Bol's stature matches size

Jun 1 2010 - 5:57pm

The hero is 7 feet 7 inches when he's standing but for now lies on his back, crammed into a standard hospital bed in Virginia. His name is Manute Bol. You might remember him as the tallest player in NBA history during his 10 seasons.

The story of why he is hooked to tubes in Virginia instead of relaxing at his home in Olathe, Kan., is inspiring and embarrassing and humbling and depressing, all at the same time.

He knew when the story was running, and wanted to talk, to spread his message. But the pain was too much. Maybe later.

So for now, he lays in that bed and takes more tests and grinds through more pain and wonders when he can get back to doing more good. This is the inspiring and humbling part of his story.

"He's making progress," says a friend, Tom Prichard, standing outside Bol's room. "But he's got a long way to go."

Bol is fighting acute kidney failure and a potentially fatal skin disease contracted while trying to help his native Sudan. The skin disease is so bad he couldn't eat for 11 days. The man who risks his life for others takes on this fight mostly on his own. One of the teams he played for is sending flowers. The NBA playoffs march on.

Bol spent his entire basketball fortune and survived attacks on his life to save and improve lives in and around Sudan. He lost hundreds of family members in an ongoing war but saved or educated at least that many with peacemaking efforts that one author compared to Muhammad Ali.

Ali is a legend, of course, while Bol is at best a cult hero and at worse a freak show. Maybe if Bol was a better player we'd pay more attention. Maybe if he was doing his good deeds closer to our home, instead of his, we'd help him more.

Instead, Bol symbolizes an unfortunate side of our sports obsession and how we measure the worth of those who play. The best athletes get the love, most times regardless of what they do away from sport.

Bol, doing the work of a saint, is largely ignored.

And that is the embarrassing and depressing part of his story.

From the very beginning, Bol's career had a freak-show quality to it. How could it not? The Guinness Book of World Records recognized him as one of the tallest people in human history.

He could easily touch the rim without jumping, and his inseam measures I-5. To give you an idea, an average American man is roughly eye level with Bol's bellybutton.

This was always the thing with him. He remains the only player in NBA history to average more blocks than points. In Seattle, room 2064 at the Holiday Inn kept an 8-foot bed for when he played the Sonics. Woody Allen joked that Bol was so skinny his teams saved money on travel by just faxing him from city to city.

Bol had precious little experience playing organized ball, but taught himself a three-pointer to keep opponents honest. There is a bit of Bol's personality in his preference to stay outside. He's always been gentle and kind, sometimes to his own detriment. It's been like that off the court, too.

When the NBA no longer wanted him, he rode coach and stayed in Travelodges for a season in the CBA. Saying the travel "is killing me," he quit basketball and allowed himself to be a bit of a circus show. Anything to generate money and attention for the tragedies in Sudan.

He made appearances as the world's tallest jockey (even though he'd never ridden a horse) and hockey player (even though he couldn't skate). He even boxed Refrigerator Perry on TV, all of it to help his people back home.

"There's no way I can put the money in my pocket while my people are getting beat up," he once said. "Whatever I can do to help my people I will do. I feel whatever I make here I make for my people."

The Heat once fined Bol $25,000. He missed two exhibition games, so the fine wasn't out of line, except this: he was in Washington D.C. for Congress-sponsored peace talks between rebel leaders from Sudan.

The team donated the money to Bol's charity, but he was still annoyed, hinting out loud that trying to bring peace to a war-torn country might be a decent excuse for missing a couple preseason games.

You could do worse than that for an anecdote of Bol's place in this world. According to reports, he made nearly $6 million in his career, and, aside from a few American comforts, spent it all trying to save lives and educate children back home. He has given so much and received little in comparison.

He was once lured back to his home country with the promise of a cabinet post, only to find out he would be required to convert to Islam. When he refused, he was stranded for nearly five years. His trust and good intentions have been abused so many times.

Even while playing, he went into war zones to help the Lost Boys and other refugees. Sometimes, those visits were interrupted by bombings from warlords who viewed Bol as a threat.

His family was wiped out by Darfurians, but when that country became victims, Bol was one of the first Sudanese to speak out in support. A Christian, he told his people that extremists were the enemy, not Muslims.

Bol lives a modest lifestyle now, his expenses paid either with speaking fees or money left over from a few fundraisers put on by former teammates, including Chris Mullin.

He needed every penny of it six years ago, when he nearly died from a car accident. He needs it now, too, to fight diseases contracted while trying to help others. He was in Sudan to help build a school, and extended his stay after the government asked him to make appearances to fight election corruption.

It's one more time he risked his life to help his people. This one almost killed him. If he comes out of this healthy, a mountain of medical expenses await along with an $18,000 bill to finish three classrooms for 150 children in Sudan.

There are any number of theories why he hasn't been able to finish those classrooms with the equivalent of NBA tip money. Some say the league's "NBA Cares" program is hesitant to do much in such a dangerous part of the world. Maybe not enough people know about Bol's efforts. Maybe Bol just doesn't have the right connections.

"There's guys who give away turkeys in the 'hood and get more props than this guy building schools in the Sudan," says Steve Perry, author of "Man Up!" and an expert on social issues. "I've had more shine on TV than he has, and what this guy is doing is way more important."

The uncomfortable part of this is that we'll appreciate Bol more when he's gone, whenever that comes. He is expected to come out of the hospital in Virginia fine enough, but it's hard not to notice that he's already lived longer than most of the others on Guinness' list of the world's tallest people.

This is how it often goes, of course. A man's life is only fully inventoried after it's over. Nobody gets a eulogy until their funeral. This is the concern of Perry and other friends.

Bol can't save his country on his own, certainly not without the greater stature or fortune that would've come with a more successful basketball career. He needs help, lots of it, and the irony is that it may take his death to get that help.

Maybe then, old friends with more resources and fame will continue a cause more important than anything they did on the basketball court.

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