Manute Bol: Height, and depth

By Bob Ryan, Globe Columnist 

June 22, 2010

He didn’t know how to hold a pencil.

This is Manute Bol we’re talking about. He was a Dinka tribesman from southern Sudan who had been brought to America, as if in a hokey movie, to play a strange game in which 10 people in skimpy outfits ran around and bounced a ball, with the object to put the ball through an orange ring. But to play for an American college he needed to be educated in English as a second language, and that was an interesting proposition since in his previous life, one that revolved around cows, there never had been a need to hold a writing implement.

Manute Bol was, without doubt, the most unlikely player in the 64-year history of the National Basketball Association.

There have been other Africans, but none who came from as far away from Western civilization as this sweet, humble, humorous, and, above all, generous man who died Saturday of kidney failure at age 47 in Charlottesville, Va.

“He was the Golden Fleece,’’ says Leigh Montville, his biographer. “He was the Great Unknown, the Great Game Changer, the Great Everything. He was Sidd Finch. But he was real.’’

The story was too improbable to make up. “In 1979 he had never heard of basketball,’’ Montville points out. “Six years later he was in the NBA.’’

All that mattered was that he was 7 feet 7 inches. As basketball people are fond of saying, you can’t teach height.

Montville is the former Globe and Sports Illustrated writer and columnist, as well as the man who authored acclaimed biographies of Ted Williams and Babe Ruth, which might suggest that he only deals in the perceived big stories. But he always has had a fascination with the offbeat, and so he was the perfectly logical person to tackle the subject of Bol, which he did in his wonderful 1993 biography “Manute: The Center of Two Worlds.’’

“Of all the books I’ve done,’’ Montville says, “the one I enjoyed the most was Manute’s. For one thing, it’s the only one that got me to Khartoum.’’

Ah, Khartoum. “I was staying in a Best Western,’’ Montville points out, “which sounds fine. But it was under martial law, and things were locked up by 10:30 at night. There were dirt roads. Someone said it was like Dodge City. And when it got dark, dogs took over the city. And then you had the 16-year-old kids with AK 47s.’’

But for Manute Bol, who had spent his entire life doing what Dinka tribesmen did, his first trip to Khartoum was like going to Vegas.

How he got there, and why, is all detailed in the book. Last time I checked, Amazon was offering eight new copies and 60 used ones (hint, hint). Basketball junkies will not be surprised to learn that a central figure in the story was our old friend, Kevin Mackey, or that his cohort was a Runyonesque figure named Don Feeley, who was Mackey’s Mackey, if you will. The ubiquitous Leo Papile is likewise front and center, which actually makes this a Boston story. I’ll just leave you hanging by saying that it all started with a photograph.

Bol’s American saga included stops at the University of Bridgeport and a summer with the Rhode Island Gulls of the United States Basketball League, said Gulls located in Newport. After two years at Bridgeport he entered the NBA in 1985 as a second-round pick of the Washington Bullets (believe me, I’m condensing), for whom he led the league in blocked shots as a rookie. His offense was laughably rudimentary, but the Bullets were quite willing to live with that.

Early that first season I went to Washington to do a piece on Boston College star Michael Adams. Manute must have blocked 117 shots that day, or something close to it. Afterward, Bullets general manager Bob Ferry said to me, “Manute Bol [bleeps] up a game as much as anyone I’ve ever seen.’’

The game I’ll never forget took place March 26, 1987, when he led the Bullets to victory over the Celtics by blocking 12 shots and grabbing 17 rebounds. In the first quarter he had the quinella, blocking the starting five. I repeat: in the first quarter. Said Washington coach Kevin Loughery, “He has the greatest defensive effect of anybody since Bill Russell. You are often positive he can’t get your shot, but he does, because he doesn’t even have to jump.’’ I know I never saw anyone else ever get Kevin McHale’s turnaround.

His offense remained primitive in part, as Montville explains, because he suffered from a deformity that left his fingers in a curled position. “He was 7-7, but he could not palm a basketball,’’ Montville explains. “He had to dunk with two hands.’’ That he later was turned into something of a 3-point shooter by Don Nelson only adds to the saga.

As endearing a personality as he was, the man was pretty high maintenance, as well as offensively challenged, and the Bullets sent him to Golden State after three years. He led the league in blocked shots for a second time in 1988-89, but the Warriors dealt him to Philadelphia two years later.

“Nobody really ever got the payoff, did they?’’ Montville says. “Mackey never did. He never played for him at Cleveland State. Bruce Webster at Bridgeport was going to schedule up big-time if Manute had stayed for another year, so he didn’t. You can’t say the Bullets or Warriors did.’’

Bol earned a little over $5 million in the NBA, and a great deal of it went back to his people. He spent his entire post-NBA life trying to aid the plight of his countrymen. Then, as now, Sudan was engaged in a brutal civil war. In the end, he was a person of such stature that both sides wished to exploit him.

Some people wonder how he lasted 10 years and 653 games (including postseason) when there wasn’t a whole lot more than 200 pounds stretched onto that 7-7 body, but Montville says Manute offered an explanation: milk.

“He said to me, ‘It’s all in the milk,’ ’’ Montville explains. “ ‘You people drink this two-percent, this pasteurized stuff.’ Then he told me about this summer ritual, the Toc, when you spend the whole summer drinking milk straight from the cow. It’s a contest to see who can fatten up the most. He said the real cow’s milk gives you strong bones, and that’s why he didn’t get hurt despite the fact he was so skinny.’’

Interesting frame of reference, eh? The NBA has never had another like it.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and can be reached at