This story appears in the July 17, 2017, issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe, click here.
In the years between his disparate roles in American sporting culture—the first as the tallest and one of the most beloved players in the NBA, from 1985–86 through ’94–95, the second as a contestant on FOX’s Celebrity Boxing in 2002—7' 7" Manute Bol returned to Sudan. His homeland had been embroiled in civil war since 1983, and he had given approximately $3.5 million, the bulk of his NBA earnings, to the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, which defended his Dinka tribe, among others, against the Islamist regime in the North. In ’97, during a short-lived ceasefire, Bol arrived in Khartoum, having received a promise of a government position as the minister of sport.
Bol’s support of the peace agreement, between the northern establishment and a southern splinter group, was used as state propaganda; Ajok Geng Wol Kuag, who was 17 at the time, recalls watching news coverage of it on her family’s TV in Khartoum. Her people were Dinka, too, with connections to the SPLM. Her brother told her they’d be hosting a big dinner for Bol—and that she would need to help cook and serve traditional dishes including combo, a mix of okra, peanut butter and tomato. During the dinner Ajok drew their giant guest’s attention. “The whole time,” she says, “he was looking at me.”
Bol, who was 35 and divorced from his first wife, told his family later that night (according to Ajok), “That girl, if she’s not married, I’m going to marry her.” Told she was 17, he said, “I don’t care.” At first she wasn’t interested—“I’m not marrying someone that old,” she told her brothers, “and how would I marry someone that tall?” But after getting to know Bol over the next few months, she acquiesced to the union. As part of the agreement he paid her family 150 cows. “At the end of the day,” Ajok says, “the marriage was a blessing—and I had my child.”
When their firstborn arrived, on Nov. 16, 1999, they named him Bol Manute Bol, partly in honor of Manute’s late grandfather, Bol Chol Bol, the great Dinka chief who was said to be 7' 10" and reportedly had 58 wives. (Manute had merely three wives and 10 children.) But the family was not long for Sudan. The government job had been contingent on Manute’s converting to Islam, which he would never do; and after a U.S. missile strike on Khartoum in 1998, Manute was accused of being an American spy. He was nearly broke, and his attempt to leave for the U.S. was blocked by the northern government in 1999. Only by detouring through Egypt for six months in 2001—with tickets purchased by American friends—did the Bols find a way out. The first time Manute had flown to the U.S., in 1983, it was on a recruiting visit to Cleveland State. In 2002, when he, his wife, half sister and two-year-old son traveled to America, they were officially designated political refugees.
In a late afternoon last month, in a three-court gym at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, a set of double doors opens near one of the baselines. Sunlight streams in, followed by 27 players vying to make the 12-member U.S. squad for the FIBA U19 World Cup in Cairo. One of the 17-year-olds has short braids dangling loosely from the back of his head, and arms so long—his wingspan is 7' 8"—that his fingers extend past the hem of his mid-thigh-length shorts. And while his height might not be considered “room-changing”—which is how people would describe the reaction to his dad’s arrival—he is easily the tallest kid on the roster, at 7' 3". He’s also the one with the shortest name: Bol Bol.
There is a lot of Manute in Bol’s face, especially his wide and flat nose. Manute is inscribed on the inside of Bol’s right forearm, in black script. Bol says he got the tattoo last November “just to remember my dad,” who passed away in June 2010 from kidney failure and Stevens-Johnson syndrome, a rare skin condition. Bol has returned to Sudan just once, when he and Ajok buried Manute in his native Turalei. The game, Ajok says, is the other way Bol remembers Manute: “[Bol] said to me once, ‘Basketball is what makes me happy, because it feels like my dad is here when I play.’ ”
What becomes evident in Colorado Springs, though, is that Bol is no facsimile of Manute, whose standing reach of 10' 3" gave him value as a shot blocker and rim protector. Manute was a non-factor on offense—his average NBA usage rate was a minuscule 7.9%—and his occasional three-point shooting was regarded more as a source of comedy than an actual weapon. “His form ... was not like the regular form that anyone would shoot,” Bol says of Manute, who made 21.0% of his threes in the NBA. “It was kind of like a slingshot. But he liked to joke that he was the best shooter ever.”
Bol, on the other hand, can actually shoot. His form isn’t perfect—the shot starts close to his chin and to the right of his head—but it works. He made 48.9% of his threes (22 of 45) in Nike’s EYBL circuit this spring, and in warmups with Team USA, he flashes genuine pick-and-pop potential. Bol is a quality shot blocker who lacks the motor to impact the game on every defensive possession, but he does things on offense that, as U19 coach John Calipari put it, are “ridiculous.” On the first night of scrimmages, Bol catches a pass on the run, in traffic, and has the body control to leap, pump his way around a defender and lay the ball off the glass—a sequence that for most frontcourt prospects would have resulted in a turnover or a miss.
“Bol has a unique skill set for his size,” says Wake Forest coach Danny Manning, who’s both a U19 team assistant and a former opponent of Manute’s in the NBA. “He’s capable of stepping out on the perimeter and making shots, and his length gives him a chance to do things at the rim that surprise you. He has really soft hands ... and he has more ballhandling capabilities than he’s showing here. On the EYBL circuit he was on the perimeter more, putting it down a little bit. That’s not something Nutie [Manute] used to do.”
Bol earned his invite to the Team USA camp after what qualified as a breakout spring in Nike’s EYBL. Last winter he transferred from Bishop Miege High in Roeland Park, Kan., to hoops powerhouse Mater Dei High in Santa Ana, Calif. Bol later joined the Cal Supreme AAU program, whose roster also includes Shareef O’Neal, the 17-year-old son of Shaquille. Bol was regarded as a five-star prospect before the move, “but it was like the light switch came on this spring,” says Cal Supreme program director Gary Franklin Sr. “I think being on a team with a Hall of Famer’s son took some of the pressure off him—and he was allowed to play more freely.” Acting as a stretch-center, Bol averaged 24.1 points, 10.0 rebounds and 4.5 blocks in 28.2 minutes, and was named the EYBL’s regular-season MVP. Recruiting service Scout.com moved Bol up from No. 13 to No. 2 in its class of 2018 rankings.
On Day 1 of the tryouts in Colorado Springs, Bol is the best big man on the floor—but he tires quickly in the high altitude and gets outworked in the following sessions by older frontcourt players such as 6' 9" Austin Wiley, a rising sophomore at Auburn. After making the first cut, to 18, Bol is left off the roster for Cairo.
Going to Egypt with the U.S. team would have been full circle for Bol. Instead, he’ll spend his summer playing in the Nike Peach Jam in North Augusta, Ga., and in an AAU mega-tournament in Las Vegas, and mulling scholarship offers from Arizona, Kansas, Kentucky, UCLA and USC.
The recruitment of Manute—and the subsequent attempt to get him into college—was...unique. Bol knows only the rough outline: “They recruited him from Africa, so that’s a lot different than anything happening with me,” he says. “[Manute] said it was good to get away from the war, but he didn’t like being in America and missing his family. And he’d barely played basketball until he came here.”
Only one Division I school knew Manute existed: Cleveland State. New coach Kevin Mackey had been tipped off by former Fairleigh Dickinson coach Don Feeley, who had gone to Khartoum to instruct the Sudanese national team in 1982 and had his mind blown when the 7' 6", 19-year-old Manute showed up after hearing an American coach was visiting. Mackey—working with an agent friend, Frank Catapano—arranged for Manute and a teammate, Deng Deng Nhial, to fly over on what was ostensibly a recruiting visit in the spring of ’83. But the visit had no real end date. Manute and Deng were put up in a Holiday Inn, then moved to a Cleveland apartment while a plot was hatched to get Manute NCAA-eligible.
Manute spoke almost no English and had no acceptable transcripts, either, so they enrolled him in an ESL program at nearby Case Western Reserve while letting him play in summer pickup games at Cleveland State’s gym. Mackey observed one day and saw Manute swatting shots at will—and testing vocabulary on a Cleveland-born prospect, on summer break from D-II Virginia Union, who’d had the temerity to shove him. “I’ll kill you, Charles Oakley!” Manute kept shouting while pointing at the future Knicks power forward. “I killed a lion!”
Mackey says administrators at Cleveland State scuttled the attempt to enroll Manute due to his lack of English proficiency. The Vikings might have won a national championship with Bol at the back of Mackey’s Run and Stun press—“But then the NCAA,” Mackey says, “would’ve given me three death penalties.” In 1987 the NCAA did issue a two-year postseason ban on CSU; Catapano had been classified as a booster, and the NCAA found that he provided impermissible room-and-board benefits to Manute, Deng and a third player from Somalia. By then, Bol had gone on to Division II Bridgeport (Conn.) for the 1984–85 season, had been selected in the second round of the ’85 NBA draft by the Washington Bullets and was getting paid to block shots, his offensive limitations be damned.
“One thing I always believed about Manute,” says Mackey, who’s now a scout for the Pacers, “is that had he grown up here in the U.S. and had the opportunity to learn the game from when he was young, he might have been an All-Star. Maybe even a Hall of Famer. So let’s see what his son can do.”