A Real Warrior : Bol Has Become a Tower of Power in Oakland Skyline

Times Staff Writer

Manute Bol, then a Dinka tribesman in the African nation of Sudan, visited a city for the first time in 1979, traveling to the southern town of Waw. When gawkers teased him about his height, Bol threw rocks at them.

Two years later, he arrived, all 7 feet 7 inches of him, in the capital city of Khartoum, carrying a tree limb, just in case anyone there wanted to taunt him.

Unfortunately, some did. He got in fights in market areas, on buses, in movie theaters, and once even brawled while watching a handball tournament. That time, he supposedly hit a female bystander over the head with a chair.

The moral of the story? Do not make Manute Bol feel like a freak because of his size. Or else, be able to run fast.

Now, four years into his National Basketball Assn. career, others have learned that lesson as well. This man, though he looks like a human exclamation point, is not some side-show spectacle. He is an important player with the Golden State Warriors, who will meet the Phoenix Suns in Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals tonight at the Oakland Coliseum Arena.

Bol may not be a finished player, but he is an intimidating presence on defense. His flat-footed, arm-extended reach has been measured at 10-3, and NBA players have learned that, against him, they had better be able to put lots of arch on their shots.

"When I left college, a lot of people said, 'You can't play in the NBA a long time,' " Bol recalled. " 'How will you guard Moses Malone? How will you guard (Patrick) Ewing?' I thought I did good the first year. I did a lot of things.

"I'm learning a lot. I'm learning about the game, too. A lot of things. Signing autographs. When to do it, when not to do it. People want me to sign at 5 o'clock, 6 o'clock in the morning. I don't want to sign then. I don't know why people want me to that early. I don't get it yet."

Bol obviously is the stuff legends are made of--while he was attending the University of Bridgeport, fans from a rival school were so taken with him that they threw a party for him--and his legend grows almost daily.

Bol, for instance, is the only player in NBA history to have recorded more blocked shots than points in a season, and he has done it all four years in the NBA, the first three with the Washington Bullets.

He has led the league in blocked shots twice, including 1988-89, when he easily outdistanced runner-up Mark Eaton of Utah, 4.31 per game to 3.84.

He set a playoff record in the first round against the Jazz with 18 blocks in a three-game series.

But those, of course, are defensive accomplishments. What of offense? Surprise! There is a three-point shooter heating up in the Bol pen.

With a 22% success rate--Miami's Jon Sundvold led the league at 52.2% and eight others were higher than 40%--Bol is not yet a long-range sharpshooter.

Still, Warrior Coach Don Nelson not only allows Bol to shoot the three, he encourages it.

"A lot of people think it's crazy to let Manute shoot those, but it lets him make a statement," Nelson said. "It lets him become part of the offense.

"The crowd gets a kick out of it, and the team does, too. It makes everybody surge a little more. It gives Manute some confidence, allows him to play freer. It definitely puts a better stride into his steps, too."

Nelson, also the Warriors' general manager, traded for Bol last June, sending center Dave Feitl and a 1989 second-round draft choice to the Bullets.

"I had been trying to acquire him ever since I made the mistake of not drafting him at Milwaukee," the former Buck coach said.

Together, they have prospered.

Bol took 674 shots in his three years with the Bullets, including only three three-pointers. But in his one season with the Warriors, the numbers soared to 344 and 91, respectively. That's about half as many three-pointers as some of the league's best shooters, and Bol averaged only 22.1 minutes a game.

A jump shot? Not really. For Bol, who has three slightly clawed fingers on his right hand, an inherited disability common in his family, it's more like a heave. He puts ball in palm, left hand on top for balance, and then cocks the shot just past the right ear, looking something like a construction worker tossing a bag of cement over his shoulder. Then he fires. "Some friends told me that when we play the Lakers, the announcer for L.A. said, 'Doesn't Nellie know he shouldn't shoot that? He has no business shooting from out there,' " said Bol, in his ninth year of playing competitive basketball. "But I don't take too many shots. (Nelson) said, 'If you think it's a good shot, take it.' "

So Bol does, much to the delight of the fans, here and around the league.

Nelson, meanwhile, has a unique weapon, and, on defense, a high-impact player to bring off the bench.

"He's the most dominating non-starter in the game," Nelson said. "I'm not saying he's the best sixth man in the league or whatever, but nobody can alter what the other team is doing better than Manute when he comes off the bench."

So why not start him?

"I like to have that weapon in my back pocket, to have that fellow on the bench who can come in and change the course of the game," Nelson said.

Bol apparently recognizes his impact, too, whether it is as a shot blocker or his personality.

"He's got a captivating personality," said Bruce Webster, his coach at Bridgeport. "To walk clear across our campus, it takes about 10 minutes. You couldn't get across campus in 45 minutes if you were with Manute. Everybody would have something to say to him, and he'd usually stop and talk.

" Hiya, Texas,' he would say to some guy. I asked, 'Why do you call him Texas?' 'He has a girlfriend from Texas.' Oh. They loved him. He had high fives and low fives all over campus."

The gregarious habits carry over to the court, where he sometimes engages in glib conversation with opponents. Not bad for someone who at 18 couldn't write his name, who comes from a culture that uses the smoke of dung fires to keep malaria mosquitoes away, someone who threw rocks at people who teased him.

"He always leans over and starts kidding about blocking our shots," Clipper Coach Don Casey said. "He said to me one game, 'How come you're not throwing the ball into Benoit (Benjamin) more?'

"I said, 'OK, we're coming right at you next time. Right at you .' He said, in his accent, 'Goooood, then I have NBA-record 15 blocked shots. Bring it right in, coooch.' "

Inevitably, teams do. Some people just don't learn.

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