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Manute Bol, a “Special Blessing”

The long of the short of it. Manute Bol (7'7”) with Muggsy Bogues (5’3')

Manute Bol gave to those who had absolutely no way of repaying him for his time, energy and generosity. Fighting for a group of people tortured, slaughtered and misled by the government of Sudan. What a legacy of kindness, perseverance and courage Manute has left to the world!

If you follow professional basketball at all, by now you have heard that the 7’7” Manute Bol died from a host of health conditions in a Virginia hospital on June 19, 2010. It was the combination of kidney failure, Stevens-Johnson Syndrome and internal bleeding that finally caused his heart to stop beating – all related to deferring much-needed health care in order to stay in Sudan to help through the April elections.

A quick online search reveals that within a few days after his death over 1,200 stories about Manute have been published, with more to come.

The number of articles, news stories and blogs reveals the outpouring of love and international attention focused on this gentle giant’s legacy — not only as an NBA player, but also on the all-consuming drive he had to help his people back home in Sudan.

Allow me to take a step back: I was mentor/chaplain for the NBA Washington Bullets/Wizards for 19 years (1979-1998). How I became chaplain during the heyday of Kevin Porter, Elvin Hayes, Kevin Grevey, Bernard King, Wes Unseld, Jeff Ruland, Rick Mahorn, John Lucas, Chris Webber, Mitch Kupchak, and Manute Bol is another story.

Manute was drafted in the second round by the Washington Bullets in 1985. Nothing I had heard or read about him could have prepared me for what I saw — a tall, spindly man as thin as a praying mantis.

My first thought was: How is he going to survive the required running up and down the court, coupled with sharp elbows and all of the pounding that goes on under the basket? I knew that no NBA opponent was going to give him a break.

The team management put Manute on a strict regimen weight-lifting, pizza and anything else that would put some meat on his bones. He added 17 pounds before his debut in October 1985.

Manute’s likeability factor and ticket-selling, shot-blocking statistics (2,086 blocks in 624 games over 10 seasons) speak for themselves. His physical presence, coupled with his famous trash-talking, warrior-like ferocity on the court forced other players to change their game. Somehow he defied all of the odds against him.

Chuck Douglas (Assistant GM, Player Personnel Director, and Director of Scouting; 20 years for Bullets/Wizards) was fresh out of college and was assigned to deal with all media intrigued with Manute and also to take care of anything Manute needed to have done. He was on call 24/7. Chuck’s first year, the Bullets invented a title for him: Public Relations and Coaching Assistant.

It was cross-cultural miscommunication at its finest. Throw in a couple of video cameras and it would have been the gold standard for all other reality TV shows!

Imagine the comedy. Manute had no license. No car. No apartment. No furniture. Nothing taught in any of the fine classes at the University of Maryland could prepare Chuck for this experience. And Chuck was so young that he didn’t have a clue about balancing a check book, what kind of curtains were needed to go with the furniture, and all sorts of other taken-for-granted mundane aspects of life in America. A cross-cultural accident waiting to happen on a daily basis.

Manute didn’t have many clothes that fit him, so that first year he wore his Bullets practice gear most of the time. His contract called for the Bullets to pay him $137,500 that first season, so they helped out with a lot of the extra expenses.

When Manute came to the NBA he could barely speak English and was having a tough time trying to explain his needs and also trying to comprehend the responses.

One day Manute told Chuck that he had some small animals in his apartment that were eating his food and that he wanted to kill them. After trying to clarify the request, Chuck told him that he would take care of it. Chuck thought that the animals were mice or some other rodent, so he went out to pick up a few mouse traps, some other items and even a BB gun…just in case. When Manute saw the arsenal of solutions for his problem he said, “You Americans are stupid.” The animals eating Manute’s food – the ones he was trying to kill – were flies. All Chuck had to do was to buy some insect repellent and a fly swatter.

There were moments like this every day. Manute was very proud and independent. After the first year he began to handle most of his own affairs.

David Letterman, Johnny Carson, GQ magazine, and other media outlets wanted to interview Manute. One moment Chuck was dealing with the heady world of primetime media and the next moment Chuck and Manute were playing roles in another episode of the Twilight Zone.

Chuck’s car was a hand-me-down 1962 Ford Falcon. They rigged the car so that Manute could sit in the back seat and Chuck would drive him anywhere he needed to go.

Manute had a lot of fine qualities, but patience wasn’t one of them. When Chuck was taking too long at the drycleaners or a convenience store, Manute would beep the car horn until Chuck came out with whatever he was tasked to do. After all, it was easy for Manute reach the horn from the back seat.

Bob Ferry (Bullet’s GM) was in the car the first time Manute practiced his driving skills at the old Capital Center parking lot in Landover. Chuck had said, “I’m not risking my life!” So it fell to Bob. The parking lot was huge, but there were parking lot lights strategically placed all over the lot and Manute had a few close calls. Bob got out of the car quite shaken and drained.

Manute loved to embellish the adventurous story about killing a lion with a spear in the Sudanese bush. The lion had eaten some of his cows and he knew what he had to do. Only a few people really knew that he waited until the lion was asleep before thrusting it through with his spear. “I’m not a crazy American. Who would want to kill a lion while it was awake?” he said. Awake. Asleep. This still adds up to quite a feat.

Manute endeared himself to the players, the management and the fans. Manute was very confident in his size, had an excellent work ethic, loved his Sudanese heritage, and was enthusiastic about life. He enjoyed being around people who were honest and truthful; a man without guile.

He loved to play jokes on his teammates and was the brunt of many practical jokes. He could give it and he could take it. Sometimes he would chase teammates like Jeff Ruland and Jeff Malone out of the locker room, throwing his sneakers at them. We probably will never know what deviously funny things they were doing that elicited such an explosive response.

According to published salary statistics, during his decade-long tenure as an NBA player, Manute earned almost $6 million. That’s a lot of money by any standards. It has been said that he donated much of his NBA earnings to his native Sudan.

Manute Bol, Mikhail Gorbachev and Robert McFarlane at the Reconciliation Forum held in Washington, DC in 2009. 'Bud' McFarlane made a generous contribution of $50,000 towards Manute's School Project and accompanied Manute to Turalei to visit the construction site

In later years after the glow of the basketball court lights had dimmed and the regular source of income had dried up, Manute was caught between his personal needs and the needs of his own people back in Sudan.

It was easy to determine that he was focused on the latter, which drove him to the boxing ring, the hockey rink, the horse track and other things that could be compared to the old circus freak shows. He was willing to do anything to raise the awareness of the plight of his people and also to raise money for his cause. A selfless humanitarian bearing gifts – a winsome smile and a hearty laugh. Motivated and even driven by a cause bigger than himself.

Manute’s father, a Dinka tribal chief, picked a name for him at birth that literally means “special blessing.” A prophetic declaration of sorts, depicting the impact Manute would have on millions of people.

My mind goes back to a pre-game chapel meeting in 1987 when Manute had a personal encounter with Jesus of the Bible. I remember the look on his face when it all made sense to him and he became aware of his place in God’s story. A moment in time that would impact and shape how he lived out his life in the years that followed.

Yes, Manute had his faults, but he is now in the stands and we are on the court. He is part of the “heavenly cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1) cheering us on to finish well: Still engaging in a bit of trash-talking, no doubt.

The way Manute lived his life – pouring out to those who are in need and who have absolutely no way of repaying him for his generosity – is wisdom for those of us who are yet alive…struggling with our own issues.

And it also gives us a glimpse into Manute’s profound understanding of what Jesus had done for him some 2,000 years ago. The ultimate “special blessing.” — a movement of Americans and Sudanese Christians and Muslims working to achieve reconciliation, unity and the end of oppression in Sudan. Through this organization, Manute Bol was raising funds to build schools in Sudan. May his legacy continue…

Joel A. Freeman, Ph.D. – – is a professional speaker and corporate trainer. Serial entrepreneur. Prolific writer. Motivational consultant/mentor to pro athletes and CEOs. He also describes himself as an off-key singer and extremely bad dancer. Veteran chaplain of the NBA Washington Bullets/Wizards (’79-’98), he is also the co-author of the book and award-winning film, “Return To Glory: The Powerful Stirring of the Black Man” (view film trailer here) – Joel Freeman, was team chaplain for the Washington Bullets/Wizards for 19 years (’79-’98)

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