Manute Bol, former Washington Bullet and one of NBA's tallest players, dies at 47

The shot-blocking giant, one of the NBA's tallest players at 7-7, succumbed to complications from a rare skin disease at 47, a relative said.
By Matt Schudel
Sunday, June 20, 2010

Manute Bol, who became a basketball sensation in the 1980s as a skeletally thin shot-blocking giant with the Washington Bullets and other professional teams, and who devoted his post-basketball life to improving the lot of his fellow natives of Sudan, died June 19 at the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville. He was 47.

His cousin George Bol said Mr. Bol had internal bleeding and other complications from Stevens-Johnson syndrome, a rare skin disease that he contracted from a medication he received in Africa.

Mr. Bol, one of the two tallest players in NBA history, was also one of its most exotic and endearing -- and surely the only one to have killed a lion with a spear. His unusual journey to basketball stardom began in southern Sudan, where he was a cattle-herding member of the Dinka tribe and never touched a basketball until his late teens. After catching the eye of an American coach working in Sudan, Mr. Bol made his way to the United States without knowing a word of English.

When the Bullets drafted him in the second round in 1985, he was measured at 7 feet 6¾ inches in his bare feet -- usually rounded up to 7-7 -- and he weighed a mere 190 pounds. Mr. Bol had limited basketball skills, but with a fingertip-to-fingertip wingspan of 8 feet 6 inches, he proved to be unusually adept at one aspect of the game: blocking opponents' shots. Standing flat-footed, he could extend his hand above the rim of the basket 10 feet off the floor.

The Bullets put Mr. Bol on a regimen of weightlifting and pizza, adding 17 pounds to his frame before he made his NBA debut in October 1985. In his rookie season, despite playing about 25 minutes a game, he led the league with 397 blocked shots, still the second-highest total in NBA annals.

Don Nelson, who later coached Mr. Bol with the Golden State Warriors, said simply, "He's the most amazing shot blocker I've ever seen."

His exceptional height and shot-blocking talent made Mr. Bol an instant phenomenon, but fans and players were also drawn to him because of his sunny personality. Attendance shot up in NBA cities whenever the Bullets (renamed the Washington Wizards in 1997) came to town. Mr. Bol routinely called sports fans "friends."

"He's so proud, almost noble," then-Bullets General Manager Bob Ferry said in 1987. "He's completely at ease with himself, which is hard to believe when you consider . . . well, he's 7-foot-7."

Some people feared that Mr. Bol's stick-thin frame would never stand up to the physical demands of pro basketball, but he proved surprisingly resilient. When an opposing center for the Chicago Bulls tested his mettle by throwing a punch, Mr. Bol flattened him with a single blow, prompting a bench-clearing brawl.

"When I play, I try to make friends, with my team and the other," a nonplused Mr. Bol said. "If I wanted to look for a fight, I'll go to Libya and join the Marines."

Killing a lion

In 1987, when the Bullets signed 5-foot-3 Muggsy Bogues, they had the shortest and tallest players in NBA history on the team at the same time. Mr. Bol was traded to Golden State before the 1988-89 season, when he again led the league in blocked shots.

At Golden State, Mr. Bol developed an awkward but crowd-pleasing three-point shot that occasionally found its long-distance mark. He later played with the Philadelphia 76ers and Miami Heat before briefly returning to Washington in 1994 to tutor the Bullets' new big man, Gheorghe Muresan, from Romania. Muresan may have been a centimeter or two taller, but both were listed at 7-7.

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