiency at blocking shots, Bol's skills were modest. He remains the only player with more blocked shots (2,086) than points scored (1,599). He's also remembered for the ungainly three-point shot he developed midway through his career, a heave that was successful just 21 percent of the time but never failed to please the crowd. He attempted the shot 91 times in 80 games with Golden State in 1989-90.
Bol returned to Sudan in 1998 and lost everything, partially due to supporting a large extended family, and partially due to funding a Dinka-led rebel group. Nearly penniless by 2001, he was admitted to the United States in 2002 and settled in West Hartford, Conn., as a religious refugee. After being critically injured in 2004, he relocated in Olathe, Kan. His cousin George Bol, told The Washington Post that Bol died from internal bleeding and other complications from Stevens-Johnson syndrome, a rare skin disease that he contracted from a medication he received in Africa. He is survived by two sons and two daughters that he had with his ex-wife, Atong.
"I don't work for money," he said in 2006. "I work to save people. I can always make more money, but you can't bring back those that are gone."
Deron Snyder is a regular contributor to The Root.