When I decided a few months back to schedule a vacation for this past weekend, the timing seemed perfect. There’d be no football or basketball on TV, allowing me to focus on the important things you’re supposed to on vacation, namely eating unhealthy food, poisoning your body with alcohol, and catching some sun by the pool. Or as my friend Syed calls it, “Getting your burn on.”
Of course, as it turns out, I was wrong. If there was one weekend in the past few months that I needed to be in front of the TV and a computer, this was the one. Game 7 of the NBA Finals. World Cup coverage in the late morning and early afternoon. The U.S. Open taking over in the late afternoon and early evening. Wimbledon starting Monday.
By Saturday my head was spinning with potential column ideas for when I returned to work on Tuesday. Would it be too late to talk about the NBA Finals? What if Tiger Woods won at Pebble Beach? Could I squeeze out 1500 words on my trip to Washington D.C. and the Nationals game I attended on Friday night? What about the World Cup? At a time of the year when most sports writers are scraping and clawing for story ideas, I actually had too much to write about, which isn’t necessarily the worst thing. With all this in the back of my mind, I hit the town for one last time Saturday night, actually feeling a little guilty for not being in front of my computer.
Despite it, I was actually having a good time, at least until a text came, from my mom at 10:53 p.m. All it told me was that Manute Bol had passed away at the age of 47. The World Cup and U.S. Open would have to wait. I had my column for Tuesday.
You see, Bol’s path and mine have crossed several times over the past two decades. I’m sure that surprises many of you, since you know, he was a 7’7 Dinka tribesman and the tallest player in NBA history, and I’m 5’10 from West Hartford, Conn. Under different circumstances maybe the two of us could have starred in a bad sitcom or something.
Our first interaction happened back in 1993, when Manute was an NBA free agent and international man of mystery, and I was 8-years-old, and happy to have a day off from school. Bol was hosting a celebrity golf tournament at a course that my uncle was a member of, and my parents decided that it’d be ok to let me go. While most of my memories from the day are a bit blurry, the way my mom tells it, once we got to the golf course, I was the second biggest star of the show.
We arrived early, but not earlier than Bol himself, who was shaking hands and posing for photos, with people who I assume were high paying sponsors and club dignitaries. Of course that didn’t stop me from marching up to Bol wearing my Charlotte Hornets hat (I was partial to Larry Johnson at the time) and Clyde Drexler jacket (Don’t ask, I have no idea), and asking him for an autograph. Being the only kid at the event, Bol not only took the time to sign my notepad, but also posed for pictures and escorted me around, introducing me to the TV cameras covering the event as his “Little Man.” I even got an interview with a newspaper later that afternoon, making Friday, September 18, 1993 my one- and to this day only- brush with fame. And it was because of Bol.
After retiring a few years later, Bol and I crossed paths again in 2002, when he moved to…of all places…my hometown of West Hartford, Conn.
Like so much of his retired life, Bol was in town helping several of his Sudanese countrymen get out of their war-torn homeland, and in the relative safety of the United States. More than anything he did on the court, his charity work was his ultimate legacy.
During his years in West Hartford, two things stand out to me about Bol’s presence.
The first is that I know where he lived, and it wasn’t a mansion on the side of a mountain, but a tiny apartment which he shared in the middle of town. Rather than living a retired life of luxury like so many of his former NBA teammates, Bol had given away most of his NBA earnings to charity, and was barely getting by as just your regular, run of the mill 7’7 townsperson.
Beyond that though was the impact he made on his new community. Even all these years later, I still haven’t heard one local resident say a bad thing about the guy. He smiled for every photo and signed every autograph, leaving his adopted town a better place than he found it.
Once he did leave for good, Bol continued his charity work, work that made him just about as famous off the court as he was on it. From all accounts, a day didn’t go by where Bol wasn’t hosting a fundraiser, or making a public appearance, all with the intention of raising awareness about the problems the Sudan. Away from the cameras, he helped hundreds of people get out of his war-torn homeland, and into American homes and schools, just as he did in my hometown.
While Bol always used his gift as an athlete to help his cause, it seemed like in every other aspect of life, the guy was cursed. He got stuck in the Sudan after a goodwill mission a few years back and nearly lost his life when he got in a cab with a drunken driver, who proceeded to wrap the car they were in around a tree. More recently, Bol was mocked for his role on a “Celebrity Boxing,” event he took part in, rather than being praised for giving away his $30,000 appearance fee to charity. To some he became a punch line, when he should have been lauded as a hero.
And all those things bring us back to Saturday night.
While I sipping a beer at an outdoor bar in Washington D.C., Bol was losing the battle for his life from kidney failure and a rare skin disease known as Stevens-Johnson Syndrome. Again, he was 47, a man taken too soon, with a lot of work left do on this planet.
As I sit here and evaluate the death of someone I hardly knew but still feel closely connected to, a few things stand out to me.
The first is that even in his passing, I found myself oddly crossing paths with Manute Bol again. This is a man who was born in the bush of Africa, has traveled the world 100 times over, and has lived in Sudan, Egypt, Philadelphia, Oakland as well as my own home town. Yet somehow, when he passed, he was less than an hour away from where I was vacationing, in a city I’d been to only once before in my life. It gave weird closure to the connection that I’ve felt with him since we met in 1993.
Most importantly though is this. As I was researching information for this article, I came across a piece that mentioned how Bol’s death may actually help raise awareness about the Stevens-Johnson Syndrome which killed him. It’s a disease that can be contracted by taking regular, over the counter medicine, and kills over 100,000 people a year. There is no known cure, and little is truly understood about it.
While the world lost a great man on Saturday, his passing was perfectly fitting to the life he lived.
Even in death, Manute Bol was raising awareness, and giving back more than he took.
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