Manute Bol was the first African-born player drafted into the NBA and, at seven foot seven inches, the tallest...
They always bring up the lion. No matter who’s talking about Manute Bol—teammate, relative, fan, or friend—whenever they tell stories, they inevitably end up at the time he killed the lion. Depending on where it’s told, the story takes different forms. Sitting under a tree one afternoon near the Bol family’s home in Turalei, Sudan, his uncle Bol Chol Bol tells it to me like this: Manute, a towering teenager charged with caring for his village’s cattle, saw a lion running across the pasture, hungry and desperate for blood. The lion leaped, and Bol launched a spear, goring the predator in midair. Bol Chol Bol tells the story with no hint of hyperbole, no knowing smile. This is the Manute his village knew: benevolent, fearless, almost superhuman.
The version commonly told in his adopted home, the United States—repeated in newspaper articles and by close friends—has Bol catching the lion while it was sleeping. Aware that the animal, which had bedded down close to the cattle, might attack if it awoke, he thrust in his spear when he had the chance. Some fans take the legend even further, claiming he used only his bare hands. That’s the way singer Kenn Kweder tells it as he tours East Coast bars playing “The Ballad of Manute Bol,” a paean to one of the NBA’s most lovable stars. Kweder may have taken some artistic liberties when he wrote the lyrics in the ’80s, but when he starts playing, and drunk college kids start screaming, there is only one truth: Bol wielded his hands as weapons, his strength and savagery and indomitable will rendering nature’s fiercest predator lifeless in his grasp.
When Manute Bol came to the United States from Sudan in 1983, the lion story arrived with him. When he became the NBA’s first African-born player, it served as the perfect anecdote to help Americans understand one of the strangest men they’d ever seen, a man who came from a country lodged only faintly in their consciousness. Bol was tall—seven feet seven inches, so tall he needed to duck his head beneath doorframes and barely had to strain to dunk the ball through the net. So tall he towered over the seven-footers who dominated the NBA. And Bol was skinny—185 pounds when he arrived stateside, so skinny his skeleton looked unprotected by flesh, covered only by skin and spindly muscle, each limb a twig with just enough support to keep the body functioning. Skinny enough that Woody Allen once joked, “Manute Bol is so skinny they save money on road trips; they just fax him from city to city.” Bol was also black, so black to American journalists’ eyes that they devised new ways to say “black”—“a moonless midnight,” “darker than dark,” phrases intended to signal that Bol’s skin color was that of a warrior, a tribesman, from a land unseen and a people unknown. Bol’s was the black of a man who killed a lion.
In the canon of Manute Bol mythology, the tale of the lion is but one volume. The others spring from storytellers scattered across two continents, each emphasizing a different aspect of Bol’s complex and multifarious life. “He had this swagger,” a former NBA player begins, “this incredible stature about him.” Others focus less on Bol’s personality and more on his actions. According to his daughter, “He would do anything for his people.” “I would never say a bad word about Manute,” remarks his agent, “but I’ve got to tell you, he abandoned his family.” His uncle introduces listeners to Bol by speaking about how strong he was as a baby. An American friend starts off by saying how weak he was in his final days. In Turalei, a young generation of boys grew up learning about Bol’s triumphs in a distant land. “He was rich,” a nephew remembers hearing as a child. “He was famous.” To many at home, however, success abroad mattered little. “Manute,” says a fellow countryman, “is Sudan.”
Bol lived a life befitting a man of such an outsized body. At any given moment, you could find him on a basketball court or a television screen, in a congressional meeting or a war zone, in a hut or a mansion. He sometimes gambled. He often boozed. No matter the backdrop, he always worked to ensure that those around him were happy. In time his bonds with teammates on the court, winning games and entertaining fans, would be replaced by one with a young man from his war-torn village, fighting to educate their people and free their homeland. But every moment, he was meticulously crafting the legend of Manute Bol.
Not everyone bought the lion story. When Bol played for the Philadelphia 76ers in the early ’90s, his teammate Charles Barkley walked into the locker room one day saying that he’d just read about the lion feat in a newspaper. Barkley looked across the room at Bol. “Man, you didn’t kill no lion,” he said. “That lion was old and dead when you showed up.”
Teammates laughed and waited for Bol’s response, but he neither confirmed nor denied the accusation. In the locker room, he wasn’t a cattle tender; he wasn’t an African; he was a basketball player. “Fuck you, Charles Barkley,” he said.
Even Bol’s birth remains shrouded in myth. It happened in 1962—at least that’s what Western records say, though the man himself was never sure—and for his mother, Okwok, it followed the delivery of two sets of stillborn twins. Before Bol was born, the family consulted a local mystic, who delivered a blessing and predicted the birth of a healthy boy. When the boy was born, they called him Manute, which means “special blessing” and is a common name for babies born in the shadow of lost siblings. On the day of his birth, Bol’s uncle likes to claim, the baby’s body was so long that when he breast-fed his feet touched the ground. His height wasn’t surprising. His father stood six foot eight, his mother six foot ten. His great-grandfather, Bol would later say, was seven foot ten. When British colonizers explored Sudan, some devised a name for the tall and dark Dinka tribespeople who populated the southern regions: “ghostly giants.”
While few villagers remember Bol’s childhood athleticism, his willpower and persistence remain the stuff of local lore. Many Dinka boys in Turalei, which lies in Sudan’s predominantly Christian and animist south, endure tribal rituals in which their bodies are disfigured to signify their transition to manhood. Around age 8, their lower teeth are removed. Later, their foreheads are sliced open and lines are cut across their skulls to mark them as Dinka men. But when Bol’s turn came to endure each of the rituals, he fled, walking for days in search of a new home. First he went to Abyei, a region that straddles the border with Sudan’s predominantly Arab and Muslim north. The second time, he went to Babanusa, even deeper within northern Sudan, where he first experienced life as a racial minority. Both times he eventually gave up and returned home, realizing he could no longer avoid the ceremony. The mystic excised Bol’s teeth and then carved his forehead.
Bol’s countrymen, meanwhile, were embracing a rare era of peace. A civil war had raged in Sudan from 1955 to 1972, killing an estimated 500,000 to 1.3 million people and displacing hundreds of thousands more. In his later years, when Bol talked about his childhood, he spoke little of the diseases, militias, and famines that swept through the region, wiping out entire villages. Because he reached adolescence during peacetime, he’d had the luxury of avoiding the life of a soldier. Instead, Bol had other ambitions. As a child, he boasted that he would one day become executive chief, the richest and most powerful man in Turalei, perhaps all of Twic, the surrounding county. He was, in fact, a member of the local royal family, a grandson of the great chief Chol Bol. Manute’s father, however, had been Chol Bol’s second son, so unless Bol proved himself far worthier than any of his cousins, he would have to line up behind more direct heirs to the chiefdom. To Bol, however, these details mattered little. Someday, he told the village boys, he would rule them all.
Before he could be chief, though, he first had to tend cattle. Cows are held in higher regard than are most other creatures in Dinka culture, both as symbols of wealth and as sustenance for life. Along with the other teenage boys, Bol left the village to work in a cattle camp.
It was while honing his animal-husbandry skills that Bol hit his growth spurt. By his late teens, he towered over his tribesmen. One day a photojournalist from a newspaper in Khartoum, Sudan’s northern capital, visited Turalei and snapped a picture of Bol. The photo caught the eye of Bol’s cousin Nicola Bol, who had moved to the capital and had emerged as one of Sudan’s top basketball players. “I hadn’t seen him since he was a little kid,” says Nicola of his cousin. “I never realized how tall he was, but when I saw the picture I thought, Wow, he needs to start playing basketball.” Soon Bol was recruited to play for a police-sponsored team in Wau, a city in the same region as Turalei, near the border between southern Sudan and Darfur.
Bol moved to Wau and started attending practices, struggling to learn the game. One day he rose the short distance required to dunk for the first time, and as he returned to the earth the net caught on his front teeth, yanking them from his gums. A ceremony had made Bol an official Dinka man. Now he was officially a basketball player.
At seven foot seven, Bol didn’t need long to hone his skills enough to be useful on the court, and he soon moved from the team in Wau to a bigger one in Khartoum. In Sudan’s capital, Bol got his second taste of life as a minority—as a tall and dark-skinned Christian in an Arab city where racial and religious tensions ran high. Yet Bol rarely turned the other cheek when people stopped their cars to gawk or called him abd—Arabic for “slave.” As his Arabic improved he tried to integrate, but when confronted Bol usually responded with fists, not words. “I did fight a lot in Khartoum,” Bol later told the Washington Post. “I was bad. I don’t take anything. Sometimes I can say we Dinkas are crazy. That’s what I can say. We don’t give up.”
Basketball would become his escape from all the animosity that surrounded him in Khartoum. In June of 1982, when Bol was 20, Don Feeley, a coach at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, arrived in Khartoum to help coach the Sudanese national team. From the moment Feeley saw the slender giant, he was transfixed. Bol, he knew, could change a basketball game. With that height, perhaps, Bol could alter the course of a whole college program. Feeley pulled some strings and was able to secure promises of scholarships at Cleveland State University for Bol and his friend Deng Deng Nhial. There was only one problem: Bol had never attended a single day of school. Feeley called Jim Lynam, the coach of the then–San Diego Clippers, and urged him to select Bol in the 1983 NBA draft, sight unseen. Typically, a player who’d never performed in front of scouts would have no chance of being chosen by a professional team. But “seven foot seven” was all Lynam needed to hear. He chose Bol in the fifth round, only to have the pick voided because Bol hadn’t officially declared his intention to enter the draft.
Bol and Deng instead moved to Connecticut to enroll at Bridgeport University, an NCAA Division II school with lower admission standards than Cleveland State. Bol arrived on campus several weeks before classes started, and word of his presence soon spread. “I’d been hearing about this guy for a couple weeks,” says John O’Reilly, who played alongside Bol on the Purple Knights. “Then I finally got to campus and saw him, and I just couldn’t believe it. Just this massive body, so much bigger than anyone you’d ever seen.” Another teammate, John Mullin, was scrimmaging in the Bridgeport gym when he first spotted Bol. “He was sitting in the lobby, and when he stood up it was like his body was just unfolding,” Mullin says. “He walks through the door and he has to duck, and then he stands up straight and I couldn’t believe it. He’s just joking and laughing the whole time, completely comfortable in that environment.”
Bol spent a year at Bridgeport, his shot-blocking prowess turning the school into a Division II power. The victories piled up, and Bol became a sensation on small-college campuses around the northeast. Every game—home or away—was packed. Opposing players found their fans cheering against their own school, rooting instead for the giant who loped and laughed down the court, treating jump shots like mosquitoes. When Bridgeport walked out of the locker room, “you could hear the air come out of everybody’s lungs,” O’Reilly says.
Bol used his time at Bridgeport to acclimate to American life. Given access to medical care, he replaced his missing teeth. Given access to pizza and beer, he indulged most every night. He developed a reputation across campus for his dominant play, his effervescent personality, and, over time, his stubbornness. Before his first season began, Bol set his sights on the number 10 jersey, which O’Reilly had previously worn. He begged O’Reilly for it, telling him he’d do anything to get it, but his teammate stayed firm. On the day the players were introduced to the media, Bol threatened to leave the team: “I can’t stay here if I don’t wear number 10,” he told O’Reilly. Eventually, O’Reilly relented. (Years later, when Bol was playing for the Golden State Warriors, a rookie teammate, Tim Hardaway, approached him wanting to wear the number 10. Bol initially refused but then told Hardaway he’d let him have it—for $500,000, his entire first-year salary. Hardaway declined.)
After one year at Bridgeport, Bol decided he was ready for the pros. Some friends and advisers told him to stay in college, to polish his game and improve his draft stock. But Bol’s mind was made up. He needed money, both for himself and for his increasingly desperate family back in Sudan. And there was no money to be made as a college athlete. Because his skills were so raw and his Division II competition so weak, Bol’s advisers were unsure how high he’d be selected in the NBA draft. So his agent, Frank Catapano, arranged for Bol to play with the Rhode Island Gulls of the United States Basketball League, a fledgling minor league that would offer better competition and a chance to perform in front of NBA scouts.
Bol dominated. In only eight games, he proved he could compete with top talent, and the Washington Bullets selected him in the second round of the NBA draft, as the 31st overall pick and the tallest player in league history. (In the first round, two years later, they drafted the shortest: five-foot-three Wake Forest University guard Muggsy Bogues.) “A lot of people thought it was just a publicity stunt,” says Bob Ferry, then the general manager of the Bullets, of Bol’s selection. “But I was dead serious. I thought he could play.”
Once he arrived in Washington, Bol played the game unlike anyone before or since, making the impossible look easy and the easy seem impossible. Most players could never hope to block a jump shot from more than a couple of feet away—reaching their hands into the sky to meet the ball at its apex—but Bol did it all the time. “No one could shoot over him,” says Hardaway. “We used to funnel guys toward Manute because we knew he would block their shot. You just couldn’t understand how long he was until you got up close.”
And yet Bol tended to be an embarrassment on offense. He struggled with the most routine plays, missing layups, bricking free throws, dropping the ball or allowing it to roll away between his legs. Several fingers on his right, shooting hand were disfigured, the result of a birth defect. “It looked like a claw,” Ferry says. “He couldn’t straighten his fingers, and that really hurt him.”
Still, his coaches were so enamored of his shot-blocking ability that he played regularly as a rookie during the 1985–86 season, setting an NBA single-season rookie record with 397 blocks—the second-highest total, for any player, in league history. He achieved that mark despite averaging barely two quarters per game, in an era when the rules prohibited guarding a zone of the court rather than an opponent, which tended to discourage large players from staying close to the basket. “If he played today,” Hardaway says, “he would be one of the most dominant players in the game.”
Off the court Bol was a sensation, landing endorsements typically reserved for far more established players. Over the course of his career, he signed contracts with Toyota, Nike, Kodak, and Church’s Chicken—Bol, the ads went, “blocks out his hunger with the Manute Bol Meal, featuring one leg and one thigh of Church’s Fried Chicken.” Sportswriters loved him because he always spoke his mind (“I don’t say no words to him,” Bol once told reporters, excusing himself after an on-court scuffle with Bulls center Jawann Oldham. “If I look for a fight, I go to Lebanon or maybe Libya and be a marine.”) Teammates loved him because his blocks covered for their mistakes. He even worked his way into his general manager’s family, eating Thanksgiving dinners at the Ferrys’ home.
Before long Bol had the means to bring his own family to America, inviting his cousin Nicola, who played for the Sudanese national basketball team, and Nicola’s wife, Achuei, to move into his home in Maryland. Bol also became engaged to a Dinka woman, Atong, and he moved her to the States to become his wife. Before meeting Atong, he’d had trouble with courtship. Back in Sudan, Bol had once “eloped”—a term Dinkas use to describe a union that occurs before a dowry is set—but the marriage dissolved when the families squabbled over the number of cows. “People thought that if you married Manute, your life would not be OK,” says Achuei, the cousin-in-law, who became one of Bol’s closest friends. “They thought that because of his height, he would not live long. So he had problems with women. He wanted to marry, but the women’s families always told them no.” Bol was thrilled to marry Atong, a woman unwilling to listen to those who claimed his body was destined for a breakdown. After meeting Atong through Achuei, Bol paid an 80-cow dowry for her hand.
Soon the Bol household was filled with babies, as Atong and Achuei had both become pregnant around the same time. Atong gave birth to a girl, Abuk, the first of her and Bol’s four children. Doctors told Achuei she would also have a girl. Bol, however, thought otherwise. He insisted that he would have a “nephew”—southern Sudanese often use familial labels interchangeably—and the nephew would be called Manute. On this, however, Bol would have to fight to get his way. First, there was the matter of biology. The ultrasound had made it clear: Nicola and Achuei’s baby would be a girl. Second, there was the matter of tradition. Manute was a name given only to children whose siblings had died. Dinkas would disapprove if the couple named their firstborn Manute.
Days before the baby’s due date, Manute delivered his most emphatic pitch. He’d found a way around their concerns, he said, an excuse to give their firstborn the name reserved for a family who’d experienced great loss. “It will be OK to name him after me,” he said, “because I’m going to die young.”
When the labor began, the doctors grew worried. Nothing major was wrong, but a cesarean section would be needed. From the hospital, Nicola called Manute. “Don’t do anything,” Bol said. “Wait for me to get there.” A professed Catholic, he arrived with water, which he’d use to perform a blessing. He sprinkled the water on Achuei, declaring that no C-section would be needed; little Manute was going to come out just fine. The labor progressed without complications. Achuei gave birth to a beautiful baby boy.
Bol lifted the baby into the air, smiling while Achuei sat speechless and Nicola looked on, and then he kissed the boy on the forehead. Nicola looked at Achuei and settled it: “This baby is Manute.”
He’d found happiness in his family, but as Bol’s basketball career continued, his stature with the Bullets decreased. His problems on offense persisted, and he soon became branded as a role player, a guy who could come in for a few minutes and block a few shots but never be a consistent starter. Bol’s playing time dwindled in his second and third seasons, and in 1988 Washington traded him to the Warriors. That summer he found trouble off the court, too. In July he was arrested and charged with DUI in Maryland, and he resisted as police tried to restrain him with handcuffs. When the officers informed him that a court-appointed lawyer would be provided if he could not afford his own, Bol revealed himself to be a quick study when it came to American politics. “You keep your Ronald Reagan lawyer,” he told them, according to the Washington Post. “I’m going to keep my Jesse Jackson lawyer.” He was arrested again for DUI that August. This time he refused the sobriety test by telling the police that God gave him two legs to stand on and he shouldn’t have to stand on one. “Manute’s problem is he doesn’t yet understand the working of this society,” Ferry told the Boston Globe about the arrests. “He doesn’t understand our rules. Remember, he comes from a society where it’s an achievement just to live through another day. Things that are important to us aren’t a very big deal to him.”
Bol arrived in Northern California in the fall of 1988 to begin training camp with Golden State. He settled into a modest home in Alameda, just outside of Oakland on the San Francisco Bay. The Warriors’ coach, Don Nelson, had long coveted Bol’s services. Nelson believed he could unlock the potential that a man of such size must inherently possess. One day shortly after being traded, Bol entered the gym with his teammates for a round of two-a-day practices. Some players were still working their way into playing shape, but Bol approached Nelson with a special request. “Coach,” he said, “we have to end practice early today.” When Nelson asked why, Bol informed him that an urgent matter had arisen: He had to get home because the cable guy was coming. Nelson laughed, considered the matter, and addressed his team: “Guys, we’re not going to practice for long today. Nutie has to get cable at his house.”
“There’s no way anyone else in the league would ask something like that,” says Winston Garland, who played for the Warriors at the time. “And there’s no way a coach would let anyone else get away with it.” But Nelson loved Bol. He let him shoot three-pointers, giving Bol the green light if he was open during the Warriors’ secondary fast break. Every time Bol fired a shot from long range, he broke a cardinal rule taught to big men on basketball courts around the world: Tall guys should stay close to the basket. Instead, the tallest of them all fired away, his arms jerking back and flinging forward, the ball launched as if from a catapult. The Warriors often ended practice by running a drill that finished with Bol shooting threes. Sometimes they would run the same drill at the beginning of practice. If Bol made his three-pointer, practice ended right then—no further work necessary. In games, most of Bol’s threes missed, but a few splashed through the net, inevitably followed by riotous applause. “Just a raggedy-ass jump shot,” Rick Mahorn, who played for the Detroit Pistons at the time, describes it. “He’d make it, and you’d just have to look at him like, Ain’t that a bitch?”
Though Bol came to love his jump shot—“He started talking all kinds of shit when he made jumpers, like he was a real ballplayer or something,” Mahorn says—Bol still made his money blocking shots. He turned would-be dunkers away and yelled at them not to try scoring on him again, adopting every shot blocker’s favorite phrase: “Get that out of here!” Occasionally, however, opponents got the best of Bol. They would rise to dunk and he would rise with them, and by some act of skill, athleticism, or sheer luck, the opponent would finish with a dunk over or around Bol’s outstretched arms. “He hated to get embarrassed,” says Garland, “so he was always coming up with excuses.” Maybe another defender had missed his assignment, or maybe someone had blocked Bol’s path to the rim, but always there was something or someone Bol could blame. Soon teammates took to calling him Mr. Alibi: the man with an explanation for everything.
One day in November ’88, the Warriors were playing the Chicago Bulls, and Michael Jordan caught the ball on the perimeter, then drove around his defender and skied for the rim. Bol and seven-foot-four teammate Ralph Sampson rose with him, the fiercest shot-blocking pair in the league taking on the best player in the history of the game. But Jordan kept climbing and then flushed the ball through the basket, sending Bol in a daze toward the bench, where teammates were laughing, eager to hear his excuse. “What happened?” they asked. In response, Bol uttered two words that Warriors players had never heard paired, joined together in a phrase that soon would become ubiquitous on blacktops across America. Eventually, legend would hold that Bol created this saying, though some linguists dispute that claim. Either way, when Bol delivered it in his rumbling, Dinka-inflected baritone, the Warriors players erupted as if they’d just heard the best joke of their lives.
“My bad,” he said. “My bad.”
For the rest of the season, Warriors players said it whenever they made a mistake, always low and guttural in their best impression of Bol. When players were traded the phrase spread, and before long everyone across the league was saying “My bad.”
Bol kept blocking shots and firing threes, and as fall turned to winter a pattern emerged at Warriors home games. Bol caught the ball outside the arc; the crowd screamed, “Shoot!” so he fired away; they gasped as it sailed through the air and then groaned if it missed or erupted if it swished, then went back to waiting for Bol to shoot again. He was still not a great player, nor even a particularly good one. But the crowd noise told you what the stat sheet could not: In the late 1980s, Bol was a star.
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. Bol spoke his native tongue at home and with the other southern Sudanese who were scattered around the States, but most of them knew not to call so early. In those days, calls from Sudan 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, Nicola warned the man not to mention the phone conversation. When they 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.
“When Allah created Sudan, he laughed,” an old Arab proverb goes. Some interpret the saying to mean God was delighted with his creation, while others think it indicates that the Almighty is a sadist. Nineteenth-century British journalist G. W. Steevens seemed to adopt the latter view when he wrote, “The Sudan is a God-accursed wilderness, an empty limbo of torment for ever and ever.”
The country now known as Sudan has roughly three major regions: the Arab and Muslim north, the black and Muslim west (known as Darfur), and the black and Christian and animist south. (Bol’s village, Turalei, lies near the intersection of all three, technically in southern Sudan but not far from Darfur or Arab country.) From antiquity to the 20th century, southern Sudan was regularly pillaged by its northern neighbors, providing Egypt and northern Sudan with ivory, ebony, gold, and slaves. The British arrived in the late 1800s and ruled the territory from 1899 to 1956, first jointly with Egypt and later on their own. The name Sudan derives from the Arabic bilad al-sudan, which means “land of the blacks,” but when the British relinquished control they grouped the blacks of the south and west with the Arabs of the north, granting statehood to a fractious, mismatched, and artificially created region.
On the first day it came into existence as a sovereign nation, Sudan was already locked in the grips of civil war. After a mutiny of southern army officers, pro-government militias composed largely of northerners and Darfuris ravaged the south. The war lasted from 1955 until the two sides signed a treaty in 1972. Peace lasted little more than a decade, and the year Bol left Sudan for America the fighting began anew, with the sparsely armed villages across the south proving to be powerless against the Kalashnikov- and machete-wielding militias from the north. Not long after Bol had arrived in America, he heard that his father had died. He returned to Sudan to grieve with his family, but access to the country’s Dinka-dominated region was barred. Over the course of the war, Bol would later say, he’d lose 250 family members, some dying at the hands of the militants, others sold into slavery or killed by war-induced famine.
Throughout his time in the NBA, Bol had given money to any family member who asked for it. It didn’t matter who it was—always Bol gave. “There is a problem in the Dinka culture,” Nicola says. “Every family member is to be treated the same as your closest brother. Manute never figured out how to have a balance between the American way and the Dinka way.” Despite making contributions to family members in need, Bol hesitated to involve himself in politics, fearful that the government in Khartoum would harm his family or restrict his visits. So for most of the 1980s, the most famous Dinka man in the world stood on the sidelines while his people were slaughtered.
Soon after Bol received that early morning phone call in 1988, he changed his mind. After meeting with the SPLM representative, Bol helped promote a fundraising effort called Operation Lifeline Sudan, which provided aid to refugees across the south. That was all it took for his fears to be confirmed. On his next visit to Khartoum he was arrested, and authorities accused him of funding the rebellion. Bol was released after several hours, but the incident seemed to fuel his eagerness to contribute. Months later, back in Washington, he met with John Garang, the leader of the SPLM rebels.
An electrifying speaker and indomitable warrior, Garang had galvanized the southerners and unified the rebel army. When he spoke in front of crowds, Garang preached Marxism. In his private and professional relationships, he operated as an opportunistic utilitarian. “Garang was an expert in survival—someone who knew how to bend with the wind yet maintain his political objectives, someone who knew how to seem all things to all men,” filmmaker and Sudan expert Peter Moszynski once told the BBC.
Bol was smitten with Garang, who described for him the desolation in their homeland. The SPLM had struggled in its attempts to gain support from the United States, partly due to its leaders’ communist sympathies. While some East African countries lent support to the SPLM, the movement had trouble raising sufficient funds. They needed the richest Dinka to come to his people’s aid, Garang told Bol.
During the next several years, Bol would contribute $3.5 million to Garang’s SPLM. From time to time, Garang would come to Washington and hold clandestine meetings in Bol’s home. They would station guards outside, keeping an eye out for terrorists or spies as they retreated to the basement, where a group of wealthy Sudanese—both Arab and black—discussed politics and war. Bol briefed Garang on popular opinion among Americans, letting him know what to expect in meetings with U.S. officials. “In Washington, Manute was John Garang’s guy,” Bol’s cousin Ed Bona says. “Garang needed Manute.” Bol made secret trips to the war zone, hiding in the bush with Garang and his men, involving himself in the strategy and politics of war.
In addition to his visits to the bush, Bol traveled to refugee camps in Pinyudo, Ethiopia, and in rebel-controlled regions of Sudan. He paid for extra food to be given to refugees, who mostly subsisted on one meal a day of grain and beans provided by aid organizations. As he walked around the camps, Bol saw familiar faces. People he’d grown up with in Turalei were now scattered around—many of the men fighting in the war, many of the women trying to survive in the camps. Turalei itself no longer existed. It had been destroyed, they told him, like many villages across southern Sudan. The stretch of land they once called home was no longer a place suitable for life.
On an early ’90s trip to the rebel-controlled town of Pochala, Bol stopped as he often did among the masses to shake hands. By this point he’d become a legend among the refugees, both for his international success and for his efforts to help Sudan. Children approached, wide-eyed, gawking at the man they’d been taught to revere. Bol reached down and touched a boy, one who’d known Bol’s name for years, who’d heard all about the tall and funny man who had left the boy’s now-empty hometown of Turalei for America. The boy had a shrunken frame and sunken eyes, his teeth grown in different directions, running away from each other as if every incisor and canine had a mind of its own. His name was Victor, he was about 12 years old, and he was often hungry and scared. The boy stood and stared upward. Years later he would still remember the tears in Bol’s eyes, despondent over the boy whose tragic situation he could do little to change. Victor couldn’t possibly imagine that someday the two would meet again, and that it would be he who would change Bol’s life.
The moment the militia arrived, 8-year-old Victor Anyar was standing in a pasture, caring for his family’s cows. It was sometime in the late 1980s—the years and the attacks all run together—nearly a decade before he would meet Manute Bol in the Pochala camp. In Turalei they had known for days that the murahaleen—the militia men from the north—were coming. The soldiers arrived near dusk, on horseback.
Victor recalls his father assembling his family into a group, telling them to stay put, stay organized, wait for the killers to pass. He remembers that his father stood still for several moments, until there was an explosion and his father was falling, shot by the soldiers, crumbling to the ground, dead. Victor ran. Away from the village, away from the bullets, away from the father who was dead, from the mother and the siblings who were screaming, whom he would probably never see again. The murahaleen would kill many boys. They would make slaves of several girls. But they wouldn’t catch Victor because Victor was fast, faster than he’d ever been, sprinting away from the horror and deep into the wild, going far from the roads until he could hear gunshots and screams no longer, until the only sounds were the sounds of wilderness, the buzzing and howling and screeching soundtrack of a Sudanese night.
The next evening, lions came. There were three of them, he remembers, a mother, a father, and a cub. The cub approached Victor and began scratching and sniffing his skin. Victor shouted, “Go away!” desperate to drive it on but scared to draw its mother’s ire. Finally he kicked and shouted, and when the lion’s attention lapsed he was gone, running again. He ran until he felt he wasn’t running at all, until his legs seemed to have stopped moving and his arms seemed to have stopped pumping and he was floating, pushed or carried or willed by a force outside his body, until finally he stumbled on other humans, Dinka refugees with whom, at least for the moment, he was safe.
They walked, setting off across southern Sudan a region roughly the size of Texas—toward a refugee camp in Ethiopia, which borders the eastern side of the country. The group included about 20 boys and one adult leader, following marks that had been left in the trees to point the way. Sometimes they encountered soldiers from the SPLA, the SPLM’s military wing, who brought food. “We ate then,” says Victor. “That helped us not to die.”
After three months of walking, they arrived in Ethiopia, beginning their lives as refugees in the Pinyudo camp. There was no school. Victor lived there three years, until one day violence found him again. Ethiopia had long been embroiled in its own civil war, and the fighting spread and threatened the refugees, whose camp shared land with the Anuak people, a minority tribe that had been oppressed by the government and resented the foreigners. One day the Anuak attacked the camp, and suddenly the refugees were running again, tens of thousands of them at once, desperate to break away. As Victor ran, bodies dropped all around him, most with bullets in their backs. The attack on Victor’s village had been chaotic, with everyone fleeing in separate directions, each person looking for different ways to escape. This time it felt more ordered, systematic. Nearly everyone went the same direction: back to Sudan. Soon they reached the border, marked by the crocodile-infested Gilo River.
As the running hordes descended on the river, the crocodiles basked in the sun. The refugees had a choice: Stay behind and wait to be shot, or jump in and risk being eaten. Victor faced a particular problem—he had never learned to swim. He looked on as boys rushed into the water, some bodies going limp in the crocodiles’ jaws. He watched as others asked, “Who knows how to swim?” When a boy mentioned that he could, several who could not jumped on top of him as he entered the water, begging to be carried. But their weight only forced the swimmer underwater, dooming all of them.
Along with several other boys, Victor ran to a less crowded part of the river. A man swam to the other side and tied a rope to a tree, spanning the river with it. Victor grabbed the rope and moved his hands one after the other, inching his way across.
Victor arrived on the other side and thanked God he was still alive. That day, 27,000 people ran from the camp toward the river. Eighteen thousand survived. But Victor and the others had one small reason to be joyful: For the first time in years, they stood on Sudanese soil.
The path from the river brought Victor to the camp where he would meet Bol. But after they greeted each other, Bol vanished, heading back to America while Victor remained in the camp.
By the early 1990s, Bol had cashed in. After the 1989–90 season, the Golden State Warriors traded him to the Philadelphia 76ers, and there Bol became a millionaire: His annual salary topped $1.25 million in each of his three years with the team. Much of his newfound wealth went to funding the southern Sudanese rebellion, but Bol allowed himself a few indulgences.
Mostly, he bought drinks—for himself, for his teammates, for friends new and old, for whomever happened to be within his orbit at the bar. “He loved to go to clubs,” says Nicola. “He loved the attention, loved making sure everyone had a good time.” Even when out with teammates far richer than him, Bol insisted on paying the bill. “Sometimes we had to tell him, ‘Manute, we’ve got money, too. It’s OK for us to pay,’” says Hersey Hawkins, a teammate with the 76ers.
On the court, Bol continued blocking shots, launching threes, missing layups. Even if he never became one of the league’s best players, he remained among its most popular. “When you get to the NBA, sometimes you stop looking at basketball as a game and you start looking at it as a business,” says Hawkins. “Playing with Manute, he had a way of taking you back to the times when you just loved to play. Manute made you feel like you would play the game for free.”
“He didn’t have a single adversarial relationship in the league,” says Winston Garland, who’d played with Bol on the Warriors. “When the horn sounded, everybody loved Manute. Before the game, after the game, everybody wanted to be around him.” Everyone except, occasionally, frightened children. While playing for Philadelphia, Bol saw Hawkins’ family in the tunnel after a game, and he reached out his arms to greet the kids. The children cried as he tried to embrace them, afraid of the giant, alien creature they’d encountered. Bol laughed, then grumbled, “Baby Hawks are soft—just like their daddy.”
In Philadelphia, Bol took advantage of his proximity to Atlantic City, escaping for gambling getaways whenever his schedule allowed. Atong once won $465,000 playing the slots at the Trump Taj Mahal. Mostly, though, Bol lost. “Even when he would win,” says Bol’s friend Abdel Gabar Adam, “he would just go ahead and spend the money right there.” Says his agent, Frank Catapano: “He loved to gamble, and he didn’t want to listen to anyone who told him what to do with his money. He did what he wanted.”
Bol, however, saw his vices as tools for good. He used happy hours and gambling trips as diplomatic forums. While living in Philadelphia, Bol made Darfuri and Arab friends, many of whom maintained political clout back in Sudan. Though some Dinkas disapproved, Bol “believed we could all live in peace if we just got to know one another,” says Adam, a Darfuri.
Bol also grew into his role as an activist, emerging as the face southern Sudan showed America. “If I were in the Sudan right now, I would be starving with the rest of my people,” he once told an Oxfam banquet, a scene recounted in Leigh Montville’s 1993 book Manute: The Center of Two Worlds. “I eat good food here in America and I go to sleep at night and then when I wake up in the morning I see something on TV and feel really terrible. There’s nothing I can do. I have about 70 of my people right now homeless in the capital of Sudan. They have no place to go.”
Bol signed with the Miami Heat in October 1993, and he promptly skipped two preseason games to attend meetings about Sudan in Washington. The team fined him $25,000, but donated it to a Sudanese charity. He spoke before Congress, pleading for help and warning of a man who lived in Sudan and plotted death to Americans: Osama bin Laden. How he knew of the then-obscure Al Qaeda leader, at the time just a tiny blip on America’s radar, family members could only speculate. “Manute was like a politician, so he knew all of the secrets,” his cousin-in-law Achuei says. “He knew that Bin Laden was killing people in the south. The government wouldn’t say that Bin Laden was in Sudan, but Manute knew.”
As his activism grew, Bol’s basketball career sputtered. Miami released him in January of 1994. The Warriors awarded him another contract just before the 1994–95 season, but less than a month after the season started Bol crumbled to the ground during a game in Charlotte with torn cartilage in his knee. Eight days later, he underwent arthroscopic surgery.
While trying to rehab his knee, Bol attempted a new profession. He opened a restaurant and nightclub in Washington called Manute Bol’s Spotlight, serving cocktails like Manute’s Slam Dunk and Bol’s Blocked Shot. The restaurant was a joint venture with Deng Deng Nhial, the friend who had moved with Bol to the United States more than a decade before, played for Bridgeport, and stayed in the country. “They didn’t know what they were doing,” says Bona, Bol’s cousin, about the restaurant. “Manute never knew how to manage his money.”
After rehab, Bol spent several months playing for the Florida Beach Dogs in the CBA, a minor league where castoffs and has-beens played for low-five-figure salaries and a chance to keep their NBA dreams alive. He rode buses, flew coach, and never complained when the owner trotted him out to sign autographs. Once, Bol broke curfew the night before a game, drinking until 6 a.m., but the team’s management couldn’t find it within themselves to punish him. He shot all the three-pointers he wanted. “Some players have a long leash,” says Eric Musselman, his coach at the time. “Manute had no leash. We let him do whatever he wanted.” He sat on barstools in Yakima, Washington, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota, regaling teammates and onlookers with stories from worlds they’d never know: the village, the bush, the NBA.
Within months, Bol gave up on the CBA. The restaurant went under. He tried playing in Italy and Qatar, but neither country’s league offered an acceptable contract. After 10 seasons in the NBA, Bol had saved between $50,000 and $100,000, Bona estimates. With that in the bank, he drifted back to Khartoum.
Bol returned to Khartoum for complex reasons, none of them good. His money was largely spent. He’d sold his house in California, and his Maryland home was on its way to being repossessed, so Bol moved in with family who’d been staying at a house he kept in the Sudanese capital.
After years of growing strife, his marriage to Atong had finally disintegrated for good, and she remained in the States with their four kids. Bol’s stepmother had died in a car accident, so he assumed care for his half-sister, who lived in Khartoum. And then there was politics—of both reconciliation and revenge.
As Bol’s NBA career had faded, the Sudanese civil war seemed to do the same. A rift had emerged among rebels of the SPLM, and a coalition of southern leaders split from Garang and negotiated the Khartoum Peace Agreement. The treaty, which excluded Garang and the SPLM, led to increased cooperation between the southern rebels and the National Islamic Front, the northern Islamist movement led by President Omar al-Bashir in the capital. Peace, at least nominally, seemed on its way to Sudan, and Garang, long the south’s unquestioned leader, had been excluded.
So, too, it seemed, had Bol. While he’d once been hailed as a hero, a key player in the future of the new Sudan, he was now ignored. He had no more money to offer, so the attention he’d received waned. “John Garang was a great warrior, a brilliant man, but he used people,” Bona says. “When Manute couldn’t give the SPLM all that money anymore, Garang had no use for him.” The northern government in Khartoum, however, thought they could use him just fine. So Bol went to the capital, where he was given a cabinet post as the country’s minister of youth and sport, treated as royalty by the Arabs who’d once called him slave. “It shocked all of us,” Acuil Malith Banggol, a former SPLA fighter, later told the Independent of London. “He is not a seasoned politician, so he must have fallen prey to nice words and promises. Unfortunately, he did not talk to us about it.” Bol believed the treaty represented a major step forward for Sudan, he later told friends, and he jumped at the opportunity to join a unified government.
One event in the summer of 1998, however, changed all that. On the night of August 20, Manute sat on his rooftop in Khartoum watching bombs drop from the sky. The U.S., he’d soon find out, was attacking Khartoum, lobbing cruise missiles at a pharmaceutical plant American officials believed was involved in producing chemical weapons for Bin Laden. The Clinton administration had finally decided to act against the man Bol, among others, had long warned about. They missed Bin Laden in an attack launched the same day against a training camp in Afghanistan, and later reports would challenge whether the Khartoum factory was up to anything nefarious at all. But for Bol it wouldn’t matter: That night, he would later say, was when the Sudanese government started to suspect he was a spy.
The peace treaty, it turned out, was a farce. Down in the south the killing continued. And with Bol under suspicion and sharia, Islamic law, ruling Khartoum, the government gave Bol a choice: Convert to Islam, or lose the job. Like many from Turalei, Bol had long been a Christian, mixing Catholicism with tribal practices and beliefs. He grew up learning to hate and fear Muslims. Over the years, he’d befriended many of them. Now he’d been willing to work with them. He was not, however, willing to become one of them.
Bol refused the job. There would be no paycheck, no free car, as he’d also been promised. As his savings eroded, Bol sold the house in Khartoum. Still suspecting he was a spy, government officials told Bol he’d be watched and that they would never let him leave the city. His marriage with Atong over, he remarried—twice. In 1998 he married Ajok, a woman from another region of southern Sudan. Later that year he married Ayak, from Turalei. Bol moved into a rental home on the outskirts of the city, paying $200 a month and sharing the space with 14 relatives. He borrowed money from Catapano, his agent, though Catapano now says he never expected to be repaid. Just a few years before, Bol had been a millionaire, fielding calls for help from his countrymen. Now he was the voice on the other end of the line. Rheumatism took hold of his joints. Lacking money for treatment, he lay still, enduring the pain.
Back in the States, Ed Bona awoke one morning to a desperate-sounding mass email, originated among Bol’s friends and forwarded to all those who loved him. It said he was sick—that if he didn’t get help, he would die. Bona called Bol. He wasn’t dying, Bol said; he was stuck, and he needed help to escape from Khartoum. Bona and several friends in Connecticut began a media campaign to draw attention to Bol’s plight. NBC went to Khartoum for a story. A reporter, Declan Walsh, wrote pieces for The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and The Independent. Bona tried to arrange a plane ticket but couldn’t find a travel agency that would allow him to purchase one in America for Bol to pick up in Khartoum. So Bona called a cousin in London, who found an agency that would cooperate and give him a ticket to Egypt. Bol bribed local officials to give him a passport and validate his travel plans. He showed up at the airport just before departure so as not to give the government time to realize he was on his way out of the country.
Someone, however, apparently did realize what was happening, and Bol was removed from his flight soon after boarding it. He didn’t have a ticket, officials said, though their computers confirmed that he did. Bol told the officials that if they didn’t let him on the plane, he would march directly to the Khartoum bureau of the BBC and tell his story. Eventually, the officials relented. Bol, they decided, caused more trouble than he was worth. He got a seat on a later plane, and on July 12, 2001, more than three years after he returned to Sudan, he left.
In Cairo, Bol worked with the American embassy to get visas for himself and his family to travel to the U.S. He succeeded in obtaining his papers and his wife Ajok’s (Ayak would stay in Sudan), but problems arose when Bol tried to obtain a visa for his half-sister Achuil. Though he’d been caring for her since her mother died, Bol lacked documentation to prove he was Achuil’s guardian. In order to reenter the country without it, he had to apply for refugee status.
Bol waited for months to meet with American officials about the request. Sitting idle in Cairo on September 11, 2001, he watched the news and saw the twin towers in flames. When he heard Bin Laden had been responsible—the same Bin Laden he’d spoken to members of Congress about years before—he was crestfallen. Thereafter he would maintain, to anyone who would listen, that it all could have been prevented if the U.S. government had heeded his warnings when he’d first given them.
A few months later, his immigration request was granted. Three years after he’d arrived in Sudan as a dignitary, he returned to America, a refugee.
On the day he became a laughingstock, Bol wore red trunks, black gloves, and the hardened stare of a man who cared too little or too much. He’d returned to the States on March 7, 2002, and now, less than three months after his return, Bol had landed another gig competing on national television. This time it was boxing. Once again his size helped him get the job, but now skill mattered little. It wasn’t a sport. It was a freak show.
As the American public would soon come to suspect, Bol was a little desperate. He was living in a spare apartment in West Hartford, Connecticut, paid for by Catholic Charities. Shortly after arriving back in the U.S., he’d met with Bona and several friends to discuss his future. He’d have opportunities, the thinking went, to make money off his name, finding speaking engagements and autograph sessions and taking small-time endorsements to pay bills. With enough money, Bol could not only support his family but also help Bona with the Ring True Foundation, which he’d formed to help Sudanese refugees. They brainstormed ways to get Bol in front of a national audience, letting marketers know he was back.
In March, Fox had aired a special called Celebrity Boxing, putting D-listers and has-beens in a ring to exchange blows. Time magazine called it “the already-legendary newest low point in reality TV.” Naturally, it was a hit. And when Bol was floated the idea of participating in a Celebrity Boxing 2, he jumped on board immediately. “From the beginning, he knew what he was getting into,” Bona says. “Everybody knew what the reaction was going to be. He didn’t care. He thought it would be fun, competing for the fans. He didn’t worry about all that.” Instead, he worried about finding an opponent. Bol suggested Dennis Rodman, the NBA’s hair-dyeing, cross-dressing, flamboyant and foul-mouthed bad boy, who had competed as a pro wrestler after retiring from the league. One of Bol’s friends called Fox, and the network jumped at the chance to have him fight. Fox paid most contestants $25,000, but according to IRS forms the network paid the Ring True Foundation $26,510, and Bona says Bol received an additional $25,000. With Bol aboard, Fox called to ask Rodman to compete. He declined. The network offered an alternative: William “Refrigerator” Perry. Known simply as the Fridge, Perry had been an NFL defensive end, an overweight bowling ball of a man who became a sensation when the Chicago Bears began inserting him at running back. Like Bol, he’d been an oddity as an athlete, talented but unconventional and known for his personality as well as his play.
Upon returning to the U.S., Bol received treatment for his rheumatism, and now he began running, working out to shape up before the fight. He’d long been a boxing fan, going to fights between gambling sessions in Atlantic City. He also loved pro wrestling, with its savagery and theater and comedy all rolled into one. He didn’t just want to win; he wanted everyone who watched to say that Bol and Perry had been the headliners, the fighters who made it all worth the price of admission. Bol, it seemed, was the only person in America who didn’t see Celebrity Boxing as a joke.
The fight lasted three rounds, Bol dominating from the opening to the closing bell. Perry, who’d ballooned to about 375 pounds, threw the occasional punch but spent most of his time shrinking away from Bol’s spindly arms. Bol looked languid, but his reach was too long as he delivered crosses, jabs, and the occasional uppercut. Eventually Perry just cowered in his corner. In the end, Bol won unanimously, and as the fight announcer raised his arm into the air, Bol said he only wished he’d fought harder.
Several weeks later, Bol and Bona went to a Celtics-Nets playoff game in Boston. “We walk in the arena, and Manute almost causes a riot,” Bona says. “They were shouting, ‘You did it! You beat the Fridge!’” Bol laughed and waved and signed autographs, smiling as they chanted his name. Bona called a friend: “If there was ever any doubt over whether or not this was a good idea,” he said, “it’s over now.” Once again, Bol was a star.
From there, the offers picked up. He signed a contract with a minor-league hockey team, the Indianapolis Ice, but when Bol suited up his feet began swelling in the skates, and he changed out of his uniform before the first game ended. He signed a deal to become a jockey at Indiana’s Hoosier Park. He was fitted for silks and weighed in with the other participants, but he never actually sat on a horse. As the public heard more about his money-raising hijinks, he was either called a saint or pitied as a charity case. “I thought it was sad, him turning himself into a spectacle,” says Catapano. He called Bol, saying, “I want to help you out, but I don’t want to make a circus out of you.”
While replenishing his bank account, Bol reconnected with the southern Sudanese diaspora. Suddenly, they were everywhere—from Omaha to Syracuse, Atlanta to San Jose—newly established Americans, brought to the States as refugees. Mostly young and male, popularly called the Lost Boys of Sudan, they would soon be writing books and starring in documentaries. To the Lost Boys, Bol was a god, the man they’d pretended to be while fighting over a basketball in Pinyudo. He traveled around the country speaking to newly arrived groups of them, encouraging them to earn Americans’ respect. (Even if he’d become a professional sideshow, friends say, Bol still followed his own advice, putting maximal effort into mundane tasks and always showing up on time). In the ’80s, Bol had been one the few southern Sudanese living in America. Now, when meetings were held for all of the American residents from the Twic region, thousands of people showed up. Bol met nephews he never knew he had and treated them as if they’d been close for years, traveling across the country for birthdays and graduations. One, Mayom Majok, had lost his father in the war, and when he was ready to marry, Bol made the traditional arrangements.
But the income slowed when the trouble started. One day in 2003, Ajok stormed out of the house during a heated argument. Bol followed, still arguing, until soon they’d both arrived at a nearby police station. The couple were arrested for breach of peace. Then, in February of 2004, after another argument, Bol was charged with third-degree assault. Citing anonymous sources, the New York Daily News reported that Bol had slammed a door that hit his daughter Abuk’s head and then called the police himself. “Things here and things in Sudan are very different,” Abuk now says when asked about Manute’s violence, though she declined to discuss details. “Things that are acceptable in Sudan aren’t acceptable in the U.S.” Cultural differences aside, the incidents cast a pall over Bol’s image.
Bona chided Bol. “I was saying to him, ‘You can’t do this kind of stuff,’” Bona says. “I told him, ‘If you have an argument with your wife, get out of the house, go into West Hartford and have a drink.’”
After the arrests, companies and organizations were reluctant to hire Bol. The income he’d been earning slowed, and then it stopped.
Bol didn’t know the driver was drunk. Maybe he was naive; maybe he was distracted. His attorney insists that Bol himself wasn’t drunk, but on evenings such as this he rarely refused at least a glass or two. It was a summer night in 2004 at the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut. Bol had just spent the evening gambling and attending a WNBA game. He was alone and unable to drive, arthritis crippling his knees, so he hailed a cab.
“The car is a problem in my family,” Bol once told a friend. “It kills people.” If the war was the greatest threat to the Bol family, perhaps the motor vehicle was the second-greatest. By his count, cars had killed 19 of his relatives. On this night, not only was the driver of the cab drunk, but he was also using a suspended license, speeding down the highway with Bol in the backseat. “Slow down,” Bol pleaded, “or let me out.” The cabbie screamed down Route 2 until he lost control, careened into a guardrail, spun across two lanes, and slammed into a ledge. Bol and the driver flew from their seats then out of the car. Bol lay unconscious. The cab driver went into cardiac arrest; within hours he was dead.
The paramedics’ bodyboards were too short to hold Bol, so they fastened two together, then airlifted him to a hospital, where he was put on life support. He had two broken vertebrae and a dislocated knee. To improve circulation, doctors temporarily fused his left wrist and hand to his abdomen. His face was mangled and his neck was punctured; the flesh from one leg seemed to have all been ripped away.
Bol survived, but he would never be the same. He would walk with a cane and struggle to stand. Once the greatest athlete his country had ever seen, Bol would be turned into just another elder at age 41. He spent months in the hospital, using his wit and perspective to charm reporters who came to hear about the horror he’d experienced. “All the meat in my left hand was gone,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times. “I think the road took it.”
But for the first time in his life, words of desperation had crept into Bol’s vocabulary. “I was wondering, What did I do wrong to God?” he told the Boston Globe. “I’ve gone to war zones before and never got shot. Why is this happening to me now?” His medical bills rose. He had no insurance.
Some of his college teammates organized an alumni game at Bridgeport to raise money for his bills, bringing together ex-players from the area. A friend made replicas of Bol’s number 10 Bridgeport jersey. Bol showed up, and again the crowd swarmed to see him, just like the old days. “Bol was talking his usual bag of junk to everybody,” says John O’Reilly, a teammate, but the energy and infectiousness that once had made him king of Bridgeport’s campus had waned. “You could tell he was in so much pain,” says John Mullin, a college teammate. “He was hunched over. He went from being a guy who was very outgoing and friendly, and it took a little off of him.”
Many of his friends helped, but Bol felt miffed over one person who never even called: John Garang. Even though their relationship had gone cold, Bol had expected well wishes from the leader of his homeland. Back in Sudan, peace talks were again under way, and this time Garang—rather than leaders of rebel splinter groups—was deeply involved. A series of negotiations and diplomatic baby steps led to the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in January 2005, officially ending the war. Pockets of violence would continue to emerge throughout the south among rebel militias, but the violence that had ravaged Sudan for 22 years was over.
Finally, Bol could go home.
He arrived in his former village to a new Turalei, rebuilt by returning refugees, and there he found the boy. The boy he’d met in Pochala, Victor—the one with the gnarled and quarrelsome teeth who’d run from Turalei into the bush and away from the lions only to sit in squalor for more than a decade, who’d emerged from the camp’s sea of misery just to meet and touch Bol—was back. Only he was a man now, and he stood surrounded by children, all of them crowded underneath the shade of a tree. The tree, it seemed, was a school. The boy now had a title: headmaster.
After Bol’s visit to Pochala in the early ’90s, Victor Anyar had remained in refugee camps for another decade. His daily struggle for survival persisted, and his moments of comfort were rare. Pochala erupted in violence a year after Anyar arrived, so he moved to a camp in northwestern Kenya called Kakuma, Swahili for “nowhere.” In Kakuma they received rations about every two weeks. Usually, it was enough for one meal a day, but often the members of the local indigenous tribe, the Turkana, came to the camp asking for food. If you shared your rations, they treated you well. If you refused, they shot you. Anyar always shared.
At the camp there was a school, but Anyar says he learned little. He made friends, though they were bound mostly by shared misery. He maintained hope that he would someday leave, but the reports from Sudan seemed bleak; as bad as life in Kakuma was, it was paradise compared with Anyar’s home. “Life was strange,” he says.
But one day, the camp hummed with rumors of a new plan to take some of the boys from Kakuma and send them to America, the richest place in the world, a place where they would all live like chiefs—and the place where Manute Bol had made his fortune. Anyar couldn’t wait to get there. Soon the boys were leaving, heading off to parts unknown. They would send letters back to the camp, where Anyar and his friends learned more: You could only marry one wife in America, and in the winters the cold made Kakuma seem like a furnace. As group after group set off to their new home, Anyar kept waiting for his opportunity. Finally, in 2001, he was summoned for interviews. He told his story, explained that in Kakuma he had no family, that he needed the promise of America to build his life anew. There were forms to fill out, then more meetings to attend, and then finally he received word: He would be going to America. After more than a decade in refugee camps, he would have a bed, a full stomach, a home.
Until one day everything changed. There had been an attack, refugees and workers told Anyar, not in Kakuma or Sudan or even Ethiopia but in the one place where there were supposed to be no attacks, where everyone was rich and peace was a given. A plane had flown into a tall building, then another plane into another building. The buildings fell. The world stopped.
U.S. immigration policies tightened, and no more Lost Boys would be admitted—not for now, anyway. In Kakuma, Anyar sat in his hut, defeated. He would never get to see the country he’d dreamt of, never reunite with the friends who’d gone on to better lives. Former refugees were now college students, factory workers, security guards, and fast-food servers—making a life for themselves, enjoying a freedom they’d never known. One would run the 1,500-meter race for the United States in the Olympics. Anyar kept eating grain and beans. He kept pushing through each 15-day cycle, trying to make his rations last.
Anyar finally left Kakuma for Nairobi, hoping to find work there or continue to another refugee camp on the other side of the country. There he met a missionary named Bob Bentley who lived nearby with his wife and two kids, and worked at a local Church of Christ. When Bentley got to know Anyar, he was struck not by his harrowing story—when dealing with refugees, you hear a lot of harrowing stories—but by his potential to become a pastor. “In Matthew 11, Jesus says, ‘I am gentle and humble in heart,’” says Bentley. “That to me described Victor. He wasn’t an academic giant or anything, but he had the heart of a leader, the heart of a servant. And Jesus chose people who were a ragtag bunch.”
Bentley paid for Anyar to have his own apartment and for English classes at the local Christian school. Anyar became a part of the Bentley family and soon was thriving. His English improved faster than it ever had in Kakuma. He no longer had to worry about saving his rations. He was happy, at peace.
But with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, there was suddenly hope for his homeland, and Anyar decided that perhaps it was time to return. Though he’d seen his father shot, he thought maybe other family members were still alive, waiting for him. He asked Bentley to send him back to Turalei.
Anyar arrived and reunited with friends he hadn’t seen since the day the murahaleen came. He found his mother and brother living not far from Turalei, in another village in Twic. But now that he was home, Anyar had to figure out what to do with his new life. A childhood spent bouncing from refugee camp to refugee camp leaves a man with few skills. Where once children had grown up learning to care for goats and cattle, now a whole generation arrived back at their homes unsure of how to do anything. No one in Anyar’s family spoke English, so he began teaching his nephews, the three sons of the brother with whom he’d just reconnected. Every day they sat under a tree and Anyar conducted lessons.
Word began to spread that there was a teacher under the tree. More children came, their parents deciding to give them opportunities most of them had never had. Anyar went to the market to advertise, making sure everyone knew that, in the rebuilt Turalei, education would be available to all. Eventually, Anyar brought in other teachers, who found more trees. Anyar approached the local government and received funding. For perhaps the first time ever, Turalei had an officially recognized school.
That’s when Bol showed up. Bol told Anyar he remembered him from the camps, and Anyar told Bol he needed money. Bol instantly decided to adopt Anyar’s cause. The man who never attended a day of school in his life until appearing in Bridgeport would fund the education of his village’s next generation.
While southern Sudanese in places like Turalei had been rebuilding their homes, the horseback-riding and machete-wielding militias had gone elsewhere, leaving their trail of corpses littered across fresh swaths of land. By 2003, hell had moved to Darfur.
The horrifying news reports caught the attention of Americans, including a pastor in the Kansas City suburbs, Tom Prichard, who in 2004 became the executive director of Sudan Sunrise, an organization dedicated to education and peace in Sudan. Like almost any American who took a serious interest in Sudan, it took little time for Prichard to meet Bol.
It started with $20,000. When Bol approached Prichard with a proposal in 2008, that was all he wanted. Just $20,000 to help Anyar build his school, to give Turalei’s children blackboards, backpacks, a roof over their heads. Prichard jumped on board. He and Bol began making trips to Turalei together, and Sudan Sunrise sent builders to oversee construction and educators to train the local teachers. They would work by day and talk and sip whiskey into the night. Bol’s friends and family from all over Twic would come to sit at his feet, where they would discuss politics and trade stories.
Bol never became executive chief, as he’d once predicted as a boy. But, Prichard says, “everyone treated him like a chief. The other chiefs would all gather around just to listen to him talk.” At night Bol slept like the other villagers, just as he had years ago, in a tukul hut, with cockroaches sometimes falling from the roof and into the beds. For decades politics and war had kept him away from his home. Now he was back, drinking and laughing and building a school, bathing in the sweat that clung to his body in the triple-digit heat, welcoming the critters that invaded his hut. Let the cockroaches fall. Let the wild dogs howl and the mosquitoes buzz. Bol was home, and he was happy.
Mornings, however, remained an issue. On one occasion, Anyar decided to surprise Bol by bringing the schoolchildren to sing a song at his home. Groggy, Bol emerged from his hut to find dozens of singing and smiling kids, there to thank and celebrate the man charged with funding their education. They learned the same lesson the SPLM representative had learned on the phone in 1988. You don’t wake Bol, no matter how important your cause. “Can’t you see I’m sleeping?” he said. “Get out of here.” He waved them away and retired to his hut, only to reemerge hours later eager to play with the kids. Though Bol’s short fuse was legendary, so was his ability to forget an argument. In his playing days, he sometimes indulged in an on-court scuffle, then would be cracking jokes two or three minutes later, leaving his opponent seething. “I never once saw him angry and felt like he actually meant it,” says Matthew Kohn, a documentary filmmaker who traveled to Sudan with Prichard and Bol several times.
Bol was focused on the school, coordinating logistics and serving as a bridge between the village and the volunteers. At some point, he began thinking beyond this one school, thinking beyond Turalei to all of Twic, even all of Sudan. One day he just started saying it: “I’m going to build 41 schools.” He wanted them all over the south and even a few in Darfur and the north. Though he represented a fractured nation, Bol preached reconciliation among religions, races, and tribes. “Manute wanted to do something for every marginalized person in Sudan,” says Abdel Gabar Adam. “That’s very unusual.” At the school in Turalei, Bol insisted, all children would be welcome.
After construction ended on the first building, a sign went up: “Manute Bol Turalei Primary School.” Bol hadn’t cared about giving the school his name—in fact, he even argued against it, albeit tepidly. Prichard wanted to call it that, both because of Bol’s commitment and because it wouldn’t hurt fundraising to attach a famous name to their efforts. Some of Bol’s friends, however, were concerned. “In Dinka culture, you don’t put up any monuments or name anything after someone who is still alive,” says Bob Justin, a close family friend from Turalei. “To name something after yourself while you’re still alive, it’s almost like a sign,” he says. “It’s like saying you’re going to die.”
During his time in the NBA, Bol almost always drank Heineken. Teammates laughed at that. “Heineken, Heineken, Heineken,” Rick Mahorn says. When traveling in Africa, Bol scoffed at the Kenyan and Ugandan beers, deeming them unacceptable to his taste buds. During his stint in the CBA, he’d grown more sophisticated, schooling the youngsters about fine liquor, particularly Grand Marnier.
When drinking with the man who would become the first president of the Republic of South Sudan, however, Bol changed it up. In Salva Kiir Mayardit’s home, they sipped a South African red wine. After the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in January of 2005, the south had gained autonomy and was ruled largely by its own government. A plan was installed to take independence a step further: In 2011, the southerners would vote on a referendum to decide whether to secede from Sudan entirely.
In 2005, former SPLM leader John Garang had been installed as the first vice president of Sudan and, essentially, president of southern Sudan. When Garang died in a plane crash later that year, Kiir stepped into the role. Though Bol’s friendship with Garang had soured, he remained close to Kiir, and the two made a point to meet whenever Bol traveled through Juba, the de facto capital of southern Sudan. While Garang had seen Bol as a pawn, friends and relatives say, Kiir saw him as both an ally and a companion. They would sit in Kiir’s office sipping wine, talking politics and war until 2 or 3 a.m. Kiir belonged to the SPLM, which now competed with several other southern Sudanese political parties, and as the 2010 election approached Bol pledged unyielding support. He believed the SPLM should be given the chance to govern, particularly since they had been the ones who fought and negotiated for peace.
At the end of a trip to Sudan in the spring of 2010, Bol visited Kiir the night before Bol was to fly back to the U.S. The president was exhausted, unable to talk for long, but he made time to discuss politics with his friend. Election season was approaching, and the SPLM was campaigning to maintain control of southern Sudan. Kiir emphasized the importance of the upcoming elections. The southerners needed to elect politicians who would push for the independence referendum. Although popular sentiment leaned heavily toward secession, pockets of southerners believed it was best to remain unified in a new, peaceful Sudan. Bol and the president grew animated as they discussed the challenges that lay ahead for the SPLM. And on the larger points they agreed: It was essential that the party maintain control and push the referendum to passage.
Though he befriended people from across the political and ethnic spectrum, Bol was not one to keep a cool head while talking politics. He knew he was right, and if you were against him you were wrong, and he let you know it, often loudly, leaving some of his friends to swear off political discussions with him altogether. Likewise, if he agreed with you he became energized by your shared beliefs, turning talk into plans and plans into action before the conversation had even ended. So as he sat with the president on this night, scheduled to depart for the U.S. the next day, it took all of 20 minutes for Bol to decide to stay in Sudan and campaign for the SPLM. By helping the SPLM, Bol believed, he would be helping the southerners move toward independence.
In the ensuing months, when friends and family spoke of this meeting, they would say that the president had asked Bol to stay. But Bob Justin, a third person in the room that night, insists Bol made the decision on his own. Either way, the president was happy to have his country’s greatest icon campaigning for his side. He told Bol he would organize and pay for his transport, coordinating logistics for Bol on the campaign trail.
Bol skipped his return flight and hit the road, riding in a truck from village to village, his body jolting each time the truck hopped over craters in the dirt roads. His arthritis worsened as his political efforts intensified. Over the next few weeks, more U.S. flights were booked, and he skipped them all. “I overslept,” he told Prichard after missing a plane. “I stayed up late to watch a game.”
Soon, Bol’s body began to break down. He’d used a cane for years, but as he traveled around the country days passed when he couldn’t walk at all, when the largest man most people had ever seen had to be carried from place to place, a rag doll in the arms of his tribesmen. Still, people flocked to see the feeble and unmoving leftovers of a once powerful man—to hear him talk, to see him smile, to have the opportunity to tell others about that one time they met Manute Bol. Despite his limitations, Bol delivered his message. 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. 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. Reports circulated of other parties attempting bribery, offering villagers food and money for their votes. “Take their money,” Bol would later recall saying, “but don’t give them your votes.”
Word spread that his arthritis had worsened, so the president insisted Bol return from the campaign trail and seek medical help. The president flew Bol back to Juba and then on to Nairobi, where he could receive adequate care. Bol’s condition improved, and soon he insisted on returning to Sudan. He flew to Juba and then back to Turalei, resuming his political work. His favored candidates were far ahead in the polls. In April, 2010, the SPLM dominated the election, paving the way for the south’s eventual secession. Bol’s state, Warrap, elected the country’s first female governor, a woman Bol had championed. Southern Sudan was on its way to freedom, he believed.
But as the country continued to heal, Bol lay still, wallowing in agony. The pain had once laid deep in his joints; now it rose up to his skin. Rashes stretched across his body, the itching so bad it rendered him once more immobile. Bol returned to Juba, where he refused help from friends and lay in a hotel room, waiting for a flight back to the States to receive treatment in Kansas City. His plane arrived in Washington late, after the last flight had left for Kansas City. Bol checked into a nearby hotel, his body exhausted and drained by the travel and unrelenting pain.
In the morning, Prichard called Bol to wake him. Another morning, another unwelcome interruption of Bol’s sleep. Only this time was different. Bol didn’t yell—he lacked the energy for that. He didn’t bark. Instead he cried. “I can’t go to the airport,” he told Prichard. “I just can’t do it.” Prichard called the hotel manager, who called an ambulance to rush Bol to an emergency room.
Bol lay in the hospital, fielding phone calls and greeting visitors, insisting he was fine. His body told a different story. “He was so incredibly weak,” says Prichard. “He was really struggling.” Bol’s kidneys failed, and he was placed on dialysis. He bled internally, but doctors had trouble figuring out which organ was the source.
One day at the hospital, Prichard sat next to Bol, who rested on his bed, unaware that soon he would die. Talk turned to politics, with Bol gloating over his candidates’ success in the recent elections. They talked about the school, the upcoming referendum, the hope that had emerged after the killing finally stopped. Weak and frail and on the verge of death, Bol offered a feeble smile. “I did it,” he said. “I did it.”
Wails and songs and prayers erupted early one June morning in Turalei, the village chaotic and disconsolate, shaken by the words they’d just heard. There was a time when it had taken months to deliver a message to their greatest hero, when a woman had to tell a man who had to tell another man who had to send a letter, carried by car then plane then car again, all the way to a suburban home in the United States. Now the news of his death traveled the same distance in an instant. In Washington the doctor told Bol’s cousin. That cousin called Nicola in Juba. Nicola called Bob Justin in Turalei. Justin told the chiefs. The chiefs told the village.
President Salva Kiir arranged to have Bol’s body returned home. Roughly 10,000 people descended on Turalei, arriving from America, from Europe, from all over Twic and the whole of Sudan, to say their good-byes. His uncle Bol Chol Bol examined the body. He poked it. Sure enough it was Bol.
Memorials were held in Washington, at the National Cathedral, and in Kansas City, where members of Bol’s disparate worlds all came to pay their respects. Basketball players told stories from the court. Diplomats told stories from meeting rooms.
Seven months later, in January 2011, the southern Sudanese flocked to the polls to vote on the referendum to secede from Sudan. In London the night before the vote, Achuei says, she had a dream. She was in Turalei, standing under Bol’s favorite tree, and there he was, sitting in his chair surrounded by loved ones, passing the day with laughter and conversation. She awoke the next morning, printed out a southern Sudanese flag, grabbed a picture of Bol, and went to a polling station set up for the Sudanese diaspora. “Manute,” she said as she put her card in the ballot box. “That’s for you. That’s not for me.” With Achuei as his surrogate, Bol had cast the same vote as 98.5 percent of the people who showed up at the polls. He voted yes. Yes to forming the Republic of South Sudan. Yes to the notion that his people should be free.
They would be free, yes, but for the most part they would still be poor, still be uneducated, still be vulnerable to disease and spasms of violence. On the Peoples Under Threat rankings compiled by Minority Rights International, Sudan ranks as the second most dangerous country in the world, just behind Somalia and just ahead of Afghanistan and Iraq.
In the spring of 2011, pockets of fighting erupted throughout the border regions as the northern forces fought to take control of disputed areas before the south was scheduled to declare independence, on July 9. In Abyei, the region Bol visited when he fled from home as a boy, 80,000 people were displaced. About 15,000 of them descended on Turalei. In late June, a renegade militia attacked Turalei on foot, and 11 people were killed. Of the dead, two were Manute’s cousins. Though the south stood on the brink of independence, many across the region were fearful of another war. Only this time, it would no longer be a civil war, just a war between two states. “I hope the international community can stop the war before it starts,” says Rudwan Dawod, a Darfuri activist and former friend of Bol’s. “It’s going to be a war between country and country.”
Looking for a place to stay, many refugees set up camp not far from Bol’s school. The school stands as the village’s crown jewel, the top public school in the region, a beacon of hope for the future of Turalei, of Twic, of the Republic of South Sudan. Here is what that beacon looks like: It stuffs more than 100 students into a cramped and broiling classroom and is staffed by teachers long on patience and determination but short on education and pay—most of whom never graduated high school, none of whom earn more than $3 a day. The headmaster, Anyar, forgets his spelling and pronunciation sometimes, and he knows he needs more education but lacks the means to acquire it. After returning to Turalei, he fathered two sons. In the past year, they both died. He smiles here and there, mostly when talking about his wife, Veronica. “A lot of days,” he says, “I feel sad.”
The school goes months without providing food, until Prichard flies over from America to persuade bureaucrats from the World Food Program to provide daily meals. It goes months without clean water, until a South African engineer flies in from Khartoum to fix the pump in the school’s well. When the rains arrive the campus floods, and the kids slosh their way to class each morning, slapping and dodging disease-ridden mosquitoes. As of July 2011, there were two buildings and plans for a kitchen and five more classrooms, but still many classes take place under a tree.
Bol wanted 41 of these schools. A year after his death, they’re still working on number one.
One morning in April, a few dozen khawajas—the term Dinkas most commonly use for foreigners—came to town. The children poured out of their huts and followed the crowd to the village square, where everyone had convened to gawk at the foreigners and remember Bol. It was a moment for celebration—of Bol’s life, of southern Sudan’s impending independence, of a basketball court that had just been built by USAID. A cavalcade of speakers proceeded to the podium, alternating between khawajas and Dinkas. They extolled the virtues of Bol and preached the importance of sports, saying athletics can keep kids off the street and give them healthier ways to spend their time—the same clichés spouted at youth centers in inner-city neighborhoods across America. A black man shouted Bol’s name in celebration. A white man listed all the ways America had helped southern Sudan. Afterward, the locals began dancing, and soon the khawajas joined them, beating drums and flailing about and moving with all the flair expected of middle-aged white people attempting tribal dance. Representatives from all of the realms in which Bol once operated—the realms of government and nonprofit aid, of sports and education, of Dinkas and khawajas—all of them were here, smiling and shaking hands. The inevitable benign friction that occurs when worlds collide was amplified by the absence of the man who linked them all.
The dancing subsided and the basketball began as the celebration moved from the square to the court and everyone gathered for the inaugural game. Players started dunking—in the land of the Dinkas, someone can always dunk—each slam battering one of the brand-new rims until it sagged from the backboard. And soon after the rim broke, the khawajas were gone, back on their plane, en route to Juba. The villagers scattered, then resumed their daily business, the children playing drums on the khawajas’ leftover Coke bottles, the adults returning to their shops or their homes, a few teenagers shooting around on the limp rim they’d just been given. If you walked toward the edge of the village, away from the market and past a long row of tukul huts, you could see a solitary mound of dirt, the earth piled on top of itself a thousand times over. You’d find scattered flowers and shimmering wreaths, a fence to deter the hyenas and wild dogs. At the head of the dirt pile you would find two twigs fastened together in the shape of a cross.
If you asked around, you’d hear of plans to place a tomb there. But in the moment after the visitors departed, you would find only dirt. Dirt and rocks and the ground, with hawks circling overhead, the sun waging war on all that lies below. There would be no headstone, no sign, nothing to tell whose body rests there. Nothing to say “Here lies Manute Bol.”
They always brought up the lion. Wherever Bol went, even late in his life, they wanted to hear about the time he killed the bloodthirsty predator. Old friends asked him to tell the story again. New friends begged to hear it for the first time. Bol hated it. After all these years in America, all the time he’d spent energizing arenas across the country, all the effort he’d put into securing a future for the people of southern Sudan, people still kept asking Bol about that one damned lion.
One day, late in his life, Bol sat with a group of friends, and this time it was Tom Prichard’s turn. Prichard had grown close to Bol, helping to fuel his passions, so it seemed reasonable enough that he should get to hear about the lion. Bol kept saying that he didn’t want to tell it, that he’d told it so many times he got tired of doing so, that it wasn’t a big deal and didn’t need to be discussed. Prichard kept pushing until Bol responded with a shrug and left Prichard unsure if he was serious or joking.
“Ehh,” he said. “I made it up.”
Prichard never asked again.