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Former NBA giant Bol had ties to the Vikings

Manute Bol, who passed away on June 19, was known for his incredible height and shot-blocking abilities during his decade-long run in the NBA

JULY 12, 2010

Manute Bol died on June 19, and for the first time many people learned the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey would say. The beginning of his story is well known. He was the son of a Sudanese tribal chief, and claimed to have killed a lion with a spear as a boy to protect his cows. An immediate sensation during his rookie year, reporters loved asking him to tell the story. Then the tallest player in NBA history, Bol quickly became known for his one true basketball skill, blocking shots.

BOLSoon however, the deficiencies in his other areas on the court pushed him into the fringe of popularity. Known for less than flattering things, such as his three-point shot, Bol became a side show. Eventually leaving the NBA after ten seasons, Bol continued to play professionally abroad until his health forced him to quit.

Part of the story few people know about began before Bol’s entrance into the NBA. In 1982 Bol was recruited from a Sudanese basketball team by an associate of then CSU basketball coach Keven Mackey to play in the United States. Bol agreed and by 1983 was living in Cleveland, taking ESL classes at the Case Western University campus in order to learn enough English to attend a division one college.

The story behind Mackey and Bol is as unclear today as the situation was controversial back in 1987, when the NCAA put CSU on three years probation. The decision came as the Vikings were coming off the Cinderella victory over Bobby Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers in the 1986 tournament. The victory helped inspire the building of what was then the largest collegiate arena in the state, what is now the Wolstien Center, to showcase the talent that was then thought to be become a dominate basketball program for many years.

Walter Waetjen, then president of CSU, appealed the decision to no avail and the program went downhill. The probation was the beginning of the end of any positive strides the program had made by being the highest seed to make it to the Sweet Sixteen. Shortly after coming off the probation, Mackey was signed to a two year extension. Days later Mackey was arrested for driving under the influence and was fired. What could have been the fate of the basketball program had the violations never happened?

Bol was quoted in the New York Times in 1987 saying, ‘‘I read in the newspapers that the NCAA says Coach Mackey gave me money and a car. If that’s true, where’s the car? Where’s my money? Why would I leave Cleveland State if they gave me money and a car?’’ Bol’s comments are interesting. At the time his comments were taken with the same grain of salt given to someone like Reggie Bush, former USC running back and Heisman trophy winner implicated in violations that led the NCAA to hand out the stiffest penalties since Southern Methodist University’s “death penalty” sentence.

Given the advantage of 20/20 hindsight, we now know that Bol was a supremely humble and giving person. Bol used every inch of his height and every iota of fame to help the people from whence he came. Bol’s tremendous stature was nothing compared to his character, and a man like that should be given the benefit of the doubt.

Many wondered why a man from a poor country would continue to chase paying gigs after making NBA money, especially when it was clear that teams were signing him as a publicity stunt. The questions continued after Bol agreed to appear on ice as a goalie for a minor league hockey team, and similar publicity stunts that dressed him as a horse jockey and had him box William “The Fridge” Perry. Some felt sorry for the awkward looking giant, but most attributed the decisions to being a fame hound or being a poor steward of money.

In actuality, as many people found out recently, from the moment Bol left the Sudan he was on a single mission to help his countrymen. Throughout his NBA career he sent his money back to the Sudan and asked his teammates to help support his country, which has a long history of civil war and religious violence. He also mentored fellow athletes from the Sudan who have made it to the NBA, such as Luol Deng who plays for the Chicago Bulls.

After the NBA, the money from his publicity stunts all went to help Sudan. However, in 2001 the Sudanese government labeled him a leader of rebels fighting government forces after Bol, a Christian, turned down a position in the government which would have forced him to convert to Islam. The government then extorted him for more money, refusing to let him leave unless he promised to return with even more money. Fortunately he was able to take refuge in Egypt, and eventually made his way back to the United States.

He then settled in Kansas and despite breaking his neck in a car accident and developing a painful skin disease, Bol continued his work to make his birth country a better place.