Coming to the States back in 1982, two things stood out in the passport of the freakishly tall Sudan native by the name Manute Bol. A Dinka tribe member who tended a cattle herd as a youngster and once killed a lion with a spear had no date of birth and was listed as 5’5” tall!
The Sudanese center was determined to learn the language and the game of basketball, with the clear aim of helping his family in Africa. From early on, despite the abundance of size and great assistance from the coach Don Feeley, Bol’s path to the basketball prominence in the United States was a rocky one.
L.A. Clippers head coach Jim Lynam took a chance in the 1983 NBA draft and selected Bol with the 91st overall pick. But the NBA voided the pick claiming that Bol didn’t apply for the draft in time. Two years later, the Washington Bullets selected Bol with the 31st overall pick in the 1985 NBA draft.
At the time, Bol had just finished his freshman season with the University of Bridgeport Purple Knights (NCAA Div.2), during which he averaged 22.5 points, 13.5 boards, and 7.1 blocked shots per game. Although aware of Bol’s statistical exploits and overall potential, the Bullets GM Bob Ferry decided to send the 7’6’ draftee to a minor league, with a desire to test his overall capacity and capabilities.
Determined to prove he belongs on the greatest basketball stage in the world, Bol had to work out his way across the USBL, the newly formed basketball minor league.
Founded in December 1984, the United States Basketball League was a fast-growing minor league played across the cities on the US Atlantic coast. The USBL had several similarities with the NBA – a salary cap ($250,000 per team), and the Commissioner – Earl Monroe.
Already in its inaugural season USBL team’s rosters featured future NBA stars in Spud Webb, Michael Adams, Manute Bol, and John Hot Rod Williams.
But no player drew so much attention as the Rhode Island Gulls 7’6” center Manute Bol. Blessed by the incredible height and unbelievable 8’ wingspan, Bol was dominating games on both ends of the floor.
No matter who the opponent was, Bol mercilessly swatted the bunches of opponent’s shots, shouting out loud ‘Get outta here!’ He would then get the hold of the ball and trigger fastbreaks with a precise outlet passes to his favorite teammate, future NBA star 5’7” Spud Webb.
Before most of the nation knew it, it was Bol & Webb Show for the Gulls! Just seeing Bol out there, and notably, him swatting the shots, made the USBL crowd nuts, chanting Manute, Manute…
That season Bol led the USBL both in rebounds per game (14.2) and blocks per game (11.2), setting league records. At one point of the season, Bol even averaged 15.1 points, 15.0 boards, and 12.0 blocks per game, prompting the media to become more interested. Seeing Bol’s incredible plays and stat lines made his head coach ex-Boston Celtics guard Kevin Stacom to shake his head in disbelief frequently.
“We’re working on fundamentals, how to cut, simple things. I’m sure Gene Shue has some ideas.”Kevin Stacom
Clearly dominating the games at the USBL level raised several questions about the true worth of Bol’s performance – Can he gain some more weight? Can he run? Can he get better in rebounding positioning? Can he improve his shooting and curve up his flatten shot?
And the ultimate one – Can he eventually play in the NBA one day? Many were still skeptical.
“He’s not aggressive as most big guys are. He’s tall, frail. Ruland, Mahorn, Moses . . . I don’t think he’ll last too long with them.”Ken Bannister
Still, there was no doubt that the Gulls superstar had a burning desire to succeed in the NBA. As much as the prospect of Bol having around in the NBA puzzled everyone, one thing was sure – You can’t teach size. His 7’6” frame and 8’ wingspan made Bol virtually unstoppable at the USBL level.
It was clear that with some improvements, he could become a force to be reckoned with in the NBA.
Knowing that Bol’s strength at the time is highly questionable by NBA standards, Bullets GM Bob Ferry insisted on Bol to work on his overall stamina and to try gaining some extra weight. The Bullets directed Bol to do extra summer work with the University of Maryland S&C coach Frank Costello.
Bol reportedly gained 20 pounds from his initial weight when he first came into the United States. Moreover, he improved in weight lifting – Bol went up from 45 to 110 pounds on the bench press.
Finally, playing in the NBA Bol proved all his critics wrong. Already in his rookie campaign, he became quite a valuable asset for the 1985-86 Washington Bullets, eventually posting the new NBA rookie record with 5.0 blocked shots per game, to go along with 6.0 boards and 3.7 points per game.
After a three-year stint with the Washington Bullets, Bol also starred for the Golden State Warriors, Philadelphia 76ers and Miami Heat. Overall, across 10 NBA seasons, he appeared in a total of 624 regular-season games, posting the averages of 3.3 blocks, 4.2 boards and 2.6 points per game.