A sad passing

June 21, 2010

This isn't a very designerly post but I wanted to take a second comment on the sad passing of Manute Bol.

For those of you who are not familiar with semi-obscure former NBA athletes, Manute Bol was a freakishly tall Sudanese-born basketball player who played for a laundry list of NBA teams in the Mid '80s. I love basketball and I've always had an affinity for Manute. At 6'4" I'm sort of tall compared to many people. At 7'7" Manute was in another zip code. He was coincidentally born a few weeks after me and I found myself watching his basketball career blossom as my own rec-league level game was fading to an inglorious close.

Manute Bol careened dramatically and unexpectedly onto the US basketball scene with more of a sense of bemusement than fanfair. It would be easy to characterize his career as a freak show / circus-like curiosity and many did. He was clearly not of our culture. Manute Bol loved to relay the story of how he once killed a lion with a spear while working as a cowhearder. Probably not going to hear that one from Lebron or Kobe. I'm just guessing.

Initially his complete lack of English combined with his skeletal frame, terrible scoring ability and incredible cultural differences made him the butt of jokes. Later the US warmed to him and at the end of his career he was a fan favorite. At one point the Bullets (Wizards now) paired him with 5'3" Muggys Bogues making them the tallest and shortest players on the court. He was, by all accounts, a gentle giant - a quick wit and sly prankster.

His NBA career spanned 10 years and his numbers - aside from his shot blocking - were wholly unspectacular. 2.6 PPG, 4.2 rebounds. 19 minutes per game.

He was a man that reached across a huge cultural divide into my heart and made me value the common threads of humanity that bind us all.

What made Manute truly special, however happened outside of the 94' fantasy world we call a basketball court. Manute is reported to have spent virtually every penny he ever made on charitable causes related to his war-torn homeland. He tirelessly campaigned for human rights and peace in the Sudan trying to bring some stability to this sad place. He would do anything, anywhere at any time to raise money or awareness… he boxed William the Refrigerator Perry in exchange for an agreement from Fox to broadcast the telephone number to charity he established for refuges. Even though he couldn't skate, he signed a one-day contract to play Hockey to raise money for Children of the Sudan.

He was a man that reached across a huge cultural divide into my heart and made me value the common threads of humanity that bind us all. I've often wondered if I found myself in his size 16 shoes - lifted from a place of tremendous poverty, strife and tragedy - and given unimaginable riches in new world playing a game I love - if I would never look back. Yet Manute Bol is a man who never looked forward. Never forgot and never gave up. For this I deeply admire him.

Manute Bol passed away last week at the age of 47 from a disease he most likely contracted while on a humanitarian mission in Africa. Basketball may have given Manute Bol to us - but Manute gave us so much more. The world has lost a fine human being and I am saddened.