From the city that brought the world Charles Stratton, a speck of a man who was called Tom Thumb by P.T. Barnum, comes probably the tallest basketball player ever to lace up a pair of sneakers in this country.
Meet Manute Bol, all 7-feet 6-inches, 190 pounds of him, imported from a remote village tribe in Sudan, who is stuffing a ball through a hoop for the University of Bridgeport's basketball team.
This is something that is astonishingly easy for Bol. He can dunk the ball without jumping. He can lay both palms flat on each side of a backboard. And, he swats away opponent's shots like he would a pesky mosquito in Sudan's swampland. Playing in NCAA Division II, Bol, a 21-year-old freshman, towers over his peers. But he would also look down at Ralph Sampson (7-4) and Mark Eaton (7-3), the NBA's tallest players.
Like the 2-foot Tom Thumb, Bol's appearance around town sends people into a tizzy. At a local pizza joint that Bol frequents, conversation ends as soon as he ducks his head and walks in. People gawk. They giggle. They gasp. Mostly, they speculate about his height.
But it is on the basketball court where Bol is most noticed, not to mention most comfortable. All of Bridgeport's home games have been sellouts (about 2,000), and most road games draw unusually large crowds. Interest in the New England Collegiate Conference, which has been dormant for years, has never been higher. Everyone wants to see Bol.
Reporters from two national magazines and every major newspaper on the East Coast have flocked to watch--and write about--Bol. Descriptions of his physique have ranged from "a giant pencil with feet," to "a giant exclamation point," to "Gumby pulled out by the ears and toes."
To Manute Bol, it must seem like a circus life, somewhat like Charles Stratton's back in the late 1800s. And maybe it is.
The big question about the big man is can he play basketball? The answer is yes, depending on what level of basketball you are talking about.
There is no doubt Manute Bol can play and dominate in Division II. Bridgeport, coming off two straight losing seasons, was 19-4 and 9-1 in the conference at the end of the week. For the first time in school history, the Purple Knights broke into the national Division II top 20 at 20th.
Bol, of course, is a big reason for the team's sudden success. He is averaging 21 points, 15 rebounds and 9 blocked shots a game. He is an imposing and impressive sight on the court. Don Feeley, a former coach at Fairleigh Dickinson who discovered Bol when he was giving a month-long clinic in Sudan in 1982, says he expects Bol to get better and maybe try the NBA in a few years.
"Did you see Mark Eaton play in his first year in the NBA?" Feeley said. "Well, let's just say he had a long way to go. But he had the desire and has worked hard. Now look at him. Manute, I think, is further along than Eaton at this stage. What he needs is like a Pete Newell (former Cal coach who works with young players) to work with him."
Still, college coaches and NBA scouts have reservations about Bol's ability to play in Division I or the NBA.
It is not Bol's fundamental basketball skills that make people wonder. He handles the ball well, runs slowly but not awkwardly and has exhibited a good jump shot and hook. Plus, he can just stand in the key and block shots without even jumping.
It is Bol's incredibly skinny frame that has turned off many NBA scouts. All the skinny jokes you've ever heard apply to Bol. Bol's waist is said to be a size 31, but when he puts his hands on his hips, they almost wrap around his waist.
"We've had all sorts of nutritionists come in," Bridgeport Coach Bruce Webster said. "A nutritionist from Africa, one from the state of Connecticut, but nothing helps him put on weight. He loves chicken, steak and pizza, but he won't eat vegetables or fruit. He just won't do it."
Webster is understandably excited about coaching a 7-6 player, but he may have stretched it a ways when he said: "If Manute gained just 30 to 50 pounds, he would revolutionize the game of basketball."
There also is the question of Bol's age. It's listed in the Bridgeport program as 21, but no one really knows. When Bol arrived in the United States three years ago, he had no passport, no birth certificate, only a transcript of grades from a school in Sudan that included his height, weight and age.
Written in Arabic, it listed Bol's age as 19 and his height as 5-2. "They measured me when I was sitting down," Bol happily explains. For all anyone knows, Bol could be 28.
Age doesn't matter to Webster, whose team is enjoying uncharacteristic success and a modicum of fame thanks to the big guy.
Early last week, Bridgeport seemingly faced an overmatched opponent, Southern Connecticut.
Still, a crowd of 4,000 showed up, and it was obvious who they had come to see.
"We couldn't draw more than a 150 fans if we gave away $100 bills," Southern Connecticut Coach Art Leary said. "It's this way in every gym where Bol plays. I'm not going to kid you. These fans won't be back for our next game."
When Bridgeport's players trotted onto the court for warmups, there was a collective gasp from the crowd. Bol, who had to duck to avoid hitting his head on the ceiling that separated the balcony from the court, is used to such receptions.
He also appeared unfazed by a group of Southern Connecticut fraternity pranksters who painted their faces and draped a sign over the balcony that said "Bol Busters." Another sign had a stick figure, supposedly Bol, with a red line drawn through it.
Bol poked a teammate in the side and laughed at the caricature. Rather than being embarrassed, Bol seemed to revel in the attention.
"It don't bother me," Bol said afterward. "I see it every game. Funny."
One player wasn't laughing, though. That was Southern Connecticut's Troy Gwathney, a 6-5 freshman center assigned to guard Bol. Guard isn't the proper word. He mostly hung onto Bol's shorts and tried to out-muscle the Big Guy.
Gwathney had to know he was in for a long night when Bol won the center jump without even jumping. Less than a minute into the game, Eagle guard Jeff Buckson had a 2-on-1 fast break with only Bol back to defend. Buckson wisely pulled up for a 17-foot jump shot while Bol was standing in the key.
Incredibly, Bol took one very big step outside the key, raised his long right arm and swatted away the ball. Buckson had the same type of shot blocked three more times in the first half before he finally realized it was futile to try it unless someone was around to screen Bol. Not many players were volunteering for that assignment.
Bol finished the game with 22 points, 16 rebounds and 12 blocked shots in Bridgeport's resounding 88-54 win. Bol scored half of his points on dunks. They weren't the rousing, artistic type that, say, Julius Erving serves up during the course of a game. Bol's were mundane, probably because he only had to jump maybe two inches, if that, before stuffing the ball through the hoop. One time, Bol made a dunk with his right hand, caught the ball after it went through the net and handed it to a startled referee.
Bol can shoot reasonably well. He has mastered a skyhook--he shoots it downward--and is among the conference leaders in free-throw shooting at close to 70%.
Bol, however, has an unusual free throw style. Rather than dribbling and concentrating on the rim before shooting, he just takes the ball from the referee and fires. Then, he gets it back and fires again.
With a 40-point lead and less than four minutes to play, Webster replaced Bol, who was given an ovation from the crowd. Even the fraternity that had been razzing him applauded.
The show over, fans left the gym even though three minutes remained in the game. It couldn't have been to beat the traffic, since there was none on another wintry New England night.
It was at this point that Feeley leaned back and savored another excellent performance by his discovery. Feeley said that at one road game this season Bol was given a long, standing ovation. Those fans also left as soon as Bol sat down.
"I just loved Manute off the bat," Feeley said. "I don't mean this to be negative, but it's like a 'King Kong' movie. You always hope he wins out at the end, gets the girl. There's something endearing about Manute, even if you don't know him. Maybe's it's his sad eyes. I don't know."
Bol's sad eyes were sparkling in the locker room after the win. It was the usual Bridgeport locker room scene. Players slapped one another on the back and went to the showers, while Manute stretched his legs over two benches and answered reporters' questions.
Interviews with Bol never last long, since he never has a whole lot to say to the media. Teammates, though, say they can't shut him up.
"Anytime I get the ball, I score," Bol said. "They foul me a lot, but the referees don't call it. Right now, I'm still learning the game and learning school. I go to English learning courses in the morning, then regular classes, then practice. I am tired now."
End of interview.
Bol smiles and asks his teammates if they want to party after--or, perhaps, during--the bus ride back to school.
Life certainly has taken a strange and unpredictable turn for Manute Bol the last two years.
Here he is in a dormitory room at a nice Connecticut college, with a refrigerator stuffed with steaks, chicken, cold pizza and Budweiser. He has a comfortable bed, although his feet do stick out.
Meanwhile, back in Sudan, people are starving. Famine in Bol's homeland is almost as bad as in neighboring Ethiopia. There also has been a civil war between the the Arabs in the north and the tribesmen of the south.
Bol gets uncomfortable and cuts off a reporter when questions about Sudan and Ethiopia are asked.
"I don't know what's going on in Sudan," Bol says. "I've been here (Bridgeport). I'm happy with the USA."
Certainly, Bol's life style has drastically changed since he came to the United States in May, 1983.
Bol belongs to a tribe of herdsmen called the Dinkas, who inhabit the swamplands in the southern section of Africa's largest country. Dinkas generally are tall, but Bol stands out, even among them. He once said that friends back home jokingly call him Raan Cheg, roughly meaning "short stuff."
The translation of Manute is "Only Son," which is what he was to his parents, Madot and Abouk Bol. Both of Bol's parents, who were 6-8 and 6-10, have died. Manute said his grandfather, former chief of the tribe, was 7-10.
The Bols were cattle farmers, not an easy life according to Bol. In the summer, when the Nile flooded the Dinka village, Bol helped his father move the cattle to higher ground. During the winter drought, they would head to the swamps.
The occupational hazard of being a cattle farmer apparently was dealing with the neighboring lions who now and then enjoyed prime cuts of beef.
Bol has told friends in Bridgeport that once when a lion attacked the herd, he sought revenge. After a few days of wandering, he found the lion sleeping under a tree. Carefully, he approached the predator and drove his spear into the lion's heart. Then, Bol fled into the bushes and watched as the lion moaned and jumped five feet into the air before dying.
Bol smiles and nods his head when asked if that is a true story.
Playing basketball is tame compared to slaying lions. But when a cousin told Bol about the game, which was played in a nearby city, Bol was interested. Especially when he learned that the baskets were only 10 feet off the ground. His first dunk was a painful one, though. Bol said he stuffed the ball through the net and broke two teeth on the rim.
Bol first touched a ball in 1979 and progressed enough to make the Sudanese national team in 1980. All he was told to do was catch the ball and dunk it. But by 1982, Bol also had learned to play defense and shoot hook and jump shots.
After beating teams from the Middle East, Sudanese-team officials asked for help from a U.S. coach. In came Feeley, then coach at Fairleigh Dickinson.
"I had heard about Manute, but my first two days there I didn't see him at practice," Feeley said. "Then, the third day, I walked outside with the team on a hill overlooking outdoor courts made of tile. I saw the biggest person I've ever seen shooting baskets.
"I asked, 'Who's that?' The players said, 'That's Manute.' I said, 'This is a new game for us now.' "
It didn't matter to Feeley that Bol spoke no English and that his basketball skills were not refined. He vowed to come back to Sudan that next summer (1983) and bring Bol to the United States. Turns out, Bol made it there before Feeley, who was fired as Fairleigh Dickinson coach after that season, could go back for him.
In May, 1983, Bol and 6-3 Sudan guard Ding Nigel wired a shocked Feeley that they would be arriving in Boston. Feeley, out of a job, served as counselor--unpaid agent--for Bol and his friend.
Feeley was understandably worried that Manute would not be admitted to a college because he couldn't speak, read or write English. So, he called Clipper Coach Jim Lynam, a friend, who drafted Bol sight unseen in the fifth round and considered him a project. But the NBA voided the choice because Bol was under draft age.
So, Feeley contacted Cleveland State Coach Kevin Mackey, who gladly accepted Bol and Nigel. Bol, however, spent his first year studying English at Case Western Reserve University. Knowing that Bol would still have problems with admissions at Cleveland State, a Division I school, Feeley contacted Webster at Bridgeport, which is 10 miles away from Feeley's home in Fairfield, Conn.
Bridgeport is one of the 21 colleges that offer English Learning Skills. So, voila! , Bol became a Purple Knight. Webster, naturally, still is ecstatic. He said it's been like adopting a son.
Webster said: "He had to have all his inoculations and we're trying to replace his front teeth. That's been a hassle. A lot of dentists have volunteered to do it free, but we can't accept it because of the rules. We've gone through the Connecticut welfare agency and finally he's going to have two plates of false teeth put in next week.
"We also had a problem getting a bed that fit him. At the start of the season, we put two single beds end to end and that fit him. But then, he said that his back hurt because of the crack between the beds. So, now we bought a custom-made, oversized queen-size bed. It's an 84-inch bed and Manute is over 90 inches tall, so he has to sleep diagonally.
"Manute has almost no money, and we can't give him any. The inseam on his pants is 48 inches, so he has to pay $90 for a specially made pair of pants. We can't even buy that for him. He just wears a lot of Nike sweat pants."
Around the Bridgeport campus, Bol is a celebrity. It took only about a week for students to stop asking him the obvious question: "How tall are you?" Now, they greet him warmly and try to jump high enough to exchange high-fives.
All indications are that Bol gets along well with his teammates. After all, Bridgeport is now a winning team playing before big crowds.
"Everyone gets along with Manute," said starting guard John Mullin, little brother of St. John's All-American, Chris Mullin. "Not only on the team but on the campus. It makes it nicer for us to play in front of large crowds for a change."
Fame, if not yet fortune, has come to Manute Bol. Big crowds. Interviews with the media. Little kids seeking autographs. Posing for photographs with people he doesn't know.
But it all might end sooner than he thinks. Tom Thumb, after all, lost much of his attraction when he grew from 2-feet to 3-feet-4.
If Bol does not gain at least 30 pounds by the time he's ready to try the NBA, there seems no way he'll be able cope with the pounding that goes on under the basket. He'll break like a twig. As if to remind Bol of that, a poster of mean-looking Moses Malone hangs directly above the bed in his dorm room.
But Bol isn't worried. You see, he has a plan if basketball doesn't work out.
"Hotel business is good business," Bol said. "I'd want to be the best hotel manager in the U.S."
Certainly, he'd be the tallest.