Manute Bol’s Last Bullets
Manute Bol, as we further came to realize with his passing in June 2010, was a vastly unique and complex character. The posthumous coverage, as it often does in these instances, helped us peel back the layers of his multifaceted life in order to gain closure with understanding and appreciation.
Most records indicate that Bol was drafted by Bob Ferry, then GM of the Washington Bullets, with the 31st overall pick (seventh in the second round) of the 1985 NBA Draft. Lesser noticed records indicate that Bol was first drafted 97th overall in the 1983 draft (fifth round) by the San Diego Clippers. The selection was sparked by ex-Bullets coach (from 1994-97) Jim Lynam no less, who at the time was head coach of the Clippers. But Bol was not afforded the opportunity to play for Lynam in his first season at the helm of an NBA team, along with the oft-injured Bill Walton in the franchise’s last go-round in San Diego before moving to Los Angeles. The pick was subsequently voided because Bol hadn’t officially declared for the draft.*
Lynam’s intrigue with seven feet and seven inches would later be Ferry’s gain, after Bol spent time at the University of Bridgeport followed by a small appearance with the Rhode Island Gulls of the USBL.* As a blogger, I’m also obliged to mention that the ’85 Bol draft was the same year the Bullets took Kenny Green with their top pick at No. 13; Karl Malone went to the Utah Jazz at 14.
Bol’s first three seasons in Washington, spanning from 1985 to 1988, were before my time as a fan of the franchise. I do, however, fondly recall Bol’s second stint with the Bullets, a mere 10 days in 1994.
The 1993-94 season was notable amongst gentle giants in NBA history, much less Bullets/Wizards history. In June the Bullets took the 7’7″ Gheorghe Muresan with the third pick in the second round, 30th overall. During Muresan’s rookie season he faced Bol three times, twice when Bol was a member of the Miami Heat, with whom Bol started the ’93-94 season (Matt Geiger was holding out and Miami needed a backup for Rony Seikaly), and once when Bol was with the Philadelphia 76ers later in the season.
The first match-up between the Bullets and Heat on November 20, 1993 wasn’t exactly notable for pitting Muresan versus Manute — Bol saw just six minutes of action and was otherwise absent from the box score. The notable occurrence was Big Gheorghe scoring his first NBA field goal on a hook shot in the second quarter; he finished 1-4 with three points, four rebounds and zero blocks in 12 minutes off the bench. The game also took place at the Baltimore Arena with Kevin Duckworth helping seal the 104-102 win for Washington after he had played a horrendous game. Go figure.
Bol played sparingly for Miami up to the next meeting between the two teams on January 23, 1994 in Florida. He had seen action in just seven games on a 36 game season, totaling 54 minutes, zero points, eight missed field-goals, eight rebounds and five blocks. Muresan’s rookie season, meanwhile, was making slow progress; he’d appeared in 14 of 37 games leading up to the January 23 matchup, totaling 80 minutes, 32 points on 11-24 FGs, 22 rebounds and four blocks.
Miami wiped the floor with the Bullets on that late January Sunday, however, their 113-80 victory giving Heat head coach Kevin Loughery, another ex-Bullets coach (1985-88), his 600th career win. In the midst of accomplishment, entertainment was seemingly not lost on Loughery. We’ll let the account of the Baltimore Sun’s Jerry Bembry provide the rest:
Gheorghe Muresan’s fourth-quarter action was his first in five games. To the delight of the crowd, Loughery responded by inserting Manute Bol into the game for just the second time in the last 22 games. The NBA’s tallest match-up (7-foot-7 Muresan vs. the 7-7 Bol) made the final minutes at least entertaining. Muresan outscored Bol, 6-2, and had a 7-6 rebounding advantage.
Bol did score his first field-goal of the season that day against the Bullets. Unfortunately for him, Miami cut him less than 48 hours later to make room for Willie Burton, who was activated from the injured reserve. On February 21, with the Bullets experiencing a myriad of ailments as usual (to the likes of Calbert Cheaney, Rex Chapman, Kenny Walker, Larry Stewart and Duckworth), Manute Bol was signed to a 10-day contract. Fulfilling the heights of my 13-year old NBA basketball excitement, he and Muresan had become teammates.
Bol’s next game, the day after he was signed, was against his previous team, Miami; and again, the Heat took it to Washington, winning 128-98. Take it away Baltimore Sun:
After Miami extended its lead to 94-74 after three quarters, the final period turned into something resembling a playground game. But the fourth quarter did produce such garbage-time gems as Manute Bol’s first block as a new member of the Bullets (on Willie Burton’s jumper), the silky low-post moves of Muresan (who had 12 points, all near the basket) and an ill-advised three-point attempt by Miami’s John Salley, which bounced off the rim with a thud.
Bol played five minutes off the bench and had one foul, one assist and one block. A couple games later, toward the end of that week, Bol played his final game in a Washington Bullets uniform, a one minute, one rebound outing in a 115-100 loss to the Bucks in Milwaukee on February 26, 1994.
With blogs not yet around to extrapolate upon the lighter side of sports (along with at times heavier-handed critique), the potential hijinks of Muresan and Manute are left up to faint memories and grand imaginations. Part of me even recalls the Bullets, behind the marketing scheming of Susan O’Malley, pumping the 15’2″ combination with game promotions. Unfortunately for the D.C. market, in the two home opportunities between the losses in Miami and in Milwaukee, match-ups against the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls, Bol did not see the floor.
Washington pro basketball faithful were, however, treated to one final NBA appearance by Bol at their home arena in Landover, Maryland. After his 10-day contract with the Bullets expired, Manute was signed to a 10-day by Philadelphia on March 9, 1994. On March 13 the Sixers came to Washington nursing a 15-game losing streak — my dad having season tickets back then, I’d like to think I was in attendance. Philadelphia, of course, found the cure for losing at the Capital Centre; Bol played four minutes and got one rebound in the 114-97 Sixers win.
But much deeper than simply documenting Bol’s entertaining existence on the hardwood, in his last days around the Washington franchise and city where he started, was the complication of Bol as a man.
An in-depth piece about Bol’s path from the Sudan to the United States (and NBA), and his further relationship with his home country, has been written by Jordan Conn and published by The Atavist — notations above followed by an (*) were gathered from Conn’s article, named The Defender. I highly recommend reading what amounts to a nicely-wound short story that really digs into Bol’s involvement and efforts to help the violence-stricken Sudan. Multimedia versions can be purchased for download at http://atavist.net/defender/ — it’s just $1.99 for the text version, $2.99 for the full multimedia version. Full disclaimer: I get nothing for doing this… Jordan simply reached out to me/sent a full PDF of the story, and I thought it was good enough to be worth the site’s promotion (along with the fun of side-regaling about Bol and Bullets franchise history). In any case, here is one of the more notable excerpts from Jordan’s piece:
Bol lived a life befitting a man of such an outsized body. At any given moment, you could find him on a basketball court or a television screen, in a congressional meeting or a war zone, in a hut or a mansion. He sometimes gambled. He often boozed. No matter the backdrop, he always worked to ensure that those around him were happy. In time his bonds with teammates on the court, winning games and entertaining fans, would be replaced by one with a young man from his war-torn village, fighting to educate their people and free their homeland. But every moment, he was meticulously crafting the legend of Manute Bol.
Not everyone bought the lion story. When Bol played for the Philadelphia 76ers in the early 90s, his teammate Charles Barkley walked into the locker room one day saying that he’d just read about the lion feat in a newspaper. Barkley looked across the room at Bol. “Man, you didn’t kill no lion,” he said. “That lion was old and dead when you showed up.”
Teammates laughed and waited for Bol’s response, but he neither confirmed nor denied the accusation. In the locker room, he wasn’t a cattle tender; he wasn’t an African; he was a basketball player. “Fuck you, Charles Barkley,” he said.