The body of Manute Bol lay in an 8-foot-long, specially built casket in the vast splendor of the ornate Washington National Cathedral. There couldn’t have been a more appropriate setting for a man who seemed larger than life in so many ways.
The 7-foot-7 former NBA player who worked diligently to improve conditions in his native Sudan was remembered as a shot-blocker to be feared and a humanitarian to be loved at a funeral service Tuesday.
"Wow. That guy is tall. He’s a giant,” said former NBA player and league vice president of player development Rory Sparrow, reciting his first impressions upon meeting Bol. "And little did I know how true that statement was. Because not only was he an intimidating force on the court, someone to reckoned with in the game … but he was also a giant off the court. And he had a heart that was also very large and full of compassion for his fellow man.”
Bol died June 19 at age 47 at the University of Virginia Hospital in Charlottesville, shortly after returning from a lengthy trip to Sudan. He had contracted a painful skin condition known as Stevens-Johnson Syndrome and was suffering from severe kidney problems, but he put off needed medical care and delayed his return trip to his Kansas home so that he could assist with elections in southern Sudan and continue with the project that most stoked his passion — building schools.
"I can’t think of a person that I know of in the world who used their celebrity status for a greater good than what Manute Bol did,” Republican Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas told the mourners. "He used it for his people. He gave his life for his people.”
Bol relied on his shot-blocking ability to stay in the NBA for 10 seasons with Washington, Golden State, Philadelphia and Miami. His tall but skinny frame made him an instant tourist attraction and fodder for various publicity stunts after his basketball career was over and his finances had started to run dry. He signed with a minor league ice hockey team even though he couldn’t skate, he became the world’s tallest licensed jockey for a day and boxed with former NFL star William "Refrigerator” Perry — all in the name of raising money for his efforts in Sudan.
"Some people were embarrassed by that,” said Tom Prichard, director of Sudan Sunrise, a group that promotes reconciliation in the north African country. "His career’s shot, so look at the stupid things he’s doing. But when you think about it, that’s heroic. He was willing to humble himself because it was a way to get a little more help for his people.”
More than a hundred mourners gathered for the service. Bol will be buried in his Sudan near the grave of his grandfather.
As a basketball player, Bol was known as a prankster with an ever-present smile who liked to engage in good-natured trash talk — even against Michael Jordan. That portrait contrasted with the situation back in Sudan, where Prichard said that Bol lost some 250 family members in the country’s north vs. south violence.
To continue Bol’s legacy, Brownback proposed having a basketball team from southern Sudan tour the U.S., playing exhibition games against college teams with proceeds benefiting the 41 schools that Bol and Sudan Sunrise were hoping to build. The Sudanese ambassador to the U.S., Akec Khoc Acieu, appealed to the NBA to build a basketball arena in Sudan and name it after Bol.
"His enduring legacy in Sudan is going to be helping to trigger reconciliation on the grass roots level,” Prichard said.
Another part of Bol’s legacy is his family. One of his sons, 20-year-old Madut Bol, is a basketball player at Southern University in New Orleans. Madut Bol said the service helped him understand the full reach of his father’s legacy.
"I did not know a lot of these stories,” Madut Bol said. "Most of it was new to me. I was thinking about it, and I want to continue what him and the others started.”