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Honouring the 10-year anniversary of the passing of Sudan’s NBA icon Manute Bol

Manute Bol was Sudan's biggest headline-maker in the world of basketball

May 13, 2020 (WASHINGTON) - Next month marks the ten-year anniversary of the death of Manute Bol, undoubtedly the most successful Sudanese basketball player in the history of the NBA. Not only was Bol a basketball icon in Sudan, but he was also a political figure too, championing the human rights of the Sudanese and seeking aid for Sudanese refugees. Within this article, we look back at the life and times of Manute Bol, from his early life in Sudan through to his glittering NBA career.

Manute was the perfect build to move from soccer to basketball

Born and raised near Gogrial, South Sudan, Bol was born into a family of exceptionally tall people. His mum was a staggering 6ft 10”, some two inches taller than his dad. Meanwhile, his sister was also 6ft 8”. Height was certainly in the Bol family genes, given that Manute’s great-grandfather was 7ft 10”. It obviously explains why Manute would grow to an imposing 7ft 7”.

As a youngster, Manute’s first sporting passion was football. However, his gangly frame meant that he was all too often overlooked by local teams. In his teenage years, Bol was attracted to basketball, trying out for multiple youth teams in Khartoum and Wau. He would go on to play a key part of the Sudanese national team.

The role of Don Feeley

A chance meeting between Manute and a former US college basketball coach would go on to change Bol’s fortunes forever. Don Feeley, ex-head coach at New Jersey’s Fairleigh Dickinson University, arrived in Sudan to provide training for the Sudan national squad in the early 1980s. Feeley soon recognized Bol’s undoubted physical and technical potential. He implored Bol to pursue his talents in North America and attempt to try out for the NBA.

After some coaxing, Bol eventually travelled to Cleveland State University, but various administrative irregularities meant that Bol could not enrol at the college or play for its basketball team. Following a failed entry into the 1983 NBA draft with the LA Clippers, Bol spent time with the University of Bridgeport in the NCAA Division II, helping Bridgeport to divisional qualification, averaging over 22 points and 13 rebounds per game.

Having managed to pick up the English language, Bol was finally ready to pursue a professional career in American basketball in 1985. After a fleeting spell with the Rhode Island Gulls, Bol entered the 1985 NBA draft and was a second-round selection by the Washington Bullets. In his debut season with the Bullets, Bol made a record 397 blocks during the campaign, an all-time high for an NBA rookie and the second-highest figure in a single season in NBA history.

He would go on to spend three seasons in Washington before turning out for Golden State, Philadelphia, Miami. In his second and final stint with Golden State, he would go on to suffer an ACL injury that would rule him out for the rest of the 1994-95 season, effectively ending his NBA career. For three subsequent years, Bol remained in American professional basketball, appearing for the Florida Beach Dogs and the Portland Mountain Cats. Later, he would play professionally in the Italian and Qatari leagues before retiring due to rheumatism in 1998.

Other Sudanese players to make the big time of the NBA

Manute Bol’s rise to stardom has been a major source of inspiration for fellow Sudan-born basketball players to try and make the grade in North America. 26-year-old Peter Jok was considered one of the leading recruits at high school basketball level, before playing for the Northern Arizona Suns in the NBA G League. However, a failed attempt at the selection in the NBA draft saw Jok opt to move to Europe and ply his trade in France’s LNB Pro A league with Cholet Basket.

Wenyen Gabriel in action at the Jordan Brand Classic in 2016 (Photo, CC BY-SA 2.0, Bryan Horowitz)

Youngster, Wenyen Gabriel has enjoyed rather more success than Jok, securing selection as an undrafted player with the Sacramento Kings. He spent two years there before being selected by the Portland Trail Blazers for the upcoming season. Gabriel’s Trail Blazers team are by no means one of the favourites for this season’s NBA Championship Finals. They are rated as a middle-of-the-road team in the NBA odds for the Finals futures markets, which is the postseason event involving the champions of the Eastern and Western conferences. Portland are in the Western conference and have only won the Western conference three times in their history – the last coming almost 30 years ago in 1992.

The likes of Jok and Gabriel are proof of the undoubted basketball talent that lies in Sudan and other African nations. It’s pleasing to see American colleges and NBA teams showing a willingness to nurture that talent on the biggest stage.