Manute Bol: Most Valuable Helper

June 23, 2010

Sports stars often make headlines with spectacular misconduct, and they don’t use their celebrity enough to make the world a better place. But every now and then, along comes a star as gifted ethically as athletically — and I’m thinking now of one of the greatest basketball players ever.

Certainly not one of the best shooters, for he averaged only 2.6 points a game. But Manute Bol, at more than 7 feet 6 inches tall, was a moral giant who was unsurpassed in leveraging his fame on behalf of the neediest people on earth.

Bol died on Saturday from a noxious mix of ailments, exacerbated by his insistence on working in Sudan to build schools and forestall a new civil war. Bol’s great dream was to build 41 new schools across Sudan (he admired the first President Bush, hence the No. 41).

It’s a lofty dream, particularly because he is no longer around to speak at fund-raisers. It’s almost as inconceivable as the dream he had when he was an African cattle-herder aspiring to play in the N.B.A. — and this too can be a slam-dunk, posthumously, if his fans help out.

If each admirer chipped in the cost of a ticket to just one game, if each of his former teams agreed to match donations, if a few current and former N.B.A. stars agreed to stand in for Bol at fund-raisers, why then schools would sprout all across Sudan.

The first of Bol’s 41 schools is now approaching completion in his childhood village, said Tom Prichard, executive director of Sudan Sunrise, the charity that Bol used to build his schools. Forty to go.

Bol grew up herding cattle. Twice he ran away in hopes of attending school, but he never got much formal education. He moved to the United States and played in the N.B.A. from 1985 to 1995, setting a rookie record for blocking shots. He was a curiosity, the tallest player in the league when he started.

As Bol began playing before large crowds in America, his homeland exploded in violence. Northern Sudan waged a savage war against the South, costing roughly two million lives. American officials and news organizations mostly looked the other way, but Bol worked passionately to ease the suffering.

One summer, Bol button-holed more than 45 members of Congress, trying to get them to pay attention to the slaughter. He donated most of his basketball wealth to help the people of southern Sudan, and he flew into war zones to highlight their suffering. Sudan bombed camps that he visited, perhaps in an effort to assassinate him.

Some 250 people in his extended family were killed in the war, Bol estimated, many of them by Sudanese soldiers from Darfur. Yet when the Sudanese Army turned on Darfur in 2003, he was one of the southern Sudanese who led the way in protesting the slaughter in Darfur.

Bol envisioned co-ed, multifaith schools in which Christians in southern Sudan studied alongside Muslims from northern Sudan. Darfuri Muslims have been helping to build the first school, in Bol’s hometown of Turalei, a two-and-a-half day drive from the nearest paved road.

Robert McFarlane, a former national security adviser to former President Ronald Reagan, traveled late last year with Bol to Turalei and gushes about what a “giant heart of gold” Bol had. Mr. McFarlane told me: “The people of Turalei almost worshiped Manute for his commitment to make schools available for their kids.”

Critics sometimes derided Bol’s kooky publicity stunts, like participating in a celebrity boxing match or putting on ice skates to become the world’s “tallest hockey player.” Bol shrugged off the scorn because he seemed to care less about his dignity than he did about raising money for schools.

Bol made his American home in Olathe, Kan., and a local paper, The Kansas City Star, made a larger point a few weeks before he died:

“Bol symbolizes an unfortunate side of our sports obsession and how we measure the worth of those who play,” The Star noted. “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.”

A new civil war may be brewing today in Sudan: The South is expected to secede early next year in accordance with an international treaty, and many fear that the North will unleash war rather than lose oil wells in the South. President Obama and his administration have been weak and ineffective toward Sudan in ways that make another horrific war there more likely. We can only hope that President Obama and his aides will be bolstered by Bol’s gumption and moral compass.

Bol will never be able to cut the ribbon at the schools he dreamed of. But we can pick up where he left off. In a world with so much athletic narcissism, let’s celebrate a Most Valuable Humanitarian by building schools through his charity,