He is playing one-on-one basketball against Charles Barkley in a local fitness club on a November Saturday afternoon in Middleburg Heights, Ohio. Manute Bol is rolling in his own awkward way. One step, two; he has spun past Barkley and lifted himself a foot off the ground and slammed the ball through the orange hoop with two hands. The ball has bounced off Barkley's back, hit the floor and bounced back to Manute.
"I love you, Charlie," he says.
"You're just too small, Charlie," he says.
"Too small," he says again.
December 17, 1990
Time has stopped around him. As usual. Ordinary dimensions have been altered. The weekend joggers on the running track above the court have quit their workouts to stand and stare. The muscle builders have left their machines. Neighborhood kids have appeared. They carry pens and pencils and cheap cameras. The rest of the Philadelphia 76ers are practicing at other baskets in the double gym, shooting free throws, playing their own one-on-one battles in this light, game-day workout. They are by themselves. Nobody watches. Manute is the only show.
How tall is this guy? Really. How tall? Eyes cannot leave him. Goodness. How tall? It is as if an English teacher had handed out a composition subject asking for 1,000 words on what it would be like to be 7'7" tall, to weigh no more than 225 pounds, to be ink-black, to be half a world away from home, to be able to touch the rim without leaving your feet, to be forced to scrunch into cars and under doorways and to overlap the most kingly of hotel king-sized beds. All heads consider the same subject. How tall?
"Hoooooo-eeee", Manute says.
He has hit the hook shot, the little hook that he takes when he moves to the right with his back to the basket. There basically are two moves that he makes. The hook is one. Maybe six feet. Maybe seven. There is a softness to the shot, a rolled-up piece of paper going into a metal wastebasket. Hoooooo-eeee. The spin to the left and dunk is the other move. The dunk is done without any showboat style. Two hands. The ball is never held more than an inch or two above the basket. Dunk. There are no other moves. Not really. That is the repertoire.
"Traveling," Barkley says.
"Don't even think about it, Charlie," Manute says. "Don't think about it."
The game continues at this easy, chatty driveway pace. The real game will be at night at the Richfield Coliseum against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Barkley, an NBA All-Star forward, is 6'6", 252 pounds, but next to Manute he appears to be a chubby athletic child. He has to spin and push to escape Manute's body. He has to throw up exaggerated jumpers, devised from some geometry book, to travel over Manute's long arms. Manute is a grand and different riddle to be solved with each successive shot.
How tall? A heavy man says, "And I thought I had trouble finding pants that fit." A kid decides he thinks Manute looks taller on television. His friend says he has to be kidding. Has to be! A runner wonders if Manute could put on some more weight and maybe pick up a few more moves...couldn't he do that? A racquetball player asks who this guy is, anyway. He sure is tall.
"I love you, Charlie," Manute says, picking from one of his two moves. "But I have to do this."
He goes to the right. The hook. The ball goes through the basket. Hoooooo-eeee. The big man, 28, has been in America for seven years now and has moved to his third NBA team, and yet he is still a curiosity. The curiosity of curiosities. He is now in the middle of a three-game road trip through the Midwest. The curiosity is traveling with friends. Milwaukee. Cleveland. Indianapolis.
MILWAUKEE—Manute is with the Sixers because Jimmy Lynam. wanted him with the Sixers. Jimmy Lynam is the coach. The owner, Harold Katz, wanted Manute and the general manager, Gene Shue, wanted Manute, but Lynam really wanted Manute. He has watched Manute play basketball longer than any other coach in professional basketball. In Lynam's mind Manute is unfinished business.
"I've always been intrigued with the way he can alter a game," Lynam says in the hotel cocktail lounge. "He comes into the game and he just changes it. Defensively. He takes the other team out of its offense. No other player really does that. He comes in and he disrupts. We're still figuring out what to do with him, especially offensively, but he is here mostly for defense."
The deal was made in the off-season. The Sixers traded their No. 1 draft choice in 1991 to the Golden State Warriors for Bol. It would seem to be a heavy price to pay for a man who had averaged three points and 4.7 rebounds per game for five years in the NBA, but the only number that counted was Manute's 3.8 blocked shots per game. The Sixers traded, basically, for a pine tree that could be planted in the floor in front of the basket. The pine tree has branches that move. The branches are obstacles that other teams are not used to dealing with.
Lynam likes that idea. He has liked that idea for as long as he has thought about it, since he was the coach of the San Diego Clippers in 1983 and received an intriguing phone call on an idle afternoon.
"Listen to this," he says, beginning at the beginning. "I'd coached at Fairfield, the college in Connecticut. I'd known another coach in the area named Don Feeley. He calls up one day and tells me he has a sleeper, someone no one else knows. I say, 'Yeh, yeh, everybody has a sleeper. Everybody knows some bright young kid. Who can be a sleeper who's any good? I've never seen one.' Feeley says his sleeper is seven-feet-seven. I decided I could listen to what he had to say."
Feeley had taken a job in Africa coaching a one-month clinic for the Sudanese national team in Khartoum. Nothing very exciting was happening. He was teaching poor kids the vagaries of the pick and roll, working with bad equipment in hot weather. On one memorable day, the door opened. Practice stopped. All of the players started smiling. Feeley looked at the doorway. There was the tallest man he had ever seen, a figure made of giant pipestems. The figure was smiling.
"Who's this?" Feeley asked.
"This is Manute, our friend," the players said. "He plays for our team."
"Forget everything I've told you," Feeley said. "We've just changed the offense."
One thing had led invariably to another. Feeley soon had Manute in Cleveland, hoping to enroll him at Cleveland State. Feeley felt he had found a very large, uncut diamond. Manute could not speak much English but was taking classes in the language at Case Western Reserve. He was ready to play basketball for someone somewhere. College, pro—whatever. Feeley was offering him to the Clippers.
"So, I said, 'Have you told anyone else about this?' " Lynam says. "Feeley said the only one in the NBA he had called was Frank Layden at Utah. He said Frank said he couldn't take another big guy like this. He already had Mark Eaton. I was the second guy Feeley had called. I told him he didn't have to call anyone else."
On draft day 1983, Lynam was in California. At the other end of the phone, Howard Garfinkel was submitting the Clippers' choices at draft headquarters in New York. Garfinkel is known as a supreme basketball talent evaluator. He runs the noted Five-Star camps in Pennsylvania as well as Virginia. He knows the names of good basketball players in the U.S. when they are 13 years old. He knows everything. Lynam read off the pick.
"Manute. That's M-a-n-u-t-e."
"What's his first name?" Garfinkel asked.
"That is his first name. His second name is Bol. That's spelled B-o-l."
"Where's he from?"
"Never heard of it."
"It's not a school. It's a country."
"Never heard of it."
Lynam watched the proceedings on television. Somone from the NBA read off the name and country and the height and weight. Seven-seven, 180 pounds. There was a murmur of confusion around the draft tables. Seven-seven. NBA talent scout Marty Blake was questioned on the screen. Blake said he had never heard of any Manute Bol. Lynam laughed.
After the draft Lynam traveled to Cleveland. He watched Manute play in a pickup game for a while against Darren Tillis, a 6'11" big man who once had been drafted in the first round by the Boston Celtics. How tall was this Manute guy? Very tall. How good was he? He needed a lot of work...but he still was very tall. Lynam was happy with his fifth-round draft pick, and he relayed this information through a 6'3" Sudanese national team forward named Deng Deng Nihal, who speaks English and had accompanied Manute from Sudan. Manute and Deng talked back and forth.
"Listen to this," Lynam says. "I ask what language they're talking. Deng says, 'a Dinka dialect.' "
The rest of the story did not work out as well. Manute had become shy about going directly to the pros because he did not know the language and would not know what the coaches were telling him to do. The NBA declared him ineligible because he had not stated his intention to enter the draft 45 days before it was held. The draft selection was voided. The NCAA became involved, questioning his eligibility for NCAA Division I basketball. Manute eventually wound up at the Division II University of Bridgeport (Conn.)—in the hometown of P.T Barnum—for a season, hitting the public consciousness with stories of killing a lion and using cows for currency and having his teeth removed in a Dinka ritual. He was a secret no more. The Washington Bullets drafted him in the second round in 1985.
"Here's the thing," Lynam says. "Listen to this. He really should have been with the Clippers. They should have kept his draft rights. It all got very confusing. One of the things everyone was looking at was his passport. His passport said he was 19 years old. His passport also said he was five feet two."
Lynam asked Manute about the discrepancy. Manute said he had been sitting down when Sudan officials measured him.
CLEVELAND—The stars of the locker room are Barkley and beefy forward Rick Mahorn, Messrs. Bump and Thump, but they have made room for Manute. He quickly has become a third in their group. He is involved in the routines, the pranks, the fun. Barkley and Mahorn are pie-in-the-face outrageous. Loud. Manute is the more quiet partner. He sometimes seems as if he is the good kid gone wrong, sitting now in the back with the class rascals.
"Manute," Barkley says. "You might have been tough back home, but you're just another tall guy over here."
"Manute," Mahorn says. "If it weren't for basketball, you'd be back in Africa with a bone in your nose. You'd be a sheep-herder somewhere."
The game is an hour away, perhaps an hour and a half. There does not seem to be a lot of tension. Barkley has been stealing soap from the Richfield Coliseum shower room. Mahorn is eating popcorn. The dialogue is the same as it always is, "twenty-four hours a day, including room service," according to Manute. He has a response.
"The problem with you black guys from America is that you do not have any tribes," he says. "You belong nowhere. You roll around the country. You are like loose balls on the court. That is what you are. Loose balls. When the referee says, 'Loose-ball foul,' do you turn around because you think he is talking about you? Think about it. Loose balls."
The shyness is gone. He speaks English very well. He has been to virtually every American city, to some many times. He has seen snow. He has a tailored overcoat to guard against it. There is a home in Alameda, Calif., that he may try to sell. There is a home in Glendale, Md., that is being built with eight-foot doors on the inside, but with a normal-sized door on the front to keep tourists away. He is married. He has two children, a boy and a girl. He also owns two homes in Khartoum in Sudan, where relatives live. He also owns an apartment in Alexandria, Egypt, where he sometimes lives in the summer. He will average $1.5 million per year, guaranteed through 1992-93. He fits. He more than fits.
"We've adopted him," Mahorn says. "You know that ad, Adopt-A-Kid? Manute is our kid."
"He's just like us," Barkley says. "He wants to win and have fun. That's one thing that surprised me, how bad he wants to win. He really does. And he wants to have fun. That's what it's all about. He's just a skinny us."
Manute's size is not a factor. Then again, maybe it is. He is not the typical backup center, a quiet big man wondering about the next names that might appear on the waiver wire. He is a presence. He is the one who is noticed first in the airports, the hotel lobbies, even the pregame warmup lines.
"You know, a lot of people feel sorry for him, because he's so tall and awkward," Barkley says. "But I'll tell you this—if everyone in the world was a Manute Bol, it's a world I'd want to live in. He's smart. He reads The New York Times. He knows what's going on in a lot of subjects. He's not one of these just-basketball guys. Basketball's just one per cent of it. You know what he was talking about the other day? Milk. He was saying that he grew up on milk straight from the cow. Squeezed it himself. Milk. He says, 'Charlie, what's this lo-fat milk, this two percent milk, all of this other milk? Cows don't give lo-fat milk, two percent milk. We shouldn't drink it.' I don't know. Maybe he's got something."
In Washington, Manute was friendly first with Bernard King and John Williams and the general manager, Bob Ferry. At Golden State, his best friend was Chris Mullin. He still misses Mullin, his one-on-one competition for the longest time, his road-trip dinner companion. In Philadelphia, he did not plan on being best friends with the rascals. It somehow just happened. He makes friends easily.
"I knew Rick before I came," he says. "Rick was traded from Washington the year before I went, so when we played in Detroit he would take us out. Charles? I remember Charles bumped Chris all over the court one night in Philadelphia. He really hurt Chris. Then, after the game, he came to the bus to apologize to Chris. He knew he was wrong. Charles is just crazy."
The craziness surfaces while Manute is getting dressed for the game. Barkley is working on him again. He is saying...oh, one of the things he usually says is that he is surprised that Manute is married to a pretty woman and not one of those women that Rick and Charles used to see all of the time in National Geographic in high school. Remember those women, Rick? Manute stands to defend his honor. Or is it the honor of the women of Sudan? He goes into the pose of a 7'7" John L. Sullivan looking for Jake Kilrain. Barkley goes into the pose of Muhammad Ali trying to escape George Foreman. This is in the locker room. Before the game.
"Rick!" Barkley suddenly shouts. "He's messing with me."
"I told you not to mess with my boy," Mahorn says.
Together they attack Manute. Mahorn grabs him from behind. Barkley grabs his ankles. They lower him to the locker room floor. The other players watch. Manute is stretched the length of the floor. He is wearing his Sixers uniform with his little street socks. They are black with white polka dots. He is struggling to get away, hitting at Mahorn with his New Balance sneaker. Mahorn and Barkley look as if they are prepared to tickle him to death.
"All right," Barkley finally says. "We'll let him up."
They help the big man to his feet, no easy process. Everyone relaxes for a second. Manute attacks. He grabs Barkley in a headlock. He lowers his head with its close-cut hair onto Barkley's bald head. He begins to rub, creating a fine friction.
"Oh, not the hair," Barkley whimpers.
INDIANAPOLIS—"You could not drink this beer in Sudan," Manute says. "They would put you in jail, just for drinking a beer. That is a law since 1983."
Dinner. The green Heineken bottle looks very small in his hand. The hotel restaurant is on the second floor and has a view of the Indiana state capitol. There is little traffic on the street. Veterans Day.
"When they banned liquor, they threw it all in the river," he says. "What do you think happened?" He pauses, then insists, "The crocodiles got drunk. The fish got drunk. The crocodiles just went crazy. Isn't that stupid? You can't have a beer."
The tales of his country seem to come from far, far away. He is eating the prime rib, the Black Angus Prime Rib Special, $14.95. Medium. He does not look tall when he is sitting down because most of his height is in his legs.
"The government wants to make the country an Islam country," Manute says. "That is not right. That is what the fighting is about. I am not against Islam. I just think you should be free. Everybody should be free. Like here. The country should have the things that are here. You go to Egypt, they have everything. They have Kentucky Fried Chicken. They have Wimpy's. Nothing in Sudan. Not even much television."
A civil war has been in progress for seven years in Sudan. The fighting is in the south, where Manute was raised in the town of Gogrial. He has not been back to his hometown since he left in 1983. He says it would be too dangerous to go there. He has returned to the capital city of Khartoum, in the north, a few times, but last year was told that even that was too dangerous. He is well-known and is considered by some Sudanese to be antigovernment.
"That is what happens." he says. "You are against the government and you find yourself in jail. Or even worse."
The country has layers of problems, Manute says. There is drought. There is famine. The food that is sent from other countries does not reach the neediest people, he says, because the government uses food as a weapon. Food is given only to government supporters. There are few cows left now in the south, because of the fighting, and there are fewer and fewer people. Khartoum has become a city with more than 1.5 million refugees. There are not enough jobs for this number of people. There is not enough food. The situation is a mess.
Manute says he follows the news from home as well as possible, but the process is hard. He says he has been trying for three months to call stepbrothers and stepsisters, without luck. He gets some news by calling the Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Association. He gets bits from watching CNN. He talks with other expatriates from Sudan who show up at his games across the country. There is a strong feeling of frustration.
"What can I do?" he says. "I used to go to Khartoum with basketball shoes for the kids. I would get all the shoes I could find. When I started playing basketball I did not have shoes. There were no size 16's in Sudan. I would like to bring back more. I have asked Charles to give me 24 pairs of shoes. I would like to bring things, but I cannot go. I would like to give money, but how can I do that if I do not think it will help?"
The rest of life is fine. Better than fine. Beautiful. Impossible. He tells his friends in Egypt about the American life, about the stores and stuff, about the money. More than impossible. They all think he is some sort of captain-of-industry millionaire, far richer than he really is. He tells his teammates on this side about the other life in Africa...also impossible. More than impossible. He had to pay cows to his wife's parents for her hand in marriage. Cows?
The truth is impossible on both sides. His long legs have taken him across years as well as miles, decades of social change accomplished in a whirlwind seven years. His grandfather was a tribal chief, 7'10", with 30 wives and 80 children. He lived on a cattle farm. Manute is on instant replay in American homes. Manute is in the front seat, aisle, riding first class on airplanes. Manute is driving his specially adapted Bronco and wearing designer neckties and listening to a Walkman and living in the public now. Manute is finished with dinner.
He opens an eight-foot door into his soul.
"I am never bothered by the fact that I am tall," he says as the waiter clears the table. "When I was younger I was bothered, but not now. My height is a gift from God. That is what I say. I did not create it. What would I do if my wife had five sets of twins? Would I throw some of them in the ocean because I did not want them? We take our gift. I do not say anything bad about someone who is short or someone who is fat. You have to live with what you are given.
"Who knows what God may be dreaming of for us? There is a reason. Look at what he has dreamed of for me."
In Milwaukee, two Wisconsin kids appear with a bedsheet with the words MANUTE FAN CLUB painted across the front. They have done this for three years, going only to the games Manute plays. They say they like him because he seems to be a good guy and is "unique." In Cleveland, Manute somehow winds up with the ball twice halfway between midcourt and the three-point circle. The crowd immediately yells, "Shoot!" each time. He does not shoot. In Indianapolis, an older man behind the bench yells mean things at Barkley. Manute turns around and says, "Do you know that old men have heart attacks every day when they become excited? I would not become so excited if I were you." The man keeps quiet.
The Sixers are tromped in Milwaukee, 141-111. They are tromped again in Cleveland, 104-88. In Indianapolis, they rebound with a 108-100 win. In celebration, Barkley goes through a series of handshakes with Manute. Manute then bends down and the two men rub heads together.
"I love to win, dude," Manute says. "I love to win."
He has scored two points in the three games. He has collected seven rebounds. He has blocked three shots. The numbers are really not important.