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At 7 Foot 6, Manute Bol of Sudan Is Surely Rangy Enough for America's City Game and He Has Talent, but at 190 Pounds He May Not Be Strong Enough for Big Time : BASKETBALL'S TALLEST STORY

February 11, 1985|SAM McMANIS | Times Staff Writer

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — From the city that brought the world Charles Stratton, a speck of a man who was called Tom Thumb by P.T. Barnum, comes probably the tallest basketball player ever to lace up a pair of sneakers in this country.

Meet Manute Bol, all 7-feet 6-inches, 190 pounds of him, imported from a remote village tribe in Sudan, who is stuffing a ball through a hoop for the University of Bridgeport's basketball team.

This is something that is astonishingly easy for Bol. He can dunk the ball without jumping. He can lay both palms flat on each side of a backboard. And, he swats away opponent's shots like he would a pesky mosquito in Sudan's swampland. Playing in NCAA Division II, Bol, a 21-year-old freshman, towers over his peers. But he would also look down at Ralph Sampson (7-4) and Mark Eaton (7-3), the NBA's tallest players.

Like the 2-foot Tom Thumb, Bol's appearance around town sends people into a tizzy. At a local pizza joint that Bol frequents, conversation ends as soon as he ducks his head and walks in. People gawk. They giggle. They gasp. Mostly, they speculate about his height.

But it is on the basketball court where Bol is most noticed, not to mention most comfortable. All of Bridgeport's home games have been sellouts (about 2,000), and most road games draw unusually large crowds. Interest in the New England Collegiate Conference, which has been dormant for years, has never been higher. Everyone wants to see Bol.

Reporters from two national magazines and every major newspaper on the East Coast have flocked to watch--and write about--Bol. Descriptions of his physique have ranged from "a giant pencil with feet," to "a giant exclamation point," to "Gumby pulled out by the ears and toes."

To Manute Bol, it must seem like a circus life, somewhat like Charles Stratton's back in the late 1800s. And maybe it is.

The big question about the big man is can he play basketball? The answer is yes, depending on what level of basketball you are talking about.

There is no doubt Manute Bol can play and dominate in Division II. Bridgeport, coming off two straight losing seasons, was 19-4 and 9-1 in the conference at the end of the week. For the first time in school history, the Purple Knights broke into the national Division II top 20 at 20th.

Bol, of course, is a big reason for the team's sudden success. He is averaging 21 points, 15 rebounds and 9 blocked shots a game. He is an imposing and impressive sight on the court. Don Feeley, a former coach at Fairleigh Dickinson who discovered Bol when he was giving a month-long clinic in Sudan in 1982, says he expects Bol to get better and maybe try the NBA in a few years.

"Did you see Mark Eaton play in his first year in the NBA?" Feeley said. "Well, let's just say he had a long way to go. But he had the desire and has worked hard. Now look at him. Manute, I think, is further along than Eaton at this stage. What he needs is like a Pete Newell (former Cal coach who works with young players) to work with him."

Still, college coaches and NBA scouts have reservations about Bol's ability to play in Division I or the NBA.

It is not Bol's fundamental basketball skills that make people wonder. He handles the ball well, runs slowly but not awkwardly and has exhibited a good jump shot and hook. Plus, he can just stand in the key and block shots without even jumping.

It is Bol's incredibly skinny frame that has turned off many NBA scouts. All the skinny jokes you've ever heard apply to Bol. Bol's waist is said to be a size 31, but when he puts his hands on his hips, they almost wrap around his waist.

"We've had all sorts of nutritionists come in," Bridgeport Coach Bruce Webster said. "A nutritionist from Africa, one from the state of Connecticut, but nothing helps him put on weight. He loves chicken, steak and pizza, but he won't eat vegetables or fruit. He just won't do it."

Webster is understandably excited about coaching a 7-6 player, but he may have stretched it a ways when he said: "If Manute gained just 30 to 50 pounds, he would revolutionize the game of basketball."

There also is the question of Bol's age. It's listed in the Bridgeport program as 21, but no one really knows. When Bol arrived in the United States three years ago, he had no passport, no birth certificate, only a transcript of grades from a school in Sudan that included his height, weight and age.

Written in Arabic, it listed Bol's age as 19 and his height as 5-2. "They measured me when I was sitting down," Bol happily explains. For all anyone knows, Bol could be 28.

Age doesn't matter to Webster, whose team is enjoying uncharacteristic success and a modicum of fame thanks to the big guy.

Early last week, Bridgeport seemingly faced an overmatched opponent, Southern Connecticut.

Still, a crowd of 4,000 showed up, and it was obvious who they had come to see.

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