by Armon Gilliam
For New Pittsburgh Courier
Without question the most memorable teammate from my 14-year pro basketball career was the late Manute Bol, affectionately known as “Nutie” by his teammates and friends. Although his 7-7 stature made him stand out in any crowd and his presence inside the lane instantly commanded attention, it was his humanitarian efforts, unique background, humor and intelligence that I came to admire most.
Manute was a man of humble yet noble beginnings. Bol Nyuol, Manute’s great-great grandfather, was a chief of the Tuic Dinka tribe. His grandfather was also a very wealthy tribal chief who was said to have had 40 wives and 80 children. Although Manute’s father was not a tribal chief nor did he inherit the family wealth, he was a well-to-do tribe member. His father was said to have had 150 cows and held the honored position of tribal elder.
|HUMANITARIAN—Former NBA basketball star Manute Bol poses for a photograph at the Sunrise Sudan headquarters in Lenexa, Kansas, June 9.
Manute’s date of birth is believed to be in the fall between the years of 1961 and 1963. The exact date is not known as a result of the practice of his tribe not using birth certificates. Instead Dinkas relied on the memory of elders to approximate a birth within the tribe.
I was curious to know more about African culture so I would ask Manute many questions about his life in Sudan when we were teammates from 1990 to 1993 on the Philadelphia 76ers. Out of those long conversations, what really stood out for me was the manhood rite rituals. The Dinkas subjected all their teenage boys who were candidates for manhood to a barbaric face and head scarring custom and the candidates had six teeth forcibly extracted. After watching other candidates go through this bloody and painful tribal custom, Manute rebelled. In fact, when Manute was identified by the elders as the next candidate for the ritual, Manute ran away on several occasions. Eventually, he was poignantly told by tribal elders that he had to go through the ritual or he would not be a Dinka. Manute acquiesced and endured the very painful demands of the manhood rite ritual. He visibly bore the markings of this ritual on his head and face the rest of his adult life.
Dinka manhood candidates also had to learn animal husbandry. Animal husbandry involved candidates learning about the birthing, care, sale and protection of cows. I was amazed by the requirement of having a 13-year-old manhood candidate kill a lion. At the tender age of 13, Manute was charged with the duty of killing an adult lion with a spear. Then he had to cut the mane off of the lion’s neck and carry it to the tribal chief. According to Manute he accomplished this feat by going into the bush and spotting a sleeping lion. He claimed to have stealthily come up behind the lion, raised his spear high in the air and deeply injected his spear into the lion’s neck. He claims that the lion roared and struggled but quickly died.
|IMPOSING PRESENCE—In this Jan. 26, 1993 photo, New York Knicks Patrick Ewing, right, is blocked by Philadelphia 76er Manute Bol during an NBA game at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
A couple years after completing all the manhood rite rituals, Manute started playing basketball when his cousin from Khartoum, Nyuol Makwag Bol, suggested he take up the sport. Eventually Manute traveled to the town of Wau and played on their local police team. Manute’s father objected and was quoted as saying that “basketball was not good work for a Dinka.” Manute did not heed his father’s warning but chose to spend hours on a local court shooting, dribbling and working on layups. One day Nyuol asked Manute “why don’t you try dunk?” Manute took one dribble and went up for a dunk. Manute often said when telling this story: “When I came down I hurt my teeth in the net.” In other words, Manute had a tooth extracted by the net. In 1979 Manute earned a spot on the city’s Catholic team where he joined his cousin Nyuol. Khartoum, however, was not an ideal place for Bol. Its very large Arab population harbored a very intense hatred of Christians and Blacks. “I did fight a lot in Khartoum,” Bol said. “I was bad. I don’t take anything. Sometimes I can say we Dinkas are crazy.”
Manute was seen by several American coaches during his time in Khartoum and was invited to come to the USA. Eventually, he came to the states with the intent of playing for Cleveland State. The details were never finalized so Manute looked for other options. He eventually enrolled at the University of Bridgeport, a Division II school, where he played during the 1984-1985 season.
Manute’s pro career started when he was drafted in the fifth round by the San Diego Clippers in 1983. Later that year the N.B.A ruled Manute had not been eligible for the draft and declared the pick invalid. He was drafted again in 1985 in the second round by the Washington Bullets. As a rookie he set the N.B.A record of 5 blocked shots per game. Manute was among the blocked shot leaders most of his career but only led the league during his rookie campaign 1985-86 and in the 1988-89 season. He was also named to the All Defensive team in 1986. He played a total of 10 years in the N.B.A for four teams—Washington Bullets, Golden State Warriors, Philadelphia 76ers and Miami Heat.
In 1987, the Bullets drafted a 5-3 point guard from Wake Forest named Tyrone “Muggsy” Bogues. This draft placed the tallest and shortest players in the history of the N.B.A on the same roster for one season. Sadly, many in the media turned the pairing of the two into a bit of a circus act. Manute and “Muggsy” were made the butt of many insensitive jokes on the TV night show circuit and even by standup comedians like Woody Allen. I had the occasion to play with “Muggsy” on the USA team that went on to win a gold medal and I played with Manute for three years on the 76ers. Based on my experiences of playing with and against these players for many years, I can say they were competitors that were very serious about their professional careers.
Being made the butt of many jokes was the least of Manute’s worries. His native country of Sudan had been engulfed by bloody civil wars since 1983. The heart of the conflict has pivoted on the Muslims desire to control and/or exterminate Christians although animist and non-Muslims were also targets of persecution. As such, the Muslims enacted the extreme measures of cold-blooded murders and forced slavery against non-Musl
ims for decades in Sudan as a method to impose their will on the opposition and country. The religious hostility was so severe that Manute claims to have lost 250 family members during the civil war. Manute was not the type to remain neutral in the face of such oppression and violence by Muslims. Instead he was known to fight against the oppression in various forms. “In the United States they call Black people nigger, you know, that thing. In my country, the Moslem people call us Abid (Arabic for slave). Really, I don’t like. If they say it to somebody, not even me, I fight them,” Manute said in a Washington Post article.
Manute, whose name means “special blessing” in the Dinka language, also used more sophisticated measures of fighting. He was credited with championing a cause that sought and eventually was successful in unifying the warring factions in Sudan. He took part in peace talks, visited refugee camps, protested outside several embassies, giving millions to support a rebel group, the 2006 Sudan Freedom March, appearing before Congress on behalf of his tribe and starting the Ring True foundation. “Manute gave his life for his country in all kinds of aspects,” said Bol’s friend, Tom Prichard, executive director of the humanitarian organization Sudan Sunrise.
Manute literally and figuratively gave all he had to help his tribe survive Muslim persecution. It is reported that he gave most of his N.B.A. earnings, a good portion of his time and even contracted the deadly Steven-Johns syndrome which eventually claimed his life while in Sudan on a humanitarian effort. “I can’t think of a person that I know of in the world that used their celebrity status for a greater good than Manute Bol. He used it for his people. He gave his life for his people,” said Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas
On June 19, Manute’s life was prematurely taken by complications from Stevens-Johnson syndrome which caused acute kidney failure. Manute’s funeral was held June 29 at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. He is survived by two concurrent wives and 10 children.
The proud Dinka warrior who fought hard to overcome poverty, for his people’s survival and in the N.B.A is no longer with us but his legacy lives on. Well done my friend and rest in peace.