Former NBA Star Manute Bol Remembered For Height, Charity

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Manute Bol, who played for the Washington Bullets (now the Washington Wizards), died this past weekend at age 47, reportedly after returning to the states from Sudan with kidney trouble. Bol, who was over seven feet tall, was a philanthropist who donated generously to his native Sudan. Guest host Tony Cox speaks with Kevin Blackistone, a sports writer for ESPN.com, for more on Manute Bol's career and legacy.

TONY COX, host:

We want to take a couple of minutes to acknowledge the passing of former NBA player Manute Bol. Listed at seven foot seven and the tallest player ever to appear in the league. Bol was known for his spindly legs and body, but more importantly for his robust soul that led him to donate time and money to his native Sudan.

He died Saturday at the age of 47 in a Virginia hospital where he was being treated for kidney failure and a skin disease. Manute Bol is a story you probably don't know about, even if you follow basketball.

On the line with me now from Johannesburg, South Africa, where he is tracking the World Cup, but also covered the first event of the NBA's new office in Africa, Kevin Blackistone of the Internet sports blog AOL Fanhouse. Kevin, nice to have you.

Mr. KEVIN BLACKISTONE (Sportswriter, ESPN.com; Blogger, AOL Fanhouse): Thanks for having me.

COX: Tell us a little bit about Manute Bol. He was seven foot seven, so hard to miss and yet at the same time, how did a Dinka tribesman wind up in the NBA? And was he the first African in the NBA?

Mr. BLACKISTONE: Well, I think he may have been the first African in the NBA and the manner in which he was discovered was he was - he played college ball at a small school here. And as word got out about what he could do and how tall he was, some NBA scouts took a look at him and the next thing you know, he was in the NBA.

COX: You know, I saw a photograph of him standing next to Muggsy Bogues who was five foot five or something and Manute was two feet taller than him.

Mr. BLACKISTONE: Right.

COX: At one point, Manute was sort of caricatured, it seemed. But at the same time, he had this other side, this political, humanitarian side that I don't know how many people really are aware of.

Mr. BLACKISTONE: Well, that's the really amazing thing. I mean, people always want to say that sports and politics shouldn't mix and this is a perfect example of them mixing and mixing for the better. He was a Dinka tribesman and he was from - so he was from the southern part of Sudan. And the history of the southern part of Sudan is much like what is going on in Darfur now.

Those people suffered slaughter and displacement in great numbers and Manute Bol stood up for his people in that part of the world. And once he got into the NBA, he started traveling back to the Sudan starting in 1991 on a regular basis. And the more and more he saw his people in refugee camps there, the more and more he got inspired to try and help them, even to the point of protesting outside the Sudanese embassy in Washington and lobbying people in Capitol Hill about their plight.

COX: There are no shortages of egos or testosterone in the National Basketball Association, but what do the rest of the players in the league think of Manute Bol?

Mr. BLACKISTONE: Well, you know, I think that everyone looked up to him literally and figuratively because, you know, the NBA, of course, is predominantly African-American. So it's predominantly people who were descendents of enslaved Africans in this country.

And I think that what Manute Bol did was to open their eyes in terms of their lineage and their heritage and their connection to the continent of Africa. And it was shortly after Manute started making his annual visits back to Sudan that other NBA players, most notably the three towers from Georgetown University: Dikembe Mutombo, Alonzo Mourning and Patrick Ewing went over to Africa for the first time. And in 1994, David Stern followed them and saw the potential and the need in Africa.

And that led eventually to what the NBA did just last month and that's actually open an office here in Johannesburg and hand the keys over to a fellow by the name of Amadou Gallo Fall.

COX: We've got about 15 seconds. Have people gotten the word about Manute Bol there, what's been the reaction? Really briefly.

Mr. BLACKISTONE: I was at an event just a couple days ago and people didn't know then, that was when the news broke. But that night it got around and the people who knew Manute Bol and knew what he stood for and knew what he tried to do over here, they were shaken by it, Amadou Fall in particular.

COX: Kevin Blackistone is with the Internet sports blog AOL Fanhouse. Kevin, thank you very much for coming on.

Mr. BLACKISTONE: Thank you.

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