The Knicks have experienced it. The Celtics have, too. Last Saturday night it was the Dallas Mavericks' turn. Have you heard about it? Can't you just feel it?
IT'S MANUTE MADNESS!
"It's really quite amazing," reflected Dick Motta after his Mavericks lost 110-91 to the Washington Bullets—make that the Bol-lets. "No one can stop talking about the guy. The players, the coaches, the fans. Even the referees."
October 20, 1985
The guy is Manute Bol, the 7'7" Dinka tribesman from the Sudan who was selected by the Bullets in the second round of the NBA draft. In just three preseason games—all victories—Bol has transcended a media sideshow. Ladies and gentlemen, The Brother From Another Planet can play. He has blocked 18 shots in 64 minutes, an average of one block every 3.6 minutes. By contrast, Utah's Mark Eaton averaged a block every 6.2 minutes last season when he set an NBA record with 456. Clearly, what we have here is both a new dimension in defense and a full-scale happening.
By midseason, a replica of the spear that Manute once used to kill a lion back in his native Africa will be on sale at NBA concession stands, right next to the Michael Jordan and Dr. J posters. A shoe company will have completed its prototype of the Air Bol, a name that, incidentally, describes many of Manute's baseline hook shots. NBA scouts will have traded their college guides for pith helmets—forget Chapel Hill and Westwood, it's off to the Sudan! A thousand writers will have mined their thesauri for words to describe Bol's 91-inch body, to which he has added 17 pounds (up to 209) since August with the help of a weightlifting program and a lot of pizza with the works. Spindly. Spiderlike. Reedy. Tubular. Otherwordly.
And by that time, too, Manute Bol, considered merely the Bullets' coup de theatre on draft day, will have gotten a lot, lot better. Some early returns:
"If he puts on weight, nobody will be able to stop him." That from Patrick Ewing of the Knicks; Bol had six blocks against New York in an 85-78 Bullet victory. None was on Ewing, but he did reject three of 7'1" center Bill Cartwright's shots.
"He's got a nice sense for blocking shots. His range is pretty far and pretty high." That from Bill Walton of the Celtics, against whom Bol blocked nine shots in a 101-95 victory. One of them was on Walton, and another was an awe-inspiring erasure of a Kevin McHale fall-away jumper. "First time that shot's been blocked like that," said McHale.
"I tell you, they can win a championship with this guy." That from Boston coach K.C. Jones, who knows something about championships.
The Bullets, however, are not rushing any championship banners to the seamstress. Serious questions exist about the Sudanese Swatter's stamina and his ability to keep blocking shots once teams have studied his defensive game. While Bol figures out the man-to-man defensive ropes in the NBA—he played mostly zone with the University of Bridgeport and with the Rhode Island Gulls of the United States Basketball League—the Bullets may get whistled for a record number of illegal defenses. His rebounding skills are limited (16 in three games), and his offense is practically negligible (seven points). We offer for your inspection a guy who could finish the season with more blocked shots than rebounds or points. Never mind illegal zone—this is the Twilight Zone.
But the fact remains that Bol is a much more effective weapon than most NBA personnel people had imagined he would be. Thirty players were picked before him, in eluding Washington's own Kenny Green, whose slow development as a small forward has been obscured by Manute Madness. It will be interesting to find out if any of the eight pure centers selected before him, except for Ewing, have as much impact.
Bol is widely known as a "project," but that's not quite accurate. Project is an NBA buzzword for a guy who can't play at all. No project has ever blocked 18 shots in his first three NBA starts. Of course, no player—period—has ever blocked 18 shots in his first three NBA starts. Offensively, all the Bullets need from Bol this season is a little hook shot down low. "He has the touch," says coach Gene Shue, "but the problem is that he gets pushed out. He ends up shooting it from 18 feet."
Actually, everything about Bol's game—offense, defense and particularly rebounding—will improve as his strength increases, which it already has. It almost had to. When the Bullets first sent Bol to University of Maryland strength coach Frank Costello in August, he could handle only 45 pounds in a 10-rep bench press and 55 in a 10-rep squat; now he's up to 110 in the bench and 170 in the squat.
There's nothing normal about Manute Bol and his basketball development. Little things that are taken for granted in other players are cause for celebration when Manute does them correctly. Ninety-one inches or not, he has been playing for only five years, and though he has shown some signs of upper-body development, he still looks as if he could be spindled, folded and mutilated by the NBA's more physical centers.
In the Dallas games Bol took a feed from Perry Moss near the basket for his first NBA stuff. It wasn't emphatic, but it brought down the house. "Nute! Nute!" shouted his teammates, slapping hands. "I know I have to do that kind of thing more," said Bol, who speaks English well but softly and swiftly. "I don't want to be shooting the ball from out far. They don't need me for that."
At times, Bol plays with a boundless joy, as he did against the Celtics on Oct. 9 when he couldn't seem to stop smiling on the court. Greg Kite, Boston's backup center, failed to see the humor—Bol's long arms (7'6" wingspan) so discombobulated him that on one occasion Kite tossed the ball to the referee when it was still in play. Against Dallas, however, Bol looked intense and serious. "I had many fouls in this game," said Bol, who had five. "What gets me most upset is fouling when I don't have to. I'm working on it."
He knows his limitations. His potential, however, is unknown.
"By next season his weight may be over 230 pounds," says Costello. "And if he keeps working like he does, I guarantee that in one year you will see a 7'7" guy who moves like a 6'7" guy. Think about it."
The NBA already is.