ON THE MORNING THAT MANUTE Bol became a man, six of his teeth were gouged out with a chisel. In the afternoon of that same day his head was shaved and rubbed with ashes. He was told to lie down and rest his head on a pillow of wood. Four incisions were then cut all the way around his head with a sharp knife.

He was 14 years old at the time and very much attached to his teeth, which he cleaned with a stick after every meal. Nor was he keen about having scars on his head. The boy had been avoiding these Dinka manhood rites for years. He ran away from home at the age of 8, when tribal tradition demands removal of lower teeth. He left home again when he was 12, the age for ritual scarring.

"Every time my dad talked to me about {tooth extraction and head cutting}, I just walked away," Bol remembers. "I don't want to listen to it. Because I love my teeth. They look very nice, when I had them."

He finally consented to both ceremonies after his father, Madut, a tribal elder, convinced him that unless he was mutilated, Dinka girls would consider him immature and would never marry him. In Dinka land, a Sudanese savannah laced with tributaries of the Nile, one must not show signs of fear or cry or flinch when undergoing the rites of manhood. This would disgrace your family, cause friends to compose songs about your cowardice and make the girls laugh. Bol did not show fear, and hundreds of relatives and friends who walked to his village for the ceremonies were pleased. They killed and roasted a couple of cows, drank many earthen pots of marissa, a home-brewed beer, and congratulated young Manute on his manhood.

Bol was in too much pain to eat. He missed his teeth. ON THE DAY LAST NOVEMBER THAT Manute Bol began promoting fast-food chicken, he flew first class from Washington to Atlanta. Two advertising executives met him at the airport and eased him into a long, black limousine. Riding across town to a photo studio, the executives chirped about how Bol's picture would grace 8 million direct-mail brochures for Church's Fried Chicken. They spoke excitedly, too, of the Manute Bol chicken pack: "Nothing But Legs."

At the studio, Bol changed into his Washington Bullets uniform and walked out to a basketball goal erected for the photo session. He posed there for nearly two hours, comfortably holding a basketball above the 10-foot-high rim and smiling broadly (an American dentist has replaced his teeth). Also in the studio was Spud Webb, a player with the Atlanta Hawks who is 5 feet, 7 inches tall -- slightly taller than Bol's navel. Webb is the shortest player in the National Basketball Association. Bol, at 7 feet, 6 inches, is the tallest.

The demands of photographers make Bol restless. But in Atlanta his boredom was assuaged by his fee -- $12,500. And Steve Koonin, the advertising man who dreamed up this "Long and Short of It" promotion, was hinting that "if Manute moved the needle" on mid-winter chicken sales, there soon could be a "big bucks" national television commercial.

The session over, Bol shook hands all around, grabbed two cans of cold Budweiser from the studio's buffet spread and headed for the limo. Riding back to the airport to catch a plane for Washington, he popped open a beer, cranked up the limo's stereo and stretched out his legs, which, inseam to cuff, are nearly five feet long. His brief and lucrative encounter with chicken retail reminded him of his admiration for the business acumen of Dr. J., Julius Erving, of the Philadelphia 76ers who co-owns the Coca-Cola distributorship for the greater Philadelphia area. "The Doctor," says Bol, "is a very smart dude." BY MOVING FROM A SOCIETY THAT mutilates a young man's face to one that uses his face to excite fast-food chicken sales, Manute Bol has jumped from one never-never land to another. It is a journey better measured in centuries than in miles. Bol grew up an illiterate cowherd in a defiantly primitive and self-centered culture that worships cows. Now he is a semi-literate celebrity in a defiantly modern and self-centered culture that worships celebrity. The cultural chasm between the two worlds is deep enough to confound, if not consume, even a very tall man.

On the surface, at least, Bol has made the journey look easy. In his new country, Bol is seen as an attractive commodity. To fans who follow the Washington Bullets and to the basketball men who work with him, it is his height that makes Bol so exotic; his composite persona seems to fit naturally in a locker room or on a box of fast-food chicken.

"If you are looking for a Sudanese cultural difference, it is hard to find," says Bullets general manager Bob Ferry, who drafted Bol in June of 1985.

"The man is aware. He seems to me to be from Newark or Chicago," says Bullets coach Kevin Loughery.

Bol's English is a weirdly accented soup of American black slang (a great many people of his acquaintance are "bad dudes"), malapropisms ("sleeve-short" shirts) and shards of rock lyrics ("money for nothing, chicks for free"). Still, his English is sufficiently nuanced to allow him to say precisely what he means. He practices it a lot, jabbering on about federal income tax, a trip to the bank, his last game. And he can be very funny. Last year, in a slack moment at a Bullets practice, he yelled across court to a teammate: "Dudley Bradley, you are the next contestant on 'The Price Is Right.' Come oooonnnn down!"

Advertising managers believe Bol is good for business. They say he has a high "Q" rating, which means the consuming American public knows who he is, likes him and trusts him. Kathryn Cima, advertising manager for Church's Fried Chicken, explains: "You have to be careful nowadays with athletes. Manute is a man with a personality you can trust that he won't go into some bar and beat up a woman."

Despite his facility with English and his glib familiarity with the totems of American popular culture, there is a deceptively powerful undertow of loneliness, guilt and cultural dislocation in the life of Manute Bol. What he has done has no precedent in Dinka culture. Dinkas don't call themselves Dinkas; they use a word that means "man of men." And a Dinka sees himself and his life with cows "as the standard of what is normal for the dignity of man," according to Francis Madding Deng, a Dinka and the tribe's best-known historian-anthropologist. In their traditional tribal value system, to leave home, to leave the cows, is shameful.

Bol readily acknowledges that his success in America has come at a price. "I am really lonely," he says again and again. He speaks with regret of the death of his father, a man he often disobeyed by running away from home. He was in Cleveland in 1983, away from home against Madut's wishes, when his father died. Bol rushed back to Sudan for the funeral only to find that a growing civil war prevented -- and still prevents -- him from returning to Dinka land. It is now long past time for him to take a Dinka wife, he says, and to begin raising the six or seven children that he believes a Dinka man of his station ought to have. Bol eloped with a Dinka girl before he came to America from Sudan, but the marriage was undone by family haggling over how many cows his bride was worth. Now he is embarrassed that as a Dinka man he must cook in his own kitchen.

The price of Bol's journey can be compared to that paid by many Africans whose ambition and talent pull them away from their families, villages and tribal origins, landing them in cities where the rules and rewards are foreign. In pushing for western-style success, they strip themselves of traditions and values that their parents believed essential for an honorable life. For many village-born Africans, the price of success is guilt for having betrayed one's ancestors and the reward is admission into a western world governed by values that often are incomprehensible or unacceptable.

Bol has traveled farther and faster than almost any African. The particulars of his cultural dislocation are as exaggerated as his height. The life he knew in Dinka land was among the most arduous, violent and isolated in Africa. The life he knows now is among the highest paid, most transient, least secure in America. Lions, spears and malaria end the careers of Dinka cowherds. Cocaine, coaching changes and stress fractures bring down NBA players. As they grow older, Dinka men become respected elders who give advice on cows and marriage. NBA players can expect an average career of less than four years before they are cut.

There is another celebrated African playing in the NBA, Akeem Olajuwon of the Houston Rockets. But he grew up middle-class in Lagos, Nigeria, black Africa's largest city, a place that has more in common with Houston than it does with the southern Sudanese bush. At age 18, Olajuwon spoke and wrote in English, French and his tribal language, Yoruba. At age 18, Bol spoke Dinka and could not write his name. Unlike the hundreds of Dinkas who have left their cows to take up positions of influence and wealthcities, the Gulf states, Europe and the United States, Bol had no mission school or national university to smooth his passage. According to Bona Malwal, one of Sudan's best-known Dinka politicians and editor of the country's largest English-language newspaper, "There is no Dinka except Manute who made the shortcut." And now war, endless civil war in southern Sudan, means he cannot go home.

What Bol has going for him, besides his quick intelligence, is supreme self-confidence. He grew up disobeying his father, running away from home, postponing ritual mutilation, abandoning his cows, risking his future on a game that his father thought was stupid. In the United States, this tall man who makes people laugh simply by standing up has silenced critics who doubted his ability as an athlete or underestimated his fierce pride.

Last season, Bol's first as a professional, Dallas Mavericks (and former Bullets) coach Dick Motta said that when a burly NBA player hit the thin center "he'd break like a grasshopper . . . An arm here, a leg over there." Motta might have considered Bol's life in Sudan. As a teen-ager, Bol liked to fight, and, according to his relatives, he was good at it. His weapon of choice was a tree limb. When, in 1979, Bol first traveled to a substantial town, Wau (pronounced wow), the second-largest city in southern Sudan, he threw rocks at gawkers who teased him about his height. Two years later, in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum (where he arrived with a tree limb), he regularly got in fights in movie theaters, on buses, in downtown markets. As a spectator at a Khartoum handball tournament, he got in a brawl and hit a woman bystander over the head with a chair.

In his first season in the NBA, Bol did not break; he did not miss one game due to injuries. Instead, he led the league in blocked shots. He blocked more shots alone than 10 NBA teams. He was named to the NBA's all-defensive team. The Bullets, despite a losing record, became one of the league's strongest road draws. The Utah Jazz, for example, billed its only home game with the Bullets as "the Manute Bo(w)l." It was the first-ever Jazz-Bullets sellout. Sports Illustrated wrote of "Manute Madness." Business Week weighed in with "Hawking Tall," an analysis of Bol's marketing potential.

This season, playing behind All-Star center Moses Malone, Bol has had less game time than he would like. But after a slow start he has become the key element in the second team of high-energy reserves that has helped make the Bullets one of the NBA's toughest teams. Bol's agent and business manager, Frank Catapano, says that his client now refuses "small stuff," promotions that pay less than $4,000 for a day's work. Nike has paid Bol $100,000 for promoting its Big Nike line of basketball shoes. Catapano says Bol has a four-year contract with the Washington Bullets that pays him more than $200,000 a year.

Success has made Bol more self-confident than ever. He says he believes himself to be one of the best players in the NBA. He wants to become an American citizen, find a way of cutting down on his tax liability, learn how to read better. He no longer is afraid to take his specially modified Ford Bronco (driver's seat moved way, way back) for a spin on the Beltway. Yet it is a high-risk game that the Dinka is playing in the land of chicken commercials. He is a rich man, probably the highest-paid Dinka in history. But he cannot go home, he cannot find a suitable wife, he cannot raise a family, he cannot herd cows. His life is not one that his father or his elders would understand or respect. Even for an exceptionally self-confident and intelligent African, this is a staggering emotional burden. IN THE DINKA LANGUAGE, THE NAME Manute means "special blessing." That name, Bol has been told, came from a Dinka spear-master, or magic man. Before Bol was born, his mother, Okwok, twice gave birth to stillborn twins. Dinkas fear childlessness and many of them see bad omens in a stillbirth. Before conceiving another child, Madut and Okwok Bol went to see a magic man. He blessed the couple and predicted the birth of a healthy son. The boy's name, the magic man said, must be Manute. (Bol, like many rural Africans, has no birth certificate. He says he is now 24 years old, but relatives say he is 26 or 27.)

Bol is the only son of his mother, who was his father's second wife. In polygamous Dinka society, an only son is his mother's social security plan. Since a wife, especially one who is not the first wife, inherits none of her husband's property, she looks to share in her son's wealth. For Manute, all this meant that he was expected to devote his youth to learning how to manage Dinka wealth, in this case cows.

"So when my mom had me," Bol says, "my dad don't want me to go nowhere. He don't want me to go to school. He want me to stay with him and take care of cows."

Bol's home village, Turalei, lies on the northwestern edge of the Sudd, the world's biggest swamp, a backwater larger than the state of Maine. It is a table-flat, almost roadless region of papyrus and elephant grass, of water hyacinth and reed. Malarial mosquitoes are endemic. To keep them at bay, Dinkas shroud their villages in the smoke of dung fires. Big game such as lion, leopard and Cape buffalo is abundant. In Bol's Dinka clan, the giraffe is considered a holy animal. Giraffes are never killed and are allowed to graze on the thatched roofs of Turalei. This "horrible region of everlasting swamp," as British explorer Sir Samuel Baker called it, remains one of the most isolated in Africa. Until the middle of the 19th century, it was the swamp itself that kept outsiders away. During the first half of this century, it was British colonial policy to isolate the Dinkas, to keep them and other southerners separate from Sudan's Arab majority to the north. Dinkas were discouraged from traveling north to Khartoum. This divide-and-rule policy was aimed at preventing a spirit of nationalism from taking hold in Sudan. It worked disastrously well.

Since Sudan became independent 31 years ago, there have been nearly 21 years of war between the north and south. Sudan, in effect, is now two countries: the desert north, home to light-skinned Moslems, and the swampy south, home to hundreds of black African tribal groups, most of which are Christian or animist. The largest southern tribe, with 2 to 3 million people, is the Dinkas. The north, heavily influenced by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, speaks Arabic. Educated people read right to left. The south, heavily influenced by western missionaries, speaks English and a wide range of tribal languages. Educated people read left to right.

Turalei lies near the dividing line between north and south, and it often has borne the brunt of Dinka-Arab hatred. Until the 1940s, according to Bol's relatives, Arab slavers used to sneak into the area and steal Dinka children. In the first civil war, which lasted 17 years and ended in 1972, scores of young Dinkas from Turalei were killed fighting for the rebels. One of Bol's cousins was killed by rebels in 1971 on suspicion of being an Arab sympathizer. Last spring, as part of the current civil war, which began in 1983, northern Murahaleen raiders overran Turalei. Armed by the Khartoum government, they destroyed crops, stole cattle and forced villagers, including Bol's sister, Abuok, to flee to the south. The rebels, a force led by Dinkas, have since regained control of the village. "The only way for Manute to go home is for him to go to Itang {a rebel refugee camp in bordering Ethiopia}, join the Sudanese People's Liberation Army and then go fight. He is better off playing basketball. His height would make him an easy target," says Bol's uncle, Dr. Justin Yac Arop, an obstetrician trained at the University of London and a leader of the rebel movement.

From the time he was a young boy, Bol bridled against his father's insistence that he stay home. It was the same itch that would eventually make him leave Dinka land and Sudan. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Bol was aching to go to school. But Turalei was in a war zone, and nearby schools were closed.

"So what is happening," says Manute, "is that I run away to a town called Abyei. It was a two-day walk {about 35 miles}. My grandfather got a friend in Abyei, a sell-man {merchant}, who let me stay with him. I went there to go to school. I was very young, 9 or 10. I stayed there about a week, but my father came and took me back.

"When I was 11 or 12 years old, I left home again. My father didn't find me this time. I came to a place called Babanusa {about 150 miles north of Turalei, in Arabic-speaking Sudan}. I tried to go to school. I couldn't make it. I didn't speak Arabic good enough."

In Babanusa, a trading center, the boy found another merchant friend of his grandfather. In fact, wherever Bol walked in Dinka land, people knew who he was. It was not simply because he was an extraordinarily tall 12-year-old. "My grandfather was like big time, you know. He take care of everything in the country," says Bol. "In Dinka tribe, everywhere I go, people know me and like me because they know my grandfather."

People who have been close to Bol since he arrived in the United States in 1983 have been aware of, and sometimes put off by, his sense of entitlement. "Manute is a little spoiled. You can tell that he is used to being treated with deference," says Chuck Douglas, a member of the Bullets' public relations staff and Bol's closest American friend.

In Dinka land, he was treated with deference. For Bol is from a ruling Dinka family. His great-great-grandfather, Bol Nyuol, was a paramount chief of the Tuic Dinka of the northwest Sudd. Near the turn of the century, the British appointed Bol Nyuol ruler for the region. He was a well-known spiritual leader who wore the leopard skin of tribal authority, healed the sick, blessed the barren and arbitrated tribal disputes. His grandson (Manute's grandfather) was also a powerful and memorably large chief. Bol Chol stood well over seven feet tall (Bol says 7 feet, 10 inches, but relatives in Sudan say that's exaggerated) and weighed more than 300 pounds. He was memorably rich as well, with more than 40 wives, more than 80 children and thousands of cattle. Across southern Sudan, which is bigger than Texas, the grandsons of Bol Chol never lack for kin. GROWING UP FOR A DINKA BOY, EVEN A semi-royal one, is often extremely unpleasant. Bona Malwal, editor of the Sudan Times, says of Dinka boyhood, "In America, you would call it child abuse. We call it making a man."

When he was on the lam in Babanusa, Bol was guiltily aware that in his father's eyes he had not become a man. He knew that if he went back to Turalei, his father would insist that he have his teeth gouged out and his head scarred. But the boy, then about 13 years old, was homesick.

"In Babanusa, I would think about him a lot, you know, my dad. And my mom and my sister. Then, I tell this guy I was staying with I am not going to take it no more, I am going back to see my dad," Manute recalls.

When he walked home, Bol found that his mother had died (he never learned of what), and he grew closer to his father. He reluctantly went ahead with the manhood rites.

Madut Bol, who was about 6 feet, 8 inches tall, was not a chief or a notably rich man like his father. Madut was the second son of Bol Chol; the great chief's oldest son inherited the chieftaincy and most of the wealth. But Madut was a tribal elder and he owned about 150 cows, a respectable herd. When Manute, with scars healing on his head, took charge of those cattle, he, too, became respectable.

In the rainy season, Bol took the herd off to cattle camp. Cattle camp, for Dinka teen-agers, is like summer camp without counselors. Dinka teen-agers are "exceedingly violent," according to Deng, the Dinka anthropologist. "For the young, any slight provocation is sufficient to incite a fight." At cattle camps, boys are free to fight with fists, sticks and clubs to their heart's content. They also can drink all the milk they want and compose songs about their favorite cow or their favorite girl. (Cows tend to inspire more songs than girls. The Dinka language has a bovine bias, with hundreds of words to describe the color and shape of cows.) When cows become heavy with milk, there is a milk-drinking ritual aimed at fattening up skinny Dinka boys. It is called the toc (pronounced tootch). Bol, zooming past seven feet, thin as an exclamation point, awkward as an extension ladder, was forced by his father into the toc.

"It is a competition, how fat can you be," Bol recalls. He did the toc twice, when he was 15 and 16. "They give you like 10 cows with milk. You milk them and drink gallons of milk a day. You get there in May and you just sit in the same place. You are not moving. You not doing anything for months. My first year, I didn't like it. I got in a fight with my dad. It was too much drinking a lot and I can't make it . . . It did help a lot {in gaining weight}, but it goes away very quick in the summertime."

When he was in cattle camp, Bol sang cow songs and girl songs. There are hundreds of such songs, and Dinkas, when they are especially happy or in love, often pay men who are recognized as good lyricists to write them a special number. "I did one year have a song. I did pay 100 Sudanese pounds {about $25}," Bol says. "It was a song for my cows and for my dad, how my dad take care of me, give me everything I want." THE DINKAS ARE AMONG AFRICA'S

tallest people. Six-feet, 8-inch men are common; seven-footers, while less common, are not remarkable. Even by Dinka standards, however, 7 feet, 6 inches is jaw-droppingly tall. It is tall enough to get your picture in the newspapers when a nationally known politician comes calling at your village. That is how Bol, in 1978, a peaceful time between civil wars in Sudan, came to the attention of his big-city kin. Nyuol Makwag Bol, then one of Sudan's best basketball players, recalls seeing the picture in the Khartoum paper and thinking that anybody that tall, particularly if he is your cousin, should consider a career in basketball.

Bol's uncle, Dr. Arop, made the first arrangements. He persuaded the chief of police in Wau, a city of 80,000, to invite Bol to town to play for the police team. Bol walked the 50 miles to Wau, and discovered, for the first time in his life, that his height could be a curse. Children followed him around town as though he were a circus act. Bol threw rocks and an occasional punch to chase them away. He listened to the police chief's pitch about how he could be a policeman whose job was to play with a ball.

"I tell him I can't make it, that I don't think my father wants to let me go," Bol remembers. "Then I went back home."

A cousin, Joseph Victor Bol Bol, a pilot with Sudan Airways, had better luck. He went to Turalei, and told Bol that he could be rich and famous in the United States if he learned the game. Bol had to balance his father's view of basketball ("he don't think it's good work for a Dinka") with the blandishments of Joseph Victor Bol Bol.

For a boy who had twice run away from home, who always had envied town kids their chance to go school, who grew up thinking of himself as a special case, the choice was easy. No matter what his father said, wealth and fame had more appeal than the family cows. In November of 1979, he went back to Wau.

"I started playing basketball more and more. I went on the court to shoot, dribble and then lay-ups, whatever. And then my cousin {the airline pilot} told me, 'Why don't you try dunk?' And then I tried. I took one dribble and then I went up to dunk the ball. When I came down I hurt my teeth in the net."

Losing the tooth, Bol recalls, piqued his interest in learning more about basketball. When his cousin, Nyuol Makwag Bol, the basketball player from Khartoum, came down to Wau to take a look at him, Bol was ready to travel. They took the train back to the capital.

Khartoum, surrounded by desert, blast-furnace hot, bejeweled with gold-domed mosques and crenelated minarets, is an Arab city. The sand-swept streets are clogged with men wearing turbans and long white robes. In the morning and evening hours, when traffic noise slackens, Moslem prayers echo across the city. For a 7-foot, 6-inch Dinka who spoke no Arabic, who had a nasty temper and who had been brought up to think of Arabs as people one kills in war, Khartoum was a curse.

"Manute didn't like to be looked at," recalls Moses Rehan, Bol's cousin and his best friend in Khartoum. "When he go to the market, he used to upset the traffic. Many people stopped their cars and got out to laugh at him."

"I did fight a lot in Khartoum. I was bad. I don't take anything," Manute recalls. "Sometimes I can say we Dinkas are crazy. That is what I can say. We don't give up. In the United States they call black people nigger, you know, that thing. In my country, the Moslem people call us the abid {Arabic for slave}. Really, I don't like. If they say it to somebody, not even me, I fight them."

While learning to live with Moslems, Bol was learning to play basketball. His start, on a team sponsored by the city's Catholic Club, was horrible.

"He could not control his feet, even when he walks," says Tony Amin, then coach of the Catholic Club team. "For the first time {on the court}, he could do nothing, even a small player could pass by him and score. We told him this ball should not come near the ring."

His basketball-playing cousin, Nyuol

Makwag Bol, summed up Bol's ability: "He didn't know how to shoot a jump shot. He was weak, and he didn't know how to push. In basketball, you have to know how to push. Thirdly, because of his fingers, it was hard for him to catch the ball." (Three fingers on Bol's right hand are slightly clawed -- an inherited disability common in his family.) But Bol worked hard on fundamentals and learned quickly. Amin says that after Bol learned footwork for playing defense, he quickly demonstrated a remarkable sense of timing -- for blocking shots. He is right-handed, but because of the clawed fingers on that hand he learned to swat away basketballs with his left hand. It was not long before Catholic Club, playing the best competition in the country, was almost impossible to beat.

Bol also joined the military basketball team (he was officially a member of the parachute corps). He would get up at dawn, practice with the military team for two hours, sleep through the heat of the day and play for the Catholic Club in the evenings.

"Manute was very, very happy when someone shot the basketball and he blocks it," says Amin. "You don't find the length of Manute on other teams. We were expecting that a player like this, one day he would come to something."

The Catholic Club also gave Bol a place to live: a concrete lawn-mower shed located between the club's two ragged grass tennis courts. Bol lived there for nearly two years. The shed, now empty but for trash and broken-down lawn mowers, still bears evidence of a very tall young man who was beginning to take an interest in girls. A color magazine photograph of a dewy-lipped brunette is taped to the shed's wall -- at about the height of a basketball rim.

Bol, in fact, was interested in a particular girl, Nyanhial, a sister of one of his Dinka friends in Khartoum. He saw her first at the Catholic Club when she came to watch the team play. "She was very quiet," Bol recalls. "I don't like talking girls. I like quiet girls. I tried to get in touch with her. She don't want to talk to me. It is kind of hard to get to know girls in the Dinka tribe. You got to take time. They want to learn about you.

"Then I send friends of mine to her. Every day we would bother her a lot. We would write her letters {Bol did the dictating, his lettered friends, the writing}. My friends would take her to the movie without me. And then my friends would talk about me.

"Then I decided to talk to her face to face. I call her the day we don't have no practice. So me and her, we met in the Catholic Club. She say, okay, I can go out with you. I do like you.' "

Bol wanted to marry her immediately. He proposed marriage or elopement, both of which are recognized, honorable and tightly regulated procedures in the Dinka tribe. Marriage is preceded by the groom's father's paying a negotiated number of cows to the bride's father. Elopement is followed by the same negotiations, except that one extra cow -- in Dinka, the "aruok" cow -- is thrown in as payment for use of the girl during elopement. Marriage is the primary means by which wealth -- that is, cows -- is redistributed among Dinkas. As such, it is much too important to be left to the man and woman involved. Nyanhial agreed to elope.

"I took her away for one day," says Manute. "Then I call her family. They were looking for her. And they came to my house. Her uncle came into the house with a like baseball bat. He said, 'I should kill you. You took my niece.' I said, 'I'm not the one. I didn't took her because I wanted to make love to her.' I said I wanted to be her husband, you know. I said, 'I got my cows at home. You guys want to come down there, you are welcome.' "

Nyanhial's uncle did not hit Bol with the bat, but he did take his niece back. Five months later, in March of 1982, the girl's father, a retired army officer living in Khartoum, took Nyanhial south to Dinka land to begin marriage negotiations. Skipping basketball practice, Bol also went south to try to persuade his father to pay lots of cows for his wife.

March is the hottest time of the year in Dinka land. The rains are two months away. The grass is dead from the sun. To discuss his marriage, Bol met with his father and about 15 elders of the Bol clan in the shade of a giant fig tree. Dr. Arop was among the elders in attendance. He recalls that Manute exploded in anger at his father.

"My dad told me no," says Bol. " 'You are not to get married with her.' Why? He say her family don't have no cows. So I tell him, 'No, I love her. I want her to be my wife.' My dad say no!"

Even though it is the groom's father who pays cows in a Dinka marriage, he expects cows in return. There is a strict formula for this: a kickback of two cows for every 10 cows paid as dowry. Dr. Arop recalls that Manute's father suspected that the prospective bride's father, who was not of a wealthy or ruling family like the Bols, would kick back some scrawny, no-account cows.

Furious at this niggling, Bol threatened to "separate" from his father, meaning that he would never again bring his father gifts. Finally, Madut Bol agreed to pay 35 cows. This, however, did not satisfy the bride's father, who wanted 50. The marriage collapsed. In the end, only one cow, the elopement cow, was paid. Bol returned to Khartoum. Within a few months, Nyanhial married a man who promised 50 cows. "I was hurt really. It bust me up," Bol said.

He has not been home since. War broke out again the next year. A COACH FROM FAIRLEIGH DICKINSON University in New Jersey was the first to fall under Bol's vertiginous spell. Don Feeley was in Khartoum in the summer of 1982 to help coach the Sudanese military team. He recalls going to practice one morning, seeing Bol and thinking that basketball would never be the same again.

Bol did not think twice about leaving Khartoum. The Arab city wasn't his home. It was a hot, dirty and impoverished place where he learned to play a game. In 1983, Feeley brought Bol to the United States. The San Diego (now L.A.) Clippers of the NBA immediately drafted Bol, sight unseen. Once they saw how skinny he was (180 pounds), the Clippers decided Bol could benefit from college.

College admission, however, quickly proved problematic for a man who had never been to school. There was also the language problem. As Bol recalls, "When I come to this country, I never was speaking English in my life. No word English." Fairleigh Dickinson was out of the question, but Cleveland State was interested. Bol went to Cleveland, where he studied English for a year but failed to qualify for college admission. In 1984, Bol followed a Dinka friend to the University of Bridgeport. The Connecticut school admitted Bol, who then read at third-grade level.

"Manute Bol did more for the University of Bridgeport in one year than anyone ever has. He dominated every game," says Bruce Webster, the school's basketball coach. Bol averaged 22.5 points, 13.5 rebounds and, for the first half of the season, before opponents starting using stall tactics, blocked an unheard-of 15 shots a game.

After Bol's "freshman" year, NCAA investigators began looking into his academic credentials, according to Webster. Bol decided to turn professional. He told the press he needed to support his sister in Sudan (who was then, and still remains, stranded in the war zone). He joined the Rhode Island Gulls of the United States Basketball League. In the fall of 1985, after being chosen as the 32nd player in the NBA college draft, he joined the Washington Bullets.

When starting center Jeff Ruland was injured early last season, the Bullets, having drafted Bol as a "project," had no choice but to start him. He quickly proved himself one of the best defensive players in the NBA. Bol blocked 397 shots, the second-highest total in the 40-year history of the league. He was still reed-thin (205 pounds), weak by NBA standards, and he was pushed around mercilessly. But as a Dinka, he would not be bullied. When Jawann Oldham, then a center for the Chicago Bulls, shoved and punched him in a game last season, Bol responded. He floored Oldham with a punch that cleared both benches and triggered one of the wildest fights in recent NBA history.

Both players were ejected from the game. As they walked off the court, Oldham again turned on Bol. Bol then got mad and, despite being held back by two players, landed two punishing long-distance punches.

"When I play, I try to make friends, with my team and the other," he told reporters after the game. "If he don't hit me, I don't fight. If I wanted to look for a fight, I'll go to Libya and join the Marines."

Since coming to the United States, Bol says he has made a conscious effort to rein in the temper that caused him so much trouble in Khartoum. For the most part, he has succeeded. After his fight last year, Orlando Woolridge, who plays for Chicago, said: "I don't know if it's because he's new in the league or if it's because he's from Africa, but I don't know anybody who doesn't like him."

Bol's greatest liability as a player, according to Bullets coach Loughery, is lack of strength. To overcome this, Bol attended a nutrition camp last summer in New Orleans. Eating more than he had ever eaten in his life, he gained 30 pounds in six weeks and reported to the Bullets pre-season camp visibly stronger than he was last year. But it soon became clear to Bol that, in spite of his new muscle and his surprisingly good rookie season, he would be sitting on the bench behind newly acquired center Moses Malone, one of the NBA's established stars. His fears have been justified. His playing time has been cut almost in half -- from 26.5 minutes to about 14 -- and at one point he became so depressed he considered asking Ferry to trade him. But the emergence of the second team has given him a new life on the court, and one night three weeks ago, when Malone missed a game because of injury, Bol took advantage of a rare start and put on a show. Playing all but 14 seconds against the Indiana Pacers, Bol registered an unusual triple double -- 10 points, 15 blocked shots and 19 rebounds -- and showed his potential for completely dominating a game.

But he still can be embarrassingly bad on the court, as in early games this year when he repeatedly lost rebounds between his legs. At times, he appears tentative, almost dainty, on the court. "He is not to the point, maybe he will never get to the point, where he will instinctively go with the flow," says Ferry. "When he touches the ball, his lack of experience shows in that he has to think about what he does with it." LAST YEAR BOL BOUGHT A THREE-BED- room town house in Bowie, about two miles away from where the Bullets practice. The town house is decorated in what Ferry describes as "early Manute." In the living room, just inside the front-door landing, there is a full-sized color poster of Bol wearing Nike shoes. A trophy for leading the NBA in blocked shots adorns the coffee table. Over the fireplace there are three large color photographs of Bol in action, getting the better of eminent NBA players such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. One of the few non-Manute items in the living room is a chrome-framed photograph of a blond woman in jodhpurs, drinking champagne in front of a black Rolls-Royce. The caption under the photograph reads: "Poverty Sucks."

Having lots of money is the first thing that Bol mentions when asked if he is happy playing basketball in America. His money last year allowed him to walk into the Marlo furniture store in Forestville and buy $10,000 worth of furniture in two hours, to go to Circuit City and buy a $2,000 stereo in half an hour. It also allowed him to fly back to Khartoum last May to see relatives and friends who, like Bol, are exiles from Dinka land. He brought along a suitcase full of Big Nike basketball shoes, Manute Bol T-shirts and Manute Bol posters for the young Dinka players in the city. He played basketball and learned that the civil war in the south threatened hundreds of thousands of southerners, many of them Dinkas, with starvation.

While he is probably the most famous Sudanese person in the United States, if not the world, Bol's name is rarely mentioned in Khartoum. The reason, according to Alexander Horan, a former U.S. ambassador to Sudan, is the north-south enmity that divides the country.

"The northern Sudanese know who he is, of course. But to them he is a southerner, one of those guys who jumped out of a tree, onto an airplane and went to the U.S.," Horan says. "No northern Sudanese has ever spoken of him publicly, anymore than they talk publicly of drought or starvation."

In the months before Bol returned to Khartoum, his cousin, Natalina Anguat Benjamin Lang, lined up two Dinka girls as possibilities for marriage. The arrangements, however, did not work out. Bol did not like one of the girls, Natalina says, and the other, whom he did like, was promised to another man. Matchmaking in Dinka tradition takes time. And time ran out last summer in Khartoum -- Bol had to leave for muscle school in New Orleans -- before he and Natalina could settle on a suitable girl. Since returning to the United States, Bol has tried long distance to keep the matchmaking process alive. But the vagaries of the Sudanese telephone system have prevented any progress.

Bol says he does not want to marry an American woman, although he says there are plenty who want to marry him. "I want somebody I can communicate with. I want somebody so I can work and I can have a housewife. I don't think American ladies like to house-clean."

In the meantime, Bol opens his Bowie town house to Dinka men passing through the United States. They get free room and board. He gets live-in friends, news from home, a chance to speak in his native language. Some guests stay for three or four months. Bol angrily dismisses any suggestions that his tribesmen may be taking advantage of his wealth. "We Dinka tribe, we help each other a lot," Bol says. WHILE WALKING THROUGH ATLANTA'S crowded airport last November after the Church's chicken shoot, Bol was enveloped in the incredulous mumbling that his height always provokes. He seemed oblivious to the attention. Gazing out over a sea of wide eyes that gaped up at him from the level of his chest, he chuckled and asked: "What's all these Americans doing in the airport. Don't they ever stay home?"

Scrunched miserably into his first-class seat on the plane home to Washington, he signed an autograph, fended off a perky stewardess (She: "My, you are a tall fellow." He: "Uh, huh, tell me about it") and spoke again of his need to marry a Dinka.

When Bol speaks of women and marriage, there is none of the slap-and-tickle flippancy or sexual innuendo that one often hears from American young men, especially athletes. For a Dinka, even a rich, basketball-playing Dinka who does chicken ads, a successful life is impossible without a proper wife. A Dinka is crippled without a family. When Bol talks of his prospects for marriage in America, he gets depressed. American women of his acquaintance, he says, talk too much. He says if he were to marry such a woman, a divorce would take away half his property.

As the lights of Atlanta disappear outside the plane, Bol yawns. Before he falls asleep, he says that in Dinka land a man need not worry about divorce. If a Dinka man divorces a woman, he gets his cows back. :: Blaine Harden is a Washington Post foreign correspondent based in Kenya.