Most basketball fans likely hadn't thought about Manute Bol for years before news came over the weekend that he had died at age 47 in a hospital in Charlottesville, Va.
Unlike his Philadelphia 76ers teammate Charles Barkley who's become a TV fixture since retirement, Bol had mostly faded from public view.
There's irony there when you consider how as an NBA player, Bol was surely hard to miss, standing as he did at 7'6" or 7'7" depending on whom you believed, as thin as a praying mantis and awkward in a world of athletes with the footwork of dancers. He was, if nothing else, noticeable.
But in the years since his NBA career ended in 1994, Bol fell out of view, at least in the U.S. After all, he was never an all-star.
It turns out, though, that over the years, he was very much in the public eye in his native Sudan, the impoverished, war torn nation.
Bol left Sudan as a young man after being discovered by a U.S. college coach who saw him playing basketball in Khartoum. A 1984 Sports Illustrated feature story provides details. (This is how long ago that was — the same December 10 issue had on its cover then-rookie Michael Jordan scoring on the Milwaukee Bucks next to the headline: "A Star Is Born.")
Bol became known as the Dinka Dunker, a reference to his tribe. His stock- in trade, however, was really more shot blocking than power slams.
Bol never really left Sudan, however. The first African player to be drafted into the NBA, Bol set an example for players from the continent who came later like Nigerian Hakeem Olajuwon and fellow Sudanese Luol Deng, by using his celebrity and big paychecks to support his family in his homeland and worthy causes like schools and hospitals.
After his NBA playing days, Bol didn't have the big paydays anymore. And he had a number of personal setbacks like a divorce, a car accident which broke his neck and troubles with the Sudanese government. He talked with NPR's Cheryl Corley in 2007 on Tell Me More about his home country and his post-NBA life.
But his ties to Sudan remained strong. Indeed, the illness known as Stevens-Johnson Syndrome, an allergic reaction to the drugs he needed to take for kidney disease, apparently occurred while he was in Sudan on one of his numerous humanitarian trips.
Bol was no longer on the NBA's big stage. But that didn't mean his life wasn't full of drama. It just wasn't playing out in before as many eyes anymore.
As Sam Mellinger of the Kansas City Star wrote in May (Bol lived in Olathe, Kan.) :
Bol is fighting acute kidney failure and a potentially fatal skin disease contracted while trying to help his native Sudan. The skin disease is so bad he couldn’t eat for 11 days. The man who risks his life for others takes on this fight mostly on his own. One of the teams he played for is sending flowers. The NBA playoffs march on.
Bol spent his entire basketball fortune and survived attacks on his life to save and improve lives in and around Sudan. He lost hundreds of family members in an ongoing war but saved or educated at least that many with peacemaking efforts that one author compared to Muhammad Ali.
Ali is a legend, of course, while Bol is at best a cult hero and at worse a freak show. Maybe if Bol was a better player we’d pay more attention. Maybe if he was doing his good deeds closer to our home, instead of his, we’d help him more.
Instead, Bol symbolizes an unfortunate side of our sports obsession and how we measure the worth of those who play. The best athletes get the love, most times regardless of what they do away from sport.
Bol, doing the work of a saint, is largely ignored.
Towards the end of the column, Mellinger suggested that Bol would get notice for his good works once he died:
This is how it often goes, of course. A man’s life is only fully inventoried after it’s over. Nobody gets a eulogy until their funeral.
Mellinger is right about that, of course.
But there's another way to look at it. Bol's extraordinary height and his discovery by a U.S. basketball coach eventually provided him a life most people, and not just in the Sudan, could only dream of.
It allowed him to do the philanthropy that was so important to him and to get some attention for it though perhaps not as much as was deserved.
For a man whose life in Sudan before basketball didn't look all that promising, it's an easy argument to make that his life, though short, was a success, that he lived it well, that things worked out.