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Lives Remembered

Manute Bol (1962-2010): He was a great shot blocker, but off the court his reach was far longer

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.

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By Carlo Rotella
Sunday, December 26, 2010

Manute Bol, who could touch the rim without leaving his feet, could block shots just by extending his arms. He had a wingspan well over eight feet and a feel for angles and timing that made him the greatest shot blocker anyone had ever seen -- better, many said, than the all-time great Bill Russell. Sometimes, in practice, he would block so many in a row that he would start laughing, and then everybody would start laughing. Normally a rejection is one of basketball's macho occasions, but when there are three, four, five in rapid succession, the tone can shift from aggression to slapstick. The offensive players keep putting the ball up there, and it keeps coming right back at them, and suddenly they're transformed into a pack of Wile E. Coyotes.

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"It was hard to have a practice," said Bob Ferry, former general manager of the Washington Bullets, for which Bol played from 1985 to 1988. The Bullets' second team included Bol and Muggsy Bogues, respectively 7-foot-7 and 5-foot-3, at that time the tallest and shortest players ever to play in the NBA. "With Muggsy pressing and Manute blocking shots," Ferry said, "I don't think our first team ever beat our second team in practice." A deformation of the hands prevented Bol from fully extending his fingers to palm the ball, so he was not much of a scorer, said Ferry, "but the other team talked more about him than about all the star players."

Some bulky tall men, like Wilt Chamberlain or Shaquille O'Neal, seem like Olympian gods, shoving mere mortals aside. Bol, whose impossible height was matched with impossible gauntness (a crash eating program once brought his weight up from 195 pounds to 233), looked freakish rather than superhuman. Because he never adopted the standard body language of a jock, he perpetually seemed like a freshly arrived alien, waving his mantis-like limbs to interrupt the normal flow of action on the court. But he always preserved his dignity, carrying himself with unbreakable confidence and a regally upright posture rare in tall men.

Between his retirement from the NBA in 1994 and his death in June at 47, of complications from a skin disease contracted while visiting his native Sudan, he devoted himself to improving conditions back home. Much of his money went to feeding refugees and building schools in Sudan, and he engaged in various stunts to raise more, including one-shot cameos as a hockey player and a jockey. Awkward and graceful in equally unlikely ways, he managed to make skating, riding a horse or shooting a basketball look absurd, and yet he himself never seemed ridiculous.

Bol also made an appearance in 2002 on Fox's "Celebrity Boxing," one of the grimmer evolutionary dead ends in the history of reality TV. The show's killing joke was that the participants had only the slightest lingering vestige of the shine of celebrity, which made them willing to do anything -- even give or take a beating in public -- to attract the bright lights once more. The athletes' comedown was especially affecting. When they had commanded center stage in their prime, they had set the standard by which bodily grace was judged, but in the boxing ring they looked uncoordinated, desperate, old.

The gymnast Olga Korbut appeared on the same show as Bol, and had her clock cleaned by a star of "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire." The guy who played Screech on "Saved By the Bell" beat up the guy who played Horshack on "Welcome Back, Kotter." The gloves were oversize and the rounds barely longer than a minute; the whole enterprise stank of reduced circumstances, of humiliation.

Bol was matched with William "The Refrigerator" Perry, a defensive lineman who won the 1986 Super Bowl with the Chicago Bears. Perry had entirely gone to pot since retiring from football: At 6-2 and well over 400 pounds, with pendulous folds hanging from his vast torso, he was out of breath within seconds after the bell rang. The aura of good-natured Herculean potency that had once surrounded him was long gone.

Bol, by contrast, had never been invested with the conventional athlete's aura, so he hadn't lost it. He looked just as tall and thin as ever. He had an odd fighting stance, but his long history of scrapping with beefy opponents who tried to push him around had given him a general idea of what to do. He stood off and poked long lefts at Perry, occasionally throwing a right with some force, catching him with a couple of shots to the head.

The crowd grew restless because it wasn't seeing the flailing that makes incompetent fighters fun to watch, and the referee warned both men that neither would get paid unless they fought harder. Bol, who had agreed to appear on the show only if the name and address of one of his Sudan-aiding charities appeared on the screen, threw a few more punches and took an easy victory by decision.

Perry's feeble blows had not touched Bol, and, somehow, neither had the awfulness of the show. Just by carrying himself as he always had, holding some part of himself aloof from the lucrative childishness and triviality around him, he had managed to pass through "Celebrity Boxing" without humiliation. Another problem solved by standing tall.

Carlo Rotella is a contributor to the Magazine. He is the Director of American Studies at Boston College and can be reached at wpmagazine@washpost.com.

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