If anyone is wondering whether a 7-foot-7 Dinka tribesman from Sudan can find happiness in a one-bedroom rental in Upper Marlboro, the answer is yes, even if he can't stand up straight in his kitchen. He has to bend over, anyway, to work his microwave. So goes the Americanization of Manute Bol.
Since the former nomadic cattle herder was drafted last June by the Washington Bullets out of the southern Sudanese village of Gogrial, by way of the University of Bridgeport, he has been taking to American life: He shops at Circuit City, loves McDonald's "Drive-Thru," prefers his pizza with everything except bacon and onions, and pumps iron.
He has an agent, a driver, a nutritionist and his own strength coach. He's between cooks. His arms are so long he can block basketball shots more easily than anyone, and he can reach his car horn from the back seat without even leaning forward.
He has had to adjust to a new language, cold climate, strange food and such questions as, "Why are all your friends named Deng?", a reference to two recent guests of his, Dinkas Deng Nhial and Peter Deng. Replied Bol: "Don't you know two Bobs? And why are there so many Johnsons in the NBA?"
Bol wouldn't be where he is today, on the lookout for a house with cathedral ceilings, if it weren't for Deng Nhial, who, like Bol, played for the Sudanese national team. (This team, said Nhial, traveled to Algeria, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia and Fort Bragg, N.C. Bol didn't make the Fort Bragg trip.) When Bol's chance came for a new life in America, recalled Nhial, "Manute told me there was no way he was going to a strange land by himself. I spoke English. 'If you go,' he said, 'I go.' "
So the hegira continued. It had begun in 1980 on the advice of a Dinka villager named Martin Apougic, who told Bol to take up basketball, that at his height he had a future outside the Sudanese bush. So Bol left his father's cows and came in from the edge of the village to what might be called downtown, where a hoop was hung. Bol's cousin, Nicola McKawj, who was playing for the national team in the capital, Khartoum, told his coach about Bol. Bol accepted the coach's invitation and rode a train to Khartoum for five days.
When a coach from the States named Don Feeley, who was managing Sudan's national team, saw Bol, he suggested that Bol attend Cleveland State. Bol went to Cleveland in 1983 but because of his difficulties with English, he was never admitted to the school. In Cleveland, said Nhial, "Manute wasn't very happy." He studied English at nearby Case Western Reserve -- his only prior education was five years in a Dinka school -- and shot around in the Cleveland State gym. He still wasn't ready to cope with all the questions people asked him, and he wanted to be on a team. Besides, he was cold.
He moved on to Bridgeport -- although it hardly was warmer -- where he was admitted to the school and eligible to play. Last season, he led the Division II team to a 26-6 record before 29 sellout crowds. "He was very happy," said Nhial, who is still at the University of Bridgeport but is not playing basketball because of an injury. In Bridgeport, Bol even found a dentist who put in two false front teeth. Bol had knocked his teeth out on a rim when he was just learning to dunk.
After a year in Bridgeport, Bol became eligible for the National Basketball Association draft by declaring himself a hardship case. After the death of his father in late 1983, "I wasn't getting any help from home," he said. First, he signed on for a reported $25,000 with the Rhode Island Gulls of the United States Basketball League. He blocked 11.2 shots a game and looked happy doing it. Then to Washington.
Is he fully adjusted now? Answered Nhial, "He's homesick, and he's happy at the same time."
Might he take off for Gogrial at any time?
"No, no," said Nhial, smiling. "He understands. He wants to be here."
All he really needs is an overcoat, and a friend was on the phone even at that moment, talking to a shop in Washington. "If you need measurements . . . "
"Does he drive a car?" Bob Ferry was asked. Ferry is the Bullets' general manager, the man responsible for Bol's being a Bullet.
"Drive! He doesn't even sit in the front seat."
Ferry described his first such encounter with Bol, who has more leg room in the back seat.
"I opened the door on the passenger side, then walked around and got in behind the wheel. I looked over and just then the other door closed. Then the back door opened and Manute climbed into the back seat. He sits right behind me, so I have to turn my head like this when I talk to him."
When Ferry first saw Bol playing this summer for Rhode Island, his first impression was, "It was like he was on stilts." But his second thought was, he wanted Bol for the Bullets. Badly. The Bullets had the 12th and 31st picks in the college draft.
"If I owned the team," said Ferry, "I'd have taken him in the 12th spot. But I couldn't do it. If that didn't work out, you're gone."
So Ferry settled on a more conventional first pick, Kenny Green from Wake Forest. And he hoped Bol would last until No. 31.
When Ferry got him, he sent out for a National Geographic with a Sudan cover story and a book on Sudan and the Dinkas, and he tuned in a PBS special. Bol went over to the Ferrys' to watch the program on Sudan, and he has been back to their house since. Now that he's relaxed, said Ferry, "he's the life of the party. He does these John Riggins imitations. John Riggins, big tough guy. Then he goes into his routine. He had me on the floor."
Next summer, after he has time to take driver's education, Bol might get a truck like the Washington Redskins running back's. But the front seat will have to be built specially, w-a-a-a-y back. Said Ferry, "He's going to have to be fitted."
Before this season, he was fitted for a suit and sport coat, rush order. He has a 15 1/2 neck, 32 waist and 40 chest -- normal -- but a 43 1/2-inch sleeve length, 46-inch inseam and 56-inch outseam. "Extra long just doesn't do it," said Chuck Douglas.
Douglas is Bol's driver. Like Bol, he is 23. When the Bullets signed Bol, reportedly for three years at about $100,000 a year, Douglas was hired. "Manute's a good guy," said Douglas, watching practice one morning at Bowie State. "It's not like he calls at midnight Saturday saying I want to go to 7-Eleven."
A typical day: Douglas picked Bol up at his apartment and drove back roads to Bowie State for an 11 a.m. practice. On the way they hit McDonald's. (The sign above the "Drive-Thru" takes on new meaning: "Clearance 9 Ft.") Bol ordered scrambled eggs, an English muffin and two orange juices. On the car radio, an announcer was talking about a story in the paper, about low attendance at Bullets games. Said Bol, willing to take responsibility on his knobby shoulders, "I have to try harder."
He is an amiable fellow, with a big smile, and that makes it easier for Douglas always to be waiting around for him, caring about him. "He eats good portions," said Douglas as Bol suited up for practice. "Anything but seafood and he'll eat it. We used to go to every pizza joint. My God, I gained 10 pounds."
Douglas does much of Bol's shopping because Bol gets surrounded in grocery and department stores. To one "How's the weather up there?" he said, "Who do I look like, Bob Ryan?"
But he'll sometimes brave the crowds and sign autographs as he goes up and down the aisles.
He asked Douglas, "Chief, what's that stuff you get to kill small animals?"
"You know, they run around, fly around the house."
"Oh, you mean insects."
Or: "Chief, I need one of those little trains you push around."
"A vacuum cleaner?"
Bol likes his teammates as much as they like him, said Douglas, watching the players begin work, stretching muscles this cold morning. "He calls McMillen, who plans to run for Congress from Maryland, 'Tom Congress.' " He calls Charles Jones "Commando No. 2."
Commando No. 1 is Jeff Ruland, whose broken ankle is giving Bol an unexpected amount of playing time (30 minutes a game since Ruland's injury, 17 more than before Ruland was hurt). He averages four blocked shots a game, second in the NBA to Utah's Mark Eaton (4.09). Bol concedes that his scoring average (2.48 points a game) needs work.
At home, Bol keeps a picture album with shots of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Los Angeles Lakers' 7-foot-2 star, in it. "That was the guy he always looked up to -- figuratively," Douglas said.
Recently, Bol and Abdul-Jabbar met on the court. It proved to be an education for both, but especially for Bol. Abdul-Jabbar scored 29 points, mostly with his sky hook, although Bol blocked eight shots, including one Abdul-Jabbar dunk attempt. "It's tough to guard him," said Bol. "He's got a lot of moves. He can spin and go to the basket."
But Abdul-Jabbar had his problems with Bol. "When I got the ball, I had trouble finding him," said Abdul-Jabbar after the Lakers' 96-84 victory. "Most centers in the NBA lean on you and you know where they are. With him, you have to look around and locate him before you do anything."
Indeed, Bol can be as hard to find as he was the time he killed a lion. First of all, the lion was asleep. "Otherwise," Bol said, "I would be killed."
He went on: "A lion killed one of the cows. Then I saw this lion -- I don't know if it was the same lion who killed the cow, but he was under a tree. I threw this spear -- we carry about 10 of them. I wasn't close to the lion, but I hit him. He jumped up and hit the limbs of the tree and he looked all around like he was looking for whoever shot him. Then he fell down and died. I was behind a tree."
After practice, teammates joked with Bol. Said Frank Johnson: "We want Manute to represent us in a dunking contest."
"Why should I?" asked Bol.
"Because you're the best dunker on the team," said Johnson.
"No, I'm not."
"C.J. (Charles Jones.)"
Johnson kept talking, to no avail, as Bol busied himself trying on a thin gold chain. That made three gold chains around his neck. Dudley Bradley, leaving the locker room, said, "See you, King Tut."
Back into the car. More back roads, to College Park. On a typical day, Bol reports to the University of Maryland's strength coach, Frank Costello. Into the weight room. Costello has Bol on a "maintenance program," to maintain his weight at about 208 until next offseason. That's when they can get really serious and build him up to 225, where he might be strong enough to add offense to his game.
As Bullets Coach Gene Shue said, "It's always been my fear that somebody will knock him to the floor and break something." Some part of Bol, that is.
Costello barked commands and Bol lifted away the afternoon. They also played catch with a 10-pound ball, Costello standing on a bench and Bol lying on the floor. This makes catching and throwing a 10-pound ball even less fun. "This will help his outlet pass," said Costello.
Though the whole buildup process looked painful, Costello called Bol an eager worker who eventually will make 225 pounds but "he will never represent the Sudan in a body-building contest."
The workout done, the two bantered as they moved to the next room to shoot a game of pool.
"This is one sport you're not going to make it in," said Costello.
Bol, leaving the cue ball against the cushion, said, "I play defensive pool."
When Bol leans over a pool table, he can look right into the most distant pocket. Height runs in his family. His 19-year-old sister, Abouk, is 6-8. His mother, who died several years ago, and his father were about the same. But the tallest of all was his 7-foot-10 grandfather, Chol, a tribal chief. Pausing from his pool game, Bol explained: "Long ago in the Dinka tribe, you could get 20 or 15 wives. Not now. One wife."
The chief had 30 or 40 children and 70 or so grandchildren. Bol didn't have an exact count. But he did say, "Sometimes you could meet a girl and she would have the same last name. You would be related. Amazing."
Outside, Douglas paused to say a few words, but Bol, anxious to buy some groceries to take home to Deng Nhial and Peter Deng, already was in the back seat of the car. From there, he tapped the horn.
Bol seems happiest on the basketball court. He beams as he walks out to meet Abdul-Jabbar for the tap. And to say hello to Magic Johnson. And, a few nights later, Atlanta's Dominique Wilkins.
With four seconds left in the Bullets' 111-109 victory over Atlanta, Bol was rushed back to the lineup to wave his long arms at a frustrated Hawk trying to get the ball in bounds for a desperation shot. Bol forces a horrible throw-in as the last seconds tick away, and the happy crowd cries "Ma-noooot, Ma-noooot . . . "
As Ferry said, "Everybody loves Manute."