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Saturday, November 16
Updated: November 17, 2:12 PM ET
 
There's no belittling Bol's greater cause

By Adrian Wojnarowski
Special to ESPN.com

Behind the University of Bridgeport bench, we walked slowly past the most unforgettable college freshman we had ever witnessed on a basketball court. It was a winter night in 1984-'85, when a small Connecticut college gym overflowed with fans and fascination. And here we were, a few high school buddies who had scored seats in the wooden bleachers of old Kaiser Hall in New Britain, marveling over the eighth wonder of the world: a 7-foot-7 Dinka Tribesman who dunks.

Manute Bol
At 7-foot-7, Manute Bol was never able to buy off the rack, as Indianapolis Ice equipment manager Darrin Flinchem found out while fitting him for hockey pads.
Central Connecticut State had a brawny 6-foot-5 center who elbowed Bol in the kidneys, the chest, everywhere, in futile resistance. Bol had scored 30 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked 10 shots before leaving the game with a couple minutes to spare in an easy victory for Bridgeport. And as we passed the bench, I'll never forget the sad eyes of Manute Bol as he looked warily on some big-mouthed teenager who was screaming and pawing for him. "Is he real? Can I touch him?" Over and over, he said it. "Is he real? Is he real?" Words that have stayed with me for nearly 20 years. But oddly enough, in an NBA of sheer fiction and fantasy, it turned out that Bol was the most real man of all.

At this time, who could be sure the basketball life that awaited him in the NBA? Who could tell if he ever had the strength, the skill, the stamina to make a living in the pros? Whatever happened, he seemed so sweet and gentle and the last thing you ever wanted for Manute Bol was to be treated like a sideshow. As he mastered English, the world had come to find an intelligent and dignified man, kind and generous to a fatal flaw. He made millions of dollars in the NBA, but it's gone to the freedom fighters on the losing side of the Sudanese civil war, gone to the orphaned, starving children the conflict produced. It's all gone.

Now Bol has returned to the United States and turned into that sad, sad sideshow. He beat up William "The Refrigerator" Perry on Celebrity Boxing, sharing the marquee with losers like Joey Buttafucco and Tonya Harding, and now there's this Saturday night in Indianapolis when Bol will become the tallest hockey player in the history of the world.

"My God," moaned John Nash, who was GM of the Washington Bullets when Bol was on the team in the mid-'80s. "They're turning him into a circus act."

Refrigerator Perry and Manute Bol
Manute Bol had the advantage of height and reach over William Perry's girth.
This is something sad and something noble: His appearance fee for the Central Hockey League's Indianapolis Ice isn't destined for Bol's empty pockets, but the Ring True Foundation, his charity for the lost children of the Sudan. He indulged us with the boxing in return for a $35,000 donation to his charity and the promise that Fox would flash a toll-free number on the screen. These days, what else can Bol do to make money this easily?

"If we can come up with the equipment, and if he can demonstrate that he can make it from the players entrance to the bench and sit down, fans might be him in uniform," Indianapolis Ice GM Larry Linde said. "But don't expect him out there killing penalties on a power play."

This is still absurd, still so sad.

Bol found his way back to the States after fleeing for his life in the Sudan, escaping to Egypt and fighting the government there to reach his children back in Hartford, Conn. Now he sits by the phone and waits for minor league hucksters to call him. This is post-Sept. 11 America and it's hard to raise money for Sudanese children. It's never been this hard.

So, Bol swallows his pride, wobbles on skates and gives everyone in Indianapolis a good laugh. This is the ultimate selfless act: He's willing to withstand the humiliation of playing the fool for a cause greater than his own bank account. If only everyone could write him a check and spare him the embarrassment of these acts.

"We're not going to make a freak show out of this," Linde said. "We won't let that happen. That was the not the intention of this promotion at all. We're not going to put him in position to embarrass himself or our organization."

Manute Bol
For the sake of publicity, they pulled out the stool to fit Bol with a hockey helment.
Linde's intentions seems sincere, but let's face it: This is a complete, unadulterated freak show. What else do you call a 7-foot-7 man who is willing to strap size-16 skates on his feet and fall flat on his face? Respectful? Dignified?

Nash is right: This is a circus. Linde will sell a few hockey seats in the heart of basketball country, write Bol a check for his charity and give everyone a good, old laugh at his expense.

When Bol made it to the NBA, he wanted people to take him seriously as a basketball player. He made them, too. Across 11 seasons, he had a better run than anyone ever imagined. Most of all, he won people over with his big heart.

He had gone incredible lengths for the people in the Sudan, risking his own life to return home when he could've stayed in the States and lived a privileged retirement. Now, his millions are gone, his life left to the mercy of promoters and hucksters determined to insert a 7-foot-7 man into the most absurd predicaments available to the imagination?

Even now, I still remember that kid laughing and pawing at Manute Bol, "Is he real? Can I touch him?" And I'll always see those big, sad eyes of Bol looking back at him, looking so trapped.

Adrian Wojnarowski is a columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj@aol.com.





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