A friend once defined the difference between the men and the boys in politics: “Boys run for office to be someone. Men run to do something.” Manute Bol was not a politician. Far better, as Julius Caesar said, “This was a man!”
Recently, Bol, 47, died of severe kidney trouble and a rare skin condition, Stevens-Johnson Syndrome, having lived to do something, not be someone. At 17, Manute had left Sudan for America, learning basketball on the fly. Making the 1985-94 NBA, he became the Gentle Giant, a Human Shot Blocker: at 7-foot-7, the game’s tallest player.
Many athletes build a fortune for jewelry, a Maserati, another vacation home. Retiring at 33 due to injury, Manute ultimately gave away much of his fortune, estimated at $6 million, to help a group, Sudan Sunrise, aid the 4 million Darfurian and Sudanese refugees maimed by endless Muslim-Christian civil war.
God “guided me to America, gave me a good job,” he said, “but He also gave me a heart so I look back.” Looking, Bol saw 2.5 million dead, thousands of orphans sans food or medicine, and kids without a classroom using sticks and rocks to write under the shade of trees. “Heart” sired Manute’s vow to build 41 schools for Christian, Muslim, and tribal children: “reconciliation,” he put it, except that Sudan’s then-brutal government declined to reconcile with Bol.
During a visit, he was shot at on a plane, then refugee camp, thugs trying to kill him. An NBA photo shows Bol, hospitalized in a full-body cast. Unfazed, he became the world’s tallest licensed jockey, played hockey although he couldn’t skate, and boxed 335-pound ex-NFLer William (The Refrigerator) Perry: anything to raise funds. To Bol, nothing was beneath him, since God lived and loved above.
Last year, pollster John Zogby was moved hearing Manute speak, as I was, hearing John. In November, we arranged a full day in Rochester, New York, where I teach at the University of Rochester, to tell his story. Bol flew from his Kansas home needing a wheelchair, roiled by arthritis, yet determined to soldier on. At one event, Manute was mobbed by “Lost Boys” Sudanese refugees. At an elementary school, 9-to-10-year olds asked one question after another, greeting him like Taylor Swift.
Finally, a little girl told Manute and her schoolmates that she understood him because she had arthritis; at which point Bol told Zogby and Sudan Sunrise head Tom Prichard, “Help me stand up. Let them see me standing up”; whereupon they did. It made you smile. It broke your heart. “He may live long, he may do much,” statesman Edmund Burke lauded a peer. “But here lies the summit.” Each day was a summit for Caesar’s “man.”
A week later Bol left for Sudan, staying longer than planned when its President asked him to “help ensure a peaceful [spring 2010] election process” — the country’s first in more than a quarter-century. Arthritis worsened, a doctor saying “your bones are in very bad shape.” Unable to walk, Manute wouldn’t rest, since, among other things, outside school now ends when Sudan’s 6-to-8-month rainy season starts.
Returning to America, Bol was hospitalized for kidney trouble and Stevens-Johnson Syndrome, a result of kidney medication he took in Africa. Manute lost patches of skin and could barely talk, his mouth so sore he went 11 days without eating. “Greater love hath no man than this,” said John 14:13, “that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
Bol’s funeral hailed a clear soul, open mind, and man even larger than his specially-made 8-foot coffin. Best friend and ex-teammate Chris Mullins was a pallbearer. Sudan’s Ambassador, Sudan Sunrisers, and others mourned, grief and wonder all around. Unlike Dorothy, Manute never made it back to Kansas or, sadly, Sudan. He did, though, make it Home.
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