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Bol Is a Big Plus as Bullet Backup Center

March 15, 1987|THOMAS BOSWELL | Washington Post

WASHINGTON — How can you overlook a man 7 feet 7 inches tall? More minutes for Manute. That's our request for the Washington Bullets.

Actually, Washington Coach Kevin Loughery is already trying to get Manute Bol--the forgotten man of the first half of this season--on the court for more playing time, especially for those minutes when Moses Malone is also engaged in the festivities.

"Anticipation" is the word the coach uses for that not-too-distant day. "We've been looking at that. We'd really like to get Moses and Manute going. It's something we want to see."

It's something every fan wants to see. Mr. Wide Body and The Thin Man.

Every time Bol gets off the bench, the Capital Centre crowd starts baying, "Nuuuute," as though the team were the Bollets. If pleasing the crowd plays any part in lineup selection--and when you only have the ninth-best record in the league, how much can you lose? Getting on with the Moses-and-Manute show would seem a priority.

Another reason to double Bol's 15 minutes per night was on display recently at Capital Centre. For three quarters, the Bullets couldn't get rid of the miserable New Jersey Nets, a team with a 2-27 record on the road. So, having used Bol for only six of the first 36 minutes, Loughery utilized the Sudanese giant for almost all of the fourth quarter as the Bullets pushed a precarious five-point lead to 16.

While Moses Malone sat and Jeff Malone scored a career-high 48 points, Bol shut down the Nets' offense with his intimidation. He also finished the night with a graceful (no kidding) jump hook, a spinning 12-foot jump shot, a follow-up dunk and a couple of pretty-as-you-please, hey-I'm-73%-from-the-line foul shots.

As the season grows old and the great, indomitable Moses increasingly becomes a one-man body count--his ankle, arm and neck are all in ice--Bol's importance grows with each game.

Ten days ago, Bol was forced into his first start of the year and, in 47 minutes, had his first triple-double: 19 rebounds, 15 blocks and 10 points.

Games like that cause reevaluation. Actually, it was just the culmination of a six-week trend.

" 'Nute started (the season) in a little funk, not getting minutes that he thought he should be getting, based on the way he played the year before," Loughery says. "But he's had a really good stretch . . . awesome in some games."

In his last 28 games, Bol has averaged 18 minutes with 5.1 blocks, 4.4 rebounds and 4 points. That sounds modest but, prorated over a full 48 minutes, it would be a 13-11-10 night. OK, nobody's saying Bol could play that much. But the statistics are a tip that when he's on the court, he gets more effective all the time.

"He can definitely play," Loughery said. "And he improves. He doesn't break, mostly because he's a very competitive guy and ignores small injuries. And he has good stamina for somebody his size."

"There's no doubt he's one of the premier backup centers right now," Loughery says. "If Manute gets the strength, he can do everything else--handle it well enough and definitely shoot it.

"Watch him shoot around. I didn't believe it. He has a touch. Check out his free throws. His instincts for the game are good, too. It's just strength and maturity he needs."

Can it be just one season ago, as a rookie, that Bol seemed the most vulnerable and problematic player imaginable? Would he break in half? Would he get homesick for his Dinka tribe? Landover, Md., is a long way from being an African shepherd who once speared a lion to protect his flock.

Could he ever learn, at such a late age, the most basic basketball moves? Would he be exhausted by travel? Could he gain weight and muscle? Would he blend with teammates? Would he be an impact player in the NBA or just a curiosity cursed with potential.

Who would have guessed that an answer could be given so soon to all those questions. And that the answer would be a joyful, "Yes."

"He's quite a success story," General Manager Bob Ferry says. "Everybody who gets to know him just loves him."

The Americanization, as well as the NBA-ification of Bol, are all but complete. His English is already very good. In a locker room, he's one of the most relaxed, self-confident and funny people on a team full of supra-confident individualists.

"He's so proud, almost noble," Ferry says. "He's completely at ease with himself, which is hard to believe when you consider . . . well, he's 7-foot-7."

A teammate recently offered Bol a fancy new deodorant. "I don't need that," Bol said with a derisive grin. "You watch too much TV. You buy all those things you don't need."

For Bol, everything seems to come more easily all the time. His weight is up to 225 pounds and he actually has some muscles; folks, he's getting a body. "I have a weight room in my house now," he says. "It helps me a lot."

Now, if he could just put that body to more use. At the moment, Bol is the key man on the Bullets' excellent second unit, which plays pressure defense, funneling everybody toward the Bol Tender.

But that only get him 12 to 15 minutes a night. What if he could pair up with Malone, who has developed a fine jump shot, for another 12 or 15?

"I was looking forward to it," Bol says, laughing. "I think it would help the team. Moses could get all the rebounds and I could block shots . . . and dunk. I think we can do that some day. This season? It's almost over now. Maybe next year."

For the time being, with Malone hobbled and battered, Bol has a few days--a few precious extra minutes--to show us how well he is progressing, to make us dream about his future.

For Bol, all things suddenly seem possible.

"I passed my written driver's test," he says, beaming. "Tomorrow, I take my road test. I think I will pass. Then, I can go where I want to go. Drive myself. That will be fun.

"I will remember," he says, "not to go too fast."

In all things, Manute Bol does not go too fast. But, when we look at him, how far he has come.

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