Months after his death, Manute Bol's dream coming to fruition in Sudan

Jan 21 2011 - 5:11pm

The good began with a tragedy. The happy story has an awful beginning, the hero's vision turning to reality only after his death. This is probably the only way it would ever happen.

Six months ago this week, a freakishly tall saint who made his home in Olathe, Kan., passed away from a mess of disease contracted while saving lives. You might remember Manute Bol as the 7-foot-7 shot blocker in the NBA, designated by the Guinness Book of World Records as one of the tallest men in history, but there is so much more to his remarkable life.

The stories began to take hold after he died last summer of his own generosity.

Bol had planned to build 41 schools in his native Sudan, where he hoped education could unite a region torn by war. He lost hundreds of family members in that violence, but saved at least that many with peacekeeping efforts that one author compared to Muhammad Ali.

Then, radio shows across the country picked up the story, a feature in The New York Times and, eventually, a video produced by the NBA that aired on the league's TV network.

Kevin McHale is a Hall of Fame player with a regular platform on national television. He's on the phone now, because ever since he saw that TV piece he's been trying to organize his famous and powerful friends.

"It's incumbent on us to help him fulfill his dream," McHale says.

The surest sign that something big is about to happen comes Tuesday. That's when executives from the NBA are scheduled to meet with Tom Prichard, head of the Sudan Sunrise charity that was so dear to Bol's heart.

For years, the NBA has kept mostly away from Bol's cause. That's changing in the six months since his death.

Bol would be so proud. Southern Sudan just completed a referendum vote on whether to remain part of the country or become independent. This is a historical moment in Bol's land, a glimpse of peace and better life that he helped bring.

In a very real way, Bol died to keep this referendum on track. He was there in Sudan last April, in and out of hospitals fighting the diseases that would eventually kill him. When the government tried bribery to get certain candidates elected who would then kill the referendum, Bol left his hospital, so sick he had to be carried to and from the car.

Once he got in front of his people, he told them it's OK to take the money. Take the food, too. Then he smiled.

"And vote for our people," he said, and everyone cheered.

This new Sudan will not come without struggle. There will be violence and uncertainty. Even the most optimistic believe this. But there might also be more peaceful times, and Bol's work is a critical part of that.

He had plans to build 41 schools in Sudan, in honor of the first President Bush, who Bol saw as an ally for liberty. Bol saw education as his country's biggest need. In a place where Muslims and Christians are taught to hate and kill each other, Bol wanted his schools open to everyone, so a new generation could learn and grow together.

Bol spent his entire basketball fortune and risked his life repeatedly to spread peace and education back home. Even during his career, he went into war zones to help the Lost Boys and other refugees. Warlords bombed villages they thought Bol visited. Darfurians wiped out his family, but when violence turned on that region, he was one of the first Sudanese to speak out in support.

Bol might still be alive today if he'd been more selfish. He extended what would be his final stay in Sudan last April on the request of the nation's president. Bol never was good at saying no. So he stayed, and the kidney problems grew worse. The skin disease got so bad he couldn't eat for 11 days. It turned out one of his medications was actually making him sicker.

He flew back to the States, and even crammed into a standard-sized hospital bed with tubes going in and out of his skin, he talked of the progress in Sudan and what he could do next. Just days before he died, he told friends he would go back in a few months. He told them he needed to go back soon.

"When peace comes to Sudan," he used to say, "I will know I did something good."

The referendum is expected to pass. Bol's people will be free, his vision never closer to reality. The other day, his sister-in-law voted. She carried a picture of Bol into the booth, because she wanted him to be there.

The NBA is being mostly quiet about this, at least publicly. Contacted for this column, a spokesman would only release a prepared statement from Kathy Behrens, league VP for social responsibility and player programs, who avoided specifics but said in part:

"We're now looking at how the NBA Family can continue to support the work that Manute was doing in the Sudan to make access to education a reality."

For years, the league has been conspicuously absent from any real support of Bol's cause. The NBA has always promoted its global standing, and its NBA Cares program has given more than $100 million to charities over the last five years, but considered the Sudan to be too dangerous.

That appears to be changing now, a combination of hoped-for peace and an increasing awareness of Bol's cause helping the league evolve its stance. Nobody can say for sure what form the support will take, but the NBA's resources can do as much for the cause as Bol did in years.

An American counsel is pushing to get basketball courts installed in every county of the Southern Sudan. If enough are built in time, they'll have a big tournament as the country celebrates its independence this summer.

Those who knew Bol well -- Prichard, friends, and relatives -- have said that Bol would not be upset that the cause is taking hold only after his death. He would be proud. This is what he lived for, and in very real ways, it's also what he died for.

"In my heart, I have a real sense of unfinished business for Manute," McHale says. "Let's see if we can help him finish it. All things in life, I think we like to put a period at the end of it. In all things we do. Hopefully we can do that for Manute."

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